Arlington restaurant owner specializes in finding homes for homeless cats and dogs


Dave Seldomridge, manager at the Stray Cat Cafe in Arlington, and Pam McAlwee, owner of the cafe and the nearby Lost Dog Cafe. Dave helped point Laurie Nakamoto in the right direction when she came looking for information on her missing miniature schnauzer, Ms. Winter. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist September 9, 2013

If you call your two restaurants the Lost Dog Cafe and the Stray Cat Cafe, you cannot be surprised when people show up looking for their missing pets, people such as Laurie Nakamoto, whose miniature schnauzer Ms. Winter disappeared from her townhouse one night in July.

Laurie went to the two restaurants — which are at either end of a strip shopping center in Arlington’s Westover neighborhood — to see if she could put up “Missing Dog” flyers. Stray Cat assistant manager Dave Seldomridge said of course. He has a miniature pinscher named Angel, and he knows how bad he’d feel if she went missing.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

But when Laurie started describing her dog, Dave had a bad feeling.

Plenty of restaurants have animal themes, but few take their themes to the extremes that the Stray Cat and Lost Dog do.

“It’s nice to go to work every day and know you’re not just here to make money and feed people,” said Pam McAlwee, the restaurants’ co-founder. “You’re also there for a purpose.”

The purpose is to rescue cats and dogs from shelters and make them available for adoption.

“I’ve always loved animals and always felt bad for the underdog, so to speak, the dogs in shelters that just get passed over,” Pam said. To her, getting a shelter dog is the ultimate in going green. “That’s a life that needs to be recycled,” she said.

Pam and partner Ross Underwood started rescuing strays in the pre-cellphone, pre-Internet days. In the 1980s, they began making the rounds of area shelters, pulling out homeless animals and putting classified ads in The Washington Post seeking adopters. In the ads, Pam always printed the phone number of the Lost Dog Cafe, which opened in 1985 as the Gourmet Pizza Deli.

“I didn’t have a choice,” she said. “I was working Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the days most families were looking for a dog. I would have them call me at the restaurant, and they would always laugh: ‘Am I calling the right number?’ ”

What started with one or two dogs a week grew and grew. They handled so many dogs and cats that, in 2001, they bought 60 acres of land in Fauquier County and built the Lost Dog and Cat Ranch, a place to house animals that would be in danger of being euthanized if not for Pam’s efforts.

“Shelters notify us constantly of dogs getting ready to be put to sleep,” Pam said. “We go and we take as many as we possibly can. We bring them here, get them spayed or neutered, up to date on their shots, cleaned up and well rested. Then we bring them up to D.C. area events.”

The Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation (lostdogrescue.org) organizes nearly a dozen adoption events every weekend, taking animals to local pet stores.

“We get them adopted, then we go and get more,” Pam said. “Unfortunately, it never ends.”

Every year, Pam and her 300 volunteers help about 1,800 dogs and 700 cats find new homes.

It’s the rare businessperson who can combine the disparate parts of her life into one satisfying whole. “They both intertwine very much,” Pam said. “When you own a restaurant, you don’t have time for outside stuff as much as you would like. I just found a way to incorporate it into what I was doing.”

Why does she think dogs and cats are worthy of such effort? Why does she love them so?

“I think really it’s their innocence,” Pam said. “They’re like babies. They do nothing to harm us, ever. We’re the ones that harm them, if anything. They want nothing more than to give unselfish love.”

Pam said that a penchant for animal activism is not a prerequisite for employment at her establishments. “But you have to know what our mission is and what our philosophy is,” she said.

Dave Seldomridge does. He was understanding when Laurie Nakamoto came into the Stray Cat Cafe in July. He listened as she described her own lost dog: small and black.

“At that moment, I knew,” Dave told me later. “I felt bad. I sent her to talk to Vince to see if she could put the pieces together.”

Wednesday: The long journey of Vince Tran.

john.kelly@washpost.com

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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