Japanese Railway's Cat Mascot Brings in Millions. We've Got Railways. We've Got Cats. Why Not Here?

Categories: Public Transit
Tama the railway cat has boosted her employer's revenues by 10 percent. Care to come to San Francisco on your vacation, kitty?
By now, many of you will have read the made-for-the-Web story of Tama, the calico savior of Kishikawa station. When the owners of the Japanese Wakayama Railway got wind of the adorable, social cat hanging out at the station greeting passengers, they reacted the way basketball scouts did when they saw LeBron James dunking in junior high school.

The rail line designated Tama "Super Station Master," gave her a little train conductor's cap, put her on the railway's posters, and, Step Three: Profit. Tens of thousands of cat-lovers rode the rail line to the town in the southwest of Japan, pumping tens of millions of dollars into the railway's coffers and the local economy.

You can see where we're going here. Muni is drowning in so much red ink that even Moses would have a hard time parting its ledger book. Between the local Animal Care and Control and SPCA, roughly 350 cats are waiting for someone to adopt them; aptly named Animal Control Director Rebecca Katz tells us that cats mellow and sociable enough to be draped over one's shoulder like a fur boa and carried around aren't very hard to find. In the immortal words of former San Francisco 49ers head coach Steve Mariucci, "Why not us, why not now?"

When we posited the idea of Muni adopting a revenue-generating mascot, Katz was receptive. "What I would say is 'sure.' We're always open to anything that'd increase the profile of animals and the need to adopt shelter animals," she said. "We would consider it, yeah. If it encourages the need of animals to be adopted and encourages people to ride Muni, it seems like a win-win to me."

In fact, adopting out a cat to a San Francisco city department is hardly a new idea. Katz' predecessor, Carl Friedman, notes that the city's Central Shops -- which repair municipal vehicles -- adopted a kitty years ago. Naturally, they named him Shops. "He's going on 16 or 17 and they love, love, love him," says Friedman, who ran ACC from 1989 until January. "He's got a good life.I think [a Muni cat] would be a great idea."

When we made our pitch to Muni spokesman Judson True, however, he was far less enthusiastic.

"Every idea that seems like a revenue generator isn't necessarily one," he said. "Sometimes there are hidden costs."

Say what? This is a feline, not a fare inspection program. What are the hidden costs of cat ownership that would be so prohibitive to an agency with a budget approaching $800 million?

"There's administration," notes True. "Someone has to help with the mascot. You've got to pay for food, you know."

Heh. Not if it dines on rodents living in Muni stations. But if the fraternity boys across the street from my college apartment could take care of a German Shepherd, I think Muni could handle a cat.

A cat, by the way, also does something we only wish Muni vehicles could do: It constantly cleans itself.

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