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Animal cafes in Japan offer a wide range of experiences; some offer the opportunity to mingle with cats, dogs or other commonly domesticated creatures while enjoying beverages and sometimes food.
Others provide hands-on experiences with exotic, and in some cases, endangered or threatened species. Many of these cafes have become Instagram sensations and if you visit one, it’s hard not to be beguiled by the appeal of the adorable creatures. But how safe are they for the animals?
You can visit one of these cafes in the epicenter of youth culture in Tokyo – the Harajuku neighborhood. Harry’s Zoo Cafe has over a dozen Asian small-clawed otters available for close encounters.
The Asian small-clawed otter is the smallest of the 13 otter species; it weighs under 10 pounds and is typically about 2 feet long. It’s also listed as a vulnerable species on The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species and only about 5,000 Asian small-clawed otters are thought to be left in the wild.
At the cafe, you can feed the otters sardines; a favorite food that induces excitement, vocalizing and begging behavior. It’s a delightful performance and it’s not hard to see why animal cafes are rapidly growing in popularity, not just in Japan, but in other Asian countries as well.
However, these cafes are not without controversy. In Japan, these cafes are lightly regulated and critics contend that is a big problem, especially at those cafes that have exotic creatures.
Recently, a survey in the journal Conservation Science and Practice looked at over 140 exotic animal cafes and found 403 kinds of creatures that belonged to 52 threatened species. The study highlights the many risks and concerns that experts are increasingly expressing around the rise in popularity of exotic animal cafes.
“Exotic animal cafes pose a threat to biodiversity,” says Dr. Marie Sigaud, a veterinarian and wildlife biologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, and the lead author of the study. “They encourage the ownership of exotic species. We found that 25 percent of the EACs surveyed were offering buying options. Some of the species are already threatened with extinction or might become threatened due to their demand in the international wildlife trade.”
The origin of the species that are available in exotic animal cafes is often unclear. Although domesticated species like cats and dogs are bred in Japan, other more exotic species are imported. The capture and exportation of wild creatures can deplete natural ecosystems and contribute to the decline of wild species that may already be under stress from other factors like development and climate change.
Typically, these animals will not breed in captivity. Although Japan isn’t the only country that has exotic animal cafes, it is unique in certain ways.
“What makes Japan special is the lack of regulation of zoo-like businesses and also its geographical position – near important biodiversity hotspots and major wildlife trade routes – that greatly favor the arrival of many species,” says Sigaud. “In general, the lack of regulation of the ownership of exotic animals is also concerning.”
Perhaps the most disturbing concern around exotic animal cafes is the potential for disease transmission. We’ve recently seen pandemics caused by virus transmission between wild species and humans.
In fact, COVID-19 has been recently linked to pathogen transmission from raccoon dogs to humans in a wet market in Wuhan, China. Critics point out that the settings of these exotic animal cafes could inadvertently provide a perfect environment for disease transmission, especially since many of the animals might not be comfortable being in captivity or in close quarters with humans.
These petting zoo environments could cause the animals stress, which could lead them to shed viruses. The fact that food and drink are served in close proximity to exotic creatures is especially concerning since that creates an easy pathway for potential disease transmission. Although cross-contamination can occur with domesticated species, we are generally familiar with the diseases that domestic animals can carry and know how to treat them.
“Non-domestic or exotic species pose an even higher risk than domestic species because we don’t know if they are carrying something dangerous or not,” says Dr. Marcy Souza, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Tennessee. “It could be an unknown disease because there’s a lot of things floating around out there that haven’t been discovered yet.”
Despite the criticisms and concerns around exotic animal cafes, experts don’t anticipate that their current popularity will be curtailed anytime soon.