In Japan, it is possible to enjoy a coffee while an owl perches on your head, or sit in a bar where live penguins watch you from behind a Plexiglas wall. The country’s exotic animal cafes are popular with locals and visitors looking for novelty, cuteness, and selfies. Customers can even buy animals at some of the cafes and take them home.
But visitors to these places may not realize that many of these cafes put wildlife conservation, their own and public health, and animal welfare at risk.
exhaustively japan animal survey browns published earlier 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 prohibited from international trade.
“Some species that we saw have very questionable origins,” said 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 wild-caught, and this has implications for their long-term survival.”
The potential for disease transmission from animals to humans is also concerning, Dr. Sigaud said.
In a typical cafe, individual animals of different species are huddled together in a small room where people can touch them while drinking, said Cécile Sarabian, a cognitive ecologist at Nagoya University and a 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.
Laws governing animal cafes are “pretty weak,” added Dr. Sarabian, and researchers are calling on Japan’s government to strengthen them.
Officials at Japan’s environment ministry 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 spread rapidly throughout the region. TO study 2020 identified 111 such companies in Asia, mainly in Japan, but also in China, Thailand, Taiwan, Indonesia, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Cambodia. Japan, however, seems to have become “the epicenter of the phenomenon,” said Dr. Sigaud.
The researchers visited a few cafes in Japan in person and also searched online and on social media, in both English and Japanese, for keywords such as “pet cafe,” “otter cafe,” and “petting zoo.” They found 142 exotic animal cafes throughout the Japanese archipelago and listed all the species they observed in photos posted on the cafe’s websites and social media accounts, excluding insects.
The number and diversity of animals was a surprise, Dr. Sigaud said. Birds made up 62 percent of the species, and 40 percent of them were owls. But the researchers also recorded dozens of reptiles and mammals.
Thirty-eight of the cafes also offered options to purchase the animals they displayed: owls, mainly, but also species as diverse as sugar gliders for $150 to $300; ball pythons for $455 to $1,290; secretary birds for $20,500; and red-tailed black cockatoos for $23,250.
Some of the species were of particular concern, including critically endangered ones such as the pancake turtle and the Central American river turtle. Others were of dubious provenance. Bengal slow lorises and Sunda slow lorises, for example, are endangered species from South and Southeast Asia that are frequently poached and strictly prohibited in international trade. They are difficult to breed in captivity, Dr. Sigaud said, and there are no professional facilities for these species in Japan.
“So where do they come from?” said Dr. Sigaud. “It’s hard to believe they’re legal.”
The international trade of 60 percent of the species that the researchers identified in the cafes is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, and most of these animals were registered as coming from facilities bred in captivity when they were imported to Japan. Only 14 percent were marked as coming from the wild, although the researchers say this is likely an underestimate, because records do not exist for the 40 percent of non-CITES-regulated species. Wild animals such as otters have also been known to be laundered as captive-bred to legalize their trade, they note.
In a CITES database search spanning 1975 to 2019, the researchers also found no records of imports into Japan of seven species whose trade is strictly controlled but are present in animal cafes, including the Bengal slow loris. , the spotted pond turtle and the barred eagle. owl.
“These gaps raise more questions than answers,” said Dr. Sarabian.
She and her colleagues also pointed to wellness concerns at cafes. Animals can become stressed by constant handling, raptors are chained to perches, and nocturnal species interact with visitors throughout the day, Dr. Sarabian said. Almost all species are kept in small cages and artificial environments, cared for by people without specific training or qualifications to work with wildlife.
Kohei Kimura, owner of Funny Creatures Forest, an animal cafe in Kyoto that specializes in reptiles, said he often hears criticism like that raised by the new study, including that the cafes keep protected species and that the animals there are mistreated. Mr. Kimura, whose cafe features around 40 kinds of reptiles, plus three owls and some tropical fish, said he took great care to make sure he wasn’t contributing to these problems. He sources all the animals from his wholesalers in Japan or raises them himself. He forbids customers from touching sleeping owls, he said, and has built his own specialized cages for the reptiles because “commercially available cages are too small.”
Mr. Kimura, who has loved cold-blooded 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, they often don’t like reptiles and are thought to be scary, but actually, 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 stricter regulation and supervision of Japan’s exotic animal cafes. “Overall, I think the analysis makes it clear that there are an alarming number of threatened species in these coffees of questionable origin,” he said.
But he noted that with proper regulation, it is possible for animal cafes to play an active role in conservation, just as many zoos do: by raising public awareness and love for wildlife. “I often wonder about the possible benefits,” he said.