There are more than 10,000 bodegas—Latin American Spanish for "small neighborhood store" or grocery store—across New York City's five boroughs. In addition to selling food and goods, the stores are an important part of the community—not to mention a place where you can see, and pet, bodega cats.
These working felines roam the stores, greeting customers and lounging on countertops or nestling in shopping baskets. The internet adores them, devoting fan pages and Instagram accounts to the cats, whose sworn duty is to rid the shops of the vermin that can prompt city fines and spread disease.
Are they adorable? Yes. But are they legal? Not really.
Cats fall under a prohibition upheld by the city's Department of Health and Hygiene as well as the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets that prevents any animal (other than fish or service dogs) from being on the premises where food and drinks are being sold: The felines could potentially shed hair and excrement around edible products, a clear violation of safety regulations. Fines for keeping a cat in a bodega or other food market can range from from $200 to $350, and for repeated violations can reach $2000.
But some argue that cats are far less of a health hazard than rats and a safer solution to the toxic chemicals used by exterminators. (Vermin killed by poison sometimes drop dead under freezers or in other narrow confines, stinking up the place before being located.) Even the presence of cats is thought to be a deterrent, with rats avoiding areas where they can smell a predator.
That's likely why there are few reports of bodegas being fined excessive amounts or shut down as a result of feline occupancy, despite the prohibition. Most often, even customers who are less than charmed by the furry sentinels will tolerate them. But because cats can leave behind fur, people with allergies may find shopping a sneeze-invoking experience. One Yelp user left the SK Deli Market in the East Village a one-star review because they harbored a cat, and they were immediately verbally assaulted by pro-bodega cat commenters. Subsequently, a pro-bodega cat contingent started a Change.org petition that logged 5870 signatures in an effort to legalize them, citing the city's Dining with Dogs law that permits canines in certain outdoor dining establishments.
There's clearly an emotional component to keeping the tradition of bodega cats alive, although science has recently called into question their actual efficacy in controlling rodent populations. Researchers at Fordham University looked at a recycling facility in Brooklyn that was overrun by both rats and cats. Through the use of surveillance and radio frequency ID tags clipped to the vermin, they found that cats generally paid little mind to the rats scurrying around. Out of 306 videos taken over a period of six months, the Fordham team recorded just two kills (and one unsuccessful attempt), barely making a dent in the cascade of rats in the buildings. (The rats did, however, tend to run the opposite way when encountering a cat.)
Gregory Glass, a professor at the University of Florida, told Scientific American that contrary to popular belief, cats aren't trigger-happy when it comes to rats. Once the rodents mature, they're often too big and formidable to mess with. Glass called cats kept around for rat control a "placebo."
So, unfortunately, bodega cats might not quite live up to their reputations. But, as a photographer for Chewy.com pointed out after being dispatched to photograph bodega cats in their natural habitat, that might miss the point. The cats seemed to bring people together and lighten their mood. Coupled with their likely deterrence of rats, it’s a net positive—if you can stand the fur.