PEOPLE IN South Korea no longer have to go all the way to the crowded zoo to see adorable animals. These days, people are able to easily take a 20-minute bus ride and go to cozy cafes to enjoy a cup of tea while petting cute, furry animals. Sounds fun and simple, right?
However, while people comfortably enjoy their time, many seem to neglect the harmful conditions for both the animals and customers in the “miniature zoos.” It is time to think about whether it is fair to repress rights of animals for our pure pleasure.
What are animal cafes?
In South Korea, pets are usually not allowed in cafes and restaurants. Special cafes, which allow dog and cat owners to bring their pets along and socialize with other friends, have started to emerge. Also, some pet cafes have their own pets for the customers to play with. These cafes have recently gained popularity among people who do not own pets for various reasons, such as allergies, limited space at their homes, or family members’ opposition.
Because pet cafes have become the “it” place, many exotic animal cafes with unusual animals began to emerge. Raccoons, meerkats, sugar gliders, rabbits, sheep…you name it. These cafes ask the customers to either buy a drink or pay entrance fee. Then, the customers can enjoy their snacks and tea, while petting the furry animals that freely roam around the cafeteria.
Posts on blogs and social media introduce these cafes as “unique places to go on dates” or “educational for young children” and encourage others to visit. The people have started to enjoy and look for these places with a variety of animals since they desire interesting and easy ways to spend the time. They enjoy being able to approach unfamiliar animals in the comforts of confined walls and warm tea. But is this entertaining for the animals as well?
Amused Abused animals
The owners entrap animals in a small diameter of the cold, cement-floored cafeterias with artificial lighting. This takes away the basic rights wild animals should be ensured of: vast amount of space to move around freely and being in their natural habitat with the correct temperature, lighting, and other conditions.
Moreover, wild animals become extremely stressed because tens and hundreds of visitors photograph and pet them every single day. Of course, this is not something they are used to. Jeon Chae-eun, representative of Action for Animals, an organization that protects captive animals, expresses her worries toward these wild animals: “Most of the animals are nocturnal and have to sleep a lot during the day and communicate amongst each other during the night. However, when I visited several cafes, I noticed many of these animals, especially the raccoons, were sensitive and sharp. People are constantly bothering them throughout the day, so they cannot rest. As a result, they get stressed and become aggressive.”
In contrast to what is commonly known for people, domestic animals also get stressed around people. Since dogs and cats are animals close to humans, many assume that they will enjoy being petted. However, according to Jeon, dogs and cats are not completely comfortable around everyone—especially when too many people touch them without giving them space. “If you observe closely, several cats are hiding to avoid the customers. Dogs as well have preferences over people they like. Since they think the workers of the café to be their owners, they follow the workers and at times stare at them for help when the customers pet them,” Jeon said.
In addition to the stress from excessive attention, some animals do not receive enough care, or are even neglected by the café owners. Last August, an owner who closed down her café abandoned the animals in an apartment room. After the police received several messages from residents that an odor was coming from the room, the police went and found swarms of flies, droppings, and animal carcasses.
That same month, a big siberian husky bit and killed a small bichon frise at a dog café. While their owners left both dogs at the café to be guarded by the staff, the CCTV video shows that no staff was present to stop the fight between the dogs. As a result, it can be argued that the accident happened because the café owner and staff were not attentive enough.
Jeon explains that this accident mainly happened because of the café’s weak regulations on managing their furry guests. Even though big dogs do not always attack smaller dogs, precautions are necessary since it is difficult to know how dogs will react upon meeting new dogs. Since the possibility for such accidents exist at all times, the café owner should have been careful to separate the big and small dogs.
Customers in danger
Not only the animals but also the customers are vulnerable to accidents and injuries in these cafes. Since wild animals are evolved to live in the wilderness, they have very sharp toenails and are aggressive, which is also because they are stressed from being enclosed. It would not be surprising to hear stories about people getting bitten or scratched by the animals.
People who have visited raccoon cafes mostly express how combative they are—they climb on top of the customers and try to snatch their belongings and drinks away. The walls are full of warnings and customers are given a pamphlet listing necessary precautions, such as being careful with their bags and drinks. These warnings demonstrate approaching these animals with no caution is rather dangerous.
Hygiene is also a big problem. Even though the owners might ensure that the food and animals are clean, there is no significant distance between the two. People sit down to enjoy drinks and snacks, pet and play with the animals, and go back to their food without washing their hands. We have been taught since young to wash our hands before eating, but all these rules are broken at the animal cafes. Animals may even go inside the kitchen and contaminate ingredients and tools used in the area, resulting in high risks of zoonotic diseases.
Lack of law enforcements
Selling animals is not illegal as long as the species are not endangered. However, the animals in cafes are not endangered species, so these laws do not apply to them. Many owners bring the animals from zoos and train them at home before opening the cafes.
The Act on Management of Zoos and Aquariums, however, is not able to protect these animals once they are sent to cafes. The act only applies to the places that hold more than 50 animals of 10 different species, and since cafes hold fewer animals than what the act indicates, not much can be done. Even though six species (dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, and ferrets) will be protected starting from March 2018, after the Animal Protection Law was modified, there are no strict regulations for wild animals.
According to representative Jeon, it is currently difficult to regulate the cafes through law legislations. She explains that the existing law in South Korea does not necessarily regulate the animal welfare. The law simply requires the owners to register their animals when they bring them in for their business. Some people think that the government has enough control over these cafes because the owners have to register their animals. However, many cafes are registered as ordinary restaurants. Thus, it is harder to track the cafes or animals housed in them.
Also, the Food Sanitation Act does not prevent the owners from bringing and raising animals in restaurants. There are no prohibitions or related laws regarding animals living at a place where food is sold and eaten. As a result, owners are allowed to run their cafes as long as they are able to prove their café is running cleanly with no contaminated kitchens.
Are all cafes run inappropriately?
Jeon states that it is hard to say all pet cafes are bad because many of their animals are abandoned or stray animals. Even if they were to be sent to animal shelters, they may not be adopted. It can be said that they are better off in the cafes. “But,” Jeon insists, “regulations are necessary. Dogs and cats need time to themselves; café owners should set a specific time slot in which customers are allowed to pet the animals. During other times, they must allow the animals to rest.”
Also, Jeon advises customers to stop taking their pets to these cafes. Many dog owners think their pets get lonely and bored in the house, so they take them to cafes for them to meet other friends. However, Jeon says taking the dogs for a walk is better. Dogs prefer enjoying the nature at their own pace. They can explore and then naturally meet other dogs during these walks near their homes.
Wild animals, on the other hand, should be kept at a distance from humans. Wild animal cafes—and petting zoos alike—should not be allowed. When asked whether there were cafes that were being run legally and successfully protected the animals’ rights, Jeon immediately said no.
“We talked about the need for new legislations. However, I do not think it is a matter of managing and controlling the cafes. Whether by enforcing the Food Sanitation Act or Zoo Law, it should be prohibited to have animals, food, and people in the same place. All of these wild animal cafes should not be allowed and should close down. My wish is for people to stop visiting these cafes. Then, they will run low on profit and naturally close down,” said Jeon.
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Commercialized animals, imprisoned animals, savage animals, and unhygienic food should not be equivalent to entertainment. There are other ways to spend your leisure time and safer ways to approach animals than visiting animal cafes. Animal lovers or not, people have to start acknowledging the animal cafes as illegal danger zones for both the animals and themselves.