How do so many endangered creatures end up in Japan’s animal cafes?

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TOKYO – In Japan, it’s possible to enjoy a coffee while an owl perches on your head, or to sit at a bar where penguins stare out at you from behind a Plexiglas wall. The country’s exotic animal cafes are popular with locals as well as visitors seeking novelty, cuteness and selfies. Customers can even buy animals at some cafes and bring them home.

But visitors of these venues may not realise that many of these cafes put wildlife conservation, their own and public health, and animal welfare at risk.

In an exhaustive survey of Japan’s animal cafes published this year in the journal Conservation Science and Practice, researchers found 3,793 individual animals belonging to 419 different species, 52 of which are threatened with extinction. Nine of the exotic species they found, including endangered slow lorises and critically endangered radiated tortoises, are strictly banned from international trade.

“Some species we saw are of very questionable origins,” said Dr Marie Sigaud, now a veterinarian and wildlife biologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, who conducted the study as a postdoctoral researcher at Kyoto University. Many of the animals are “most likely caught in the wild, and this has implications for their long-term survival”.

The potential for transmission of disease from animals to humans is also worrying, she said.

At a typical cafe, individual animals of different species are crammed together in a small room where people are allowed to touch them while having a drink, said Dr Cecile Sarabian, a cognitive ecologist at Nagoya University and co-author of the findings. Many of the animals are under stress and “it’s an excellent interface for the exchange of potential pathogens”, she said.

The laws governing animal cafes are “quite weak,” she added – and the researchers are calling on Japan’s government to strengthen them.

Officials at Japan’s Ministry of the Environment did not respond to requests for comment.

Exotic animal cafes are not uniquely Japanese. Since the first known animal cafe opened in Taiwan in 1998, featuring cats and dogs, the concept has rapidly spread across the region. A 2020 study identified 111 such businesses in Asia, primarily in Japan but also in China, Thailand, Taiwan, Indonesia, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and Cambodia.

Japan, however, seems to have become “the epicentre of the phenomenon”, Dr Sigaud said.

The researchers visited some cafes in Japan in person and also searched online and across social media in both English and Japanese for keywords such as “pet cafe”, “otter cafe” and “petting zoo”.

They found 142 exotic animal cafes across the Japanese archipelago and made a list of all the species they observed in photos posted on the cafes’ websites and social media accounts, excluding insects.

The number and diversity of animals came as a surprise, Sigaud said. Birds accounted for 62 per cent of species, and 40 per cent of them were owls. But the researchers also recorded dozens of reptiles and mammals.

Thirty-eight of the cafes also offered options for buying the animals they displayed – owls, primarily, but also species as diverse as sugar gliders for US$150 (S$200) to US$300; ball pythons for US$455 to US$1,290; secretary birds for US$20,500; and red-tailed black cockatoos for US$23,250.

Some of the species were of particular concern, including critically endangered ones such as the pancake tortoise and the Central American river turtle. Others were of questionable origin. Bengal slow lorises and Sunda slow lorises, for example, are endangered species from South and South-east Asia that are frequently the victims of poaching and are strictly banned from international trade.

They are difficult to breed in captivity, Dr Sigaud said, and no professional facilities for these species exist in Japan.

“So where are they coming from?” she said. “It’s hard to believe they’re legal.”

Dr Sarabian and her colleagues also flagged welfare concerns at cafes. Animals can become stressed through constant handling, birds of prey are chained to perches and nocturnal species are made to interact with visitors throughout the day, she said. Nearly all species are kept in small cages and artificial environments, and are looked after by people with no specific training or qualifications to work with wildlife.

Mr Kohei Kimura, the owner of Funny Creatures Forest, an animal cafe in Kyoto that specialises in reptiles, said he often heard criticisms like the ones raised by the new study, including that cafes keep protected species and that the animals there are mistreated.

Mr Kimura – whose cafe exhibits around 40 types of reptiles, plus three owls and some tropical fish – said he took extra care to ensure he was not contributing to these problems. He sources all of his animals from wholesalers in Japan or breeds them himself. He forbids customers from touching the owls while they are sleeping, he said, and has built his own specialized cages for the reptiles because “the commercially available cages are too small”.

Mr Kimura, who has loved coldblooded creatures since he was a child, said he opened his cafe to share “the charm of reptiles” with others. “A big lizard can make you feel like you’re raising a dinosaur.”

“In Japan, reptiles are often disliked and thought to be scary, but in reality, many of them are gentle,” he added.

Timothy Bonebrake, a conservation biologist at the University of Hong Kong who was not involved in the research, said the new study demonstrated the need for stronger regulations and oversight for Japan’s exotic animal cafes. “Overall, I think the analysis makes clear that there is an alarming number of threatened species in these cafes with questionable origin,” he said.

But he noted that with proper regulation, it may be possible for animal cafes to play an active role in conservation, much as many zoos do: by raising public awareness and fondness for wildlife. “I do wonder often about the possible benefits,” he said. NYTIMES

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