When Ten Bells Tavern co-owners Meri Dahlke, Michael Hickey and Greg Matthews opened up the Oak Cliff pub four years ago, they had plans for good drinks and food. As time went on, their cache of regulars grew – as did a colony of cats on the back patio.
“I am the local cat lady,” Dahlke says. “Before I had Ten Bells, I was a dog person.”
Led by Dahlke and with the help of Feral Friends, 17 cats have been trapped, neutered and released by the staff at Ten Bells, a British-inspired bar on Seventh Street in Oak Cliff. When they opened the bar (which they redesigned and decorated on their own, she says) she found this cat that liked to loiter on their new property.
“I noticed there was this little kitty cat. Michael said, ‘Don’t look at that cat,’” she says.
But she soon started feeding the cat, whose owners lived in a nearby home.
“She had one litter, then two litters, and all of a sudden, there are kittens all over the place,” she says.
Bonnie — a cat that the Ten Bells staff calls Stripey — is one of the now-fixed cats roaming the tavern’s property. Dahlke has 10 cats in the registered colony. That’s a thing, by the way: You register a colony of cats, and they’re then protected by the city.
With the feline drifters that come by (there’s an unregistered colony across Madison Avenue), Dahlke said she’s usually feeding around 15 cats at Ten Bells.
“I’m here every day, all day feeding them,” she says. “It gives me more purpose than slinging beer.”
Dahlke has worked with Feral Friends to host fundraisers at Ten Bells, raising more than $10,000 so far from events, she says. Another is planned at Eight Bells Alehouse in Expo Park on Oct. 28 and 29. Dahlke is now in talks with DFW Rescue Me for a future event at Ten Bells. That group has also rescued four dogs from Ten Bells' neighborhood.
Though she finds fulfillment in taking care of cats and being surrounded by them during the day, there’s another aspect that never leaves her mind: the possible expiration date for Ten Bells.
Their lease on the property is up in five years, but by the time that comes, it’s possible a developer could take over and turn that current area of Seventh Street, which still looks and feels like Oak Cliff, into densely populated apartment buildings.
“It’s always weighing on my brain,” Dahlke said. “We don’t want to be part of that. That’s not what this place is about. We’re going to do what we can for the neighborhood for as long as we can. It’s a little heavy.”
When Dahlke pulls her car up to Ten Bells, the cats come out.
“It’s like my therapy in the morning," she says. "I come here, get swarmed by cats, I feed them, they’re all around me."
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Those aren’t her only pets: She has two cats and a labradoodle at home.
The cats don’t mind the neighbors or customers, she said, with the exception of some strange people who think throwing ice at felines is OK. (That's a quick way to get kicked out of Ten Bells, by the way.) The cats know the routine: Lucy, a cross-eyed gray and white cat, loves getting up in the ceiling of the patio. But they all know better than to get on tables.
“They’ve become our extended family,” Dahlke says. “The best part for me opening this place is doing this work.”
Ten Bells Tavern, 232 W. 7th St.