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When I started planning my trip to Japan many people asked if I would be visiting the various animal cafes in Tokyo, well the short answer is No. As much as I love animals, I have no desire to visit any of the animal cafes in Tokyo or anywhere in Japan.
If you are not aware, in Tokyo especially, there are numerous cafes which are dubbed as animal cafes, much similar to the cat cafes which have become popular in the UK over the past decade, these cafes invite visitors to come for a coffee while having the opportunity to interact with the establishments resident ‘pets’. However, in an attempt to become the most popular, these ‘pets’ are now more exotic species such as Owls, Otters and even Penguins. Highly complex and often unsocial species which are becoming tangled up in the exotic pet trade for the benefit of someone’s photo opportunity.
The ethics of animal cafes have been discussed highly over the past decade. Whether an animal cafe is ethical or not comes down to a multitude of factors, one of the first factors which should be looked at is the species of animal being featured. Animals have complex social structures which are individual to each species, whether captive or wild, these will stay apparent throughout the animal’s life and therefore, from a welfare perspective, need to be catered for. Is the welfare of a predominately solitary species really being put first in a cafe full of people? I think the answer is pretty obvious.
It will always be your choice when it comes to visiting an animal cafe in Tokyo or anywhere in the world, but below I will list various reasons, why I believe they should be avoided. Ultimately, I will always ask you to consider, whether thirty minutes of happiness and a photo opportunity in your life is really worth the welfare of animal throughout its whole life.
Animal Cafes in Tokyo, Japan to Avoid
Owl and other bird cafes in Tokyo, Japan
My first point here is birds can die from stress and they get stressed extremely easily. Owl cafes are sadly becoming extremely popular throughout Japan, whether this is due to Harry Potter or simply because they are magnificent creatures, but it is becoming a growing problem.
Owls are nocturnal birds meaning they sleep for much of the day, however, these cafes are only open during the day. Straight from the start, their natural body clock is being altered, they are not being allowed to exhibit natural behaviours. Like most bird species, owls do not like to be touched, yet in owl cafes in Tokyo, they are tethered to a bar where touching is encouraged, many also have their wings clipped in order to prevent them from flying. Flying is the most natural behaviour to any bird, yet it is taken away from them.
Furthermore, the owls are constantly exposed to loud noises and bright lights for nocturnal species, even one which is captive bred, this is extremely unnatural and therefore extremely stressful.
The Penguin Bar
The Penguin Bar in the Ikebukuro district of Tokyo has fortunately come under a lot of fire over the past few years and I think it is obvious why. Customers are invited to have a drink or a meal while visiting the resident penguins, thankfully, hands-on interaction is not allowed, because the penguins are kept behind glass. Although sadly, the behind glass tank is indoors and has no natural daylight, pretty heartbreaking for a species which naturally be by the ocean.
Surely there are better places for penguins than late-night bars filled with drunk people? When this bar offers an ‘all you can drink’ package I hardly doubt it is the most calming of environments. But still, newspapers such as the Metro are advising Japan’s Penguin Cafes as must-visit places and failing to see what is so wrong.
Otters look extremely cute, I get it, however, as someone who has worked (in a Veterinary setting) with Otters, I will tell you they are highly aggressive animals. Their teeth are designed to bite through Crayfish shells, Otters are cute but fierce. Yet they are the latest craze for animal cafes in Tokyo.
In the wild, otters live in family units of up to 20 individuals. These intelligent and complex animals will spend their days foraging and playing in the water. It is a far cry from their lives in captivity where customers are invited to cuddle, play and feed the otters.
Worse still, in order to provide the otters for these cafes, investigations by World Animal Protection discovered that many of the otters that end up in Japan have been stolen from the wild, predominantly from Indonesia and Thailand. Poachers use dogs to sniff out their burrows, known as halts. The fiercely protective parents are then killed to get to the babies. The babies will then be trafficked abroad, through a complex network with links to organised crime. The otters then live the rest of their lives in the most unsuitable habitat imaginable, either interacting with humans or locked in cages.
Not so secret fact about me – I love Hedgehogs, they are one of my favourite animals, however, I have no desire to visit a hedgehog cafe in Japan. Is it ethical to keep a nocturnal, solitary animal in a glass box and allow it to be constantly picked up and put down by different people? I think the question answers itself.
Are hedgehog cafes further encouraging a growing exotic pet trend where needs cannot be met in a human household? Indirectly, yes.
Hedgehog cafes in Tokyo are filled with glass tanks filled with multiple hogs, in the wild, hedgehogs are solitary. They are also seen as a ‘prey species’, which is why their defensive mechanism is to ‘ball up’ rather than show aggression, yet multiple times every day they are picked out of their tanks and plonked onto the lap of a visitor for prodding and poking – I cannot begin to imagine how stressful this is for them.
So, are cat cafes ethical?
I have debated this one a lot myself and I still do not know if I know my answer. I will say I have been to various cat cafes before. Cats are a domesticated species who, for the most part, enjoy human interaction, I have also seen many cat cafes which only use cats rehomed from rescues, which is obviously a great thing, as they are giving the cats a home.
But then on the other hand, behaviourally, domestic cats prefer to be solitary animals and are easily stressed. There are also high risks of cross-infection when creating a ‘multi-cat household’, which is exacerbated by stress (due to suppression of the immune system).
I honestly believe it depends on the individual set up of the cafe when it comes to cat cafes, but I would love to hear your opinions on this as well.
What alternatives are there to see animals in Japan?
So what alternatives are there to animal cafes in Tokyo? Well, Tokyo itself is not known for an abundance of natural wildlife, hence, the demand for these cafes. Although, by taking day trips and excursion there are opportunities to see wildlife in Japan.
Visit the Jigokudani Snow Monkeys
Book a day to visit the Jigokudani Snow Monkeys in the wild. The Jigokudani Monkey Park offers visitors the unique experience of seeing wild monkeys bathing in a natural hot spring. The park is inhabited by Japanese Macaques, which are also known as Snow Monkeys. It is located in the monkey’s natural habitat, in the forests of the Jigokudani valley in Yamanouchi, not far from the onsen towns of Shibu and Yudanaka.
Visit the famous deers of Nara
Just a 45-minute train ride south of Kyoto lies the famous Nara Park, home to over 1,000 sacred deer. Though born wild, the deer have become extremely wise to tourists and have chosen to interact if there is food involved (please be sure to only feed the deer food available for purchase in the park). If you would like to book an excursion to Nara, due to the close proximity, it is a good idea to combine it was a day trip to Kyoto from Osaka.
As frequent travellers, we need to take action against the ever-growing animal tourism industry. The industry works on a supply and demand basis, while the demand is still there and pockets are being lined, these acts of cruelty will not go away.
Educate people who may not be aware of the cruelty behind seemingly harmless acts, but educate with knowledge rather than shouting, such as through sharing articles like this one. Education is power and the key to ending these practices.