Animal cafés are a growing trend in Korea. However, these places are not suitable for the animals living there.
Sunlight seeps in between the skyscrapers as the crowd on the loud shopping street of Hongdae slowly moves forward. The cafés with different varieties can be found around every corner. There is, however, one that stands out from the lot. A raccoon café.
Two girls enter the elevator. They excitingly click the button for the fourth floor. “Raccoon!” they squeak as they clap their hands. This café is just one of many animal cafés located in Seoul. This is where visitors can escape the stress of the outside world with a drink, such as coffee or tea, in the company of an animal. The animals that live in these places can vary from cats and dogs to wallabies and capybaras.
However, when visiting, it’s possible to notice the spark in the animals’ eyes is gone and they constantly look exhausted, with no place to rest and to be alone. Together with an under stimulating environment, little to no veterinary help and mistreatment from customers and personnel, the ethical status of animal cafés is questionable. According to The Korean Herald the concern amongst animal rights groups are rising when Aware released a report on the status of the cafés using wild animals.
Since the first cat café launched in Taiwan in 1998, the concept soon spread to Japan where it spread like a wildfire and today it’s possible to visit an animal café almost everywhere in the world. Some places offer adoption services for the animals living in the café and some works as an extension to shelters. Still, this unnatural environment causes a lot of stress for the animals and they often live with too many other animals in too small spaces with customers and staff alike treating them poorly.
“Maybe people go there because it’s new and unusual,” said Pauline Goutorbe, a French exchange student at CUK. She went on to mention that Koreans might want to visit these cafés if they don’t have the possibility to have a pet on their own.
However, animal rights groups in Asia are not pleased with this increasing popularity of these cafés. PeTA ASIA has stated on their official Facebook page their opinion on animal cafés that “There is NOTHING cute about confining animals to unnatural environments, subjecting them to constant handling & exploiting them for profit,”
Despite this, animal cafés are bringing tourists from over-sea with the help of websites and online travel books. Goutorbe, who hasn’t yet been to an animal café, is very curious about the idea. To her it doesn’t matter what kind of animals they have, she just wants to feed her curiosity and have a relaxing time. This could be a common way for customers to think before visiting. Koreatimes reported that 60-80 percent of Blind Alley café’s customers are people from out of town. This café offers the company of animals such as raccoons, corgis and capybaras.
“I went to a dog café once, because at that time I didn’t have a dog at home,” said Kim Eunsu, a Korean student at CUK. Nowadays she has her own dog and doesn’t have the need to visit a dog café to pet one. This café that Kim visited in Hongdae, also had a dog hotel. This allowed customers to bring their own dogs there for an hour. This resulted, together with the permanent residents, in a large variety of around ten dogs.
This café is not the only one that shows tendencies of being too crowded. In the raccoon café, where they allow customers to touch and feed raccoons, dogs and small meerkats, they let around ten people at a time be together with the animals. Without enough room to express their natural behaviour, roam around and explore the animals can show symptoms of stress. The room for animals is separated from the entrance by a glass wall. Behind the wall, there are people touching the sleeping animals. Even if the animals need to be alone and rest, they can’t escape this constant petting.
Despite these crowded cafés there are no laws regulating the cafés. If they are listed as “recreation and eating establishments” then the laws on hygiene apply. According to a source at one of the public health centres in Seoul, if the animals stay out of the kitchen area it’s fine. According to Hankyoreh, the law doesn’t include regulations on the “animal café” so as long as they are registered as a restaurant, they can use animals for commercial purposes.
Most animal cafe owners don't have veterinary knowledge and they treat animals on their own to save money.
In addition to this, laws on the treatment of the animals don’t affect those who are in a café, since these places are the equivalent to a petting zoo. These cafés are a blind spot for the Act on Management of Zoos and Aquariums, allowing café owners to dodge the requirements regarding what the animals’ suitable habitat is and the need to keep records on when they are brought in- or outside. Also, the cafés that are exhibiting and selling their animals are not illegal either, as long as the animals they have aren’t endangered.
As a result of this blind spot in the law the cafés can often be overpopulated with animals and customers. These cafés are often located above ground level, which means that it’s not easy for animals to go outside. In an interview with the BBC, Nicky Trevorrow mentions that cats need a stable environment and that these cafés are not a place for that. They are often confined in a small area with a lot of other cats and with people who are constantly coming and going. This can often result in behavioural problems amongst the animals, such as stress and fatigue.
With this increasing risk of behaviour issues, it’s not risk-free to be around them as a customer. Not all café goers are used to handling dogs or other animals, especially when they are in an uncomfortable situation. People visiting were adverted by staff to stay away from certain puppies because they were sick. Kim was told that the dog was being held by a customer and got dropped by accident. Because of that it cannot walk properly anymore. She said that the customers could feed the dogs, but under some restriction. The owner gave the customers food so that the dogs would want to come up to them. This could lead to the dogs being overweight and other animals becoming aggressive.
“They don’t walk the dogs since they are working at the café, making drinks and serving customers so they are not going anywhere,” she said. The café is located on the second floor and there is a fence around the place where the dogs are kept. In order to reach the exit, you must go through a gate first. Dogs needs exercise or to be walked every day, otherwise they can become restless and destructive as a result of boredom.
In addition, a dog trainer, in an interview with Koreatimes, said, "Most animal cafe owners don't have veterinary knowledge and they treat animals on their own to save money," He added, "It's hard to differentiate animals' cataracts from glaucoma. The ignorance can lead to blindness due to pressure on the eyes,"
Dogs are not the only animals being mistreated. In an interview with ARCJ, an ex-owl café employee said that they had around 30 birds to exhibit and sell. They spend all day indoors with a limited space and limited movement, even when the café is closed. The ex-employee said that the staff rarely gave the owls water during opening hours, since this causes waste and is a trouble cleaning it up. This also occurred on hot days. The owls express thirst by moving the part under their beaks back and forth.
If visiting an animal café there are some questions to ask to see how the animals are treated.
*Questions to ask:
1. Has this cafe another purpose other than making money out of displaying animals?
2. Where are these animals coming from?
3. Are these animals free to move around or are they in cages?
4. What happens with these animals after business hours?
5. What about the animal’s physical and mental health?
Limited space is a common theme amongst the cafés and can lead to difficulties to fit enough essentials for the animals. “The dogs had beds and pillows but fewer than the number of dogs there,” said Kim. They had more than ten dogs in the café but there were no resting places for them where they could be alone. The dogs share and do everything together. She would not take her dogs there since she thinks it’s not safe. Her dogs are small and there is a risk that they can be bitten by bigger dogs. “They can get rabies,” she said.
Despite the obvious problem with the cafés, people do still like animals. Goutorbe mentions that people care for their pets and treat them like children here in Korea. They dress them in coats, carry them in strollers and so on. People in the West do the same, but not as much as they do here. They don’t see their actions or these cafés as harmful to the animals, since all they want to do is to pet and feed them.
Together with this need to be around animals, an awareness on how the animals are treated in these cafés may be growing. This is with the help of social media; Facebook groups, demonstrations and local groups, spreading information about the conditions the animals have to experience. The love for animals surely won’t go away, but only grow stronger and will probably make people more engaged in the matter. Korea is still a relatively young country and new laws are being discussed and written about the treatment of animals. With animal rights groups such as PeTA ASIA and Aware, at the front, the animals’ voices will soon enough be heard too.