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As cat cafes are sprouting out of the ground everywhere across the globe, people feel like they need to step up their game. And Japan (as always) seems to be one step ahead. Hedgehogs, bunnies, even penguins – Japan seems to have a cafe for any animal.
And then there are Owl Cafes. When we visited Japan, I wasn’t quite sure about these cafes. I don’t really feel comfortable spending my money on things I don’t fully believe in or in places that clash with my values and beliefs, and I wasn’t sure if the Owl Cafe was all that ethical. We did end up going to the Owl Village in Harajuku. And there is a reason I haven’t included it in any of my Tokyo or Japan itineraries…
About animal cafes in Japan
The first cat cafe in Tokyo was opened around 2004. Ever since then, these types of cafes have been a huge hit. It’s a place where people can pay a few hundred yen to spend some time with animals. You can pet them, feed them, take pictures, etc. Especially in busy cities like Tokyo, these types of cafes seem to do really well. It provides a place for animal interaction for those who aren’t able to get a pet themselves, as many apartments in Tokyo don’t allow pets. And I get it! Cuddling with a cat has been proven to reduce stress levels. On top of that, paying a bit of money to spend 30 minutes with a cat takes away all the unpleasant responsibilities of owning a cat. No need to clean litter boxes, no need to feed them, make sure they are taken to the vet when sick…
But they didn’t just stick with cats, which are domestic animals. In Tokyo alone, you can find cafes with owls, bunnies, Shiba puppies, hedgehogs, snakes, goats, micro pigs and penguins. I know… PENGUINS?!
On our first day in Japan, we visited Owl Village in Harajuku. It’s not really a cafe, more like an “interactive exhibition”. Rather than sitting down in a cafe with an owl, you just walk through a room where you can find different owls to admire. To me, it seemed a lot better than a brightly lit cafe. I read some very positive reviews on Tripadvisor, too, which made us decide to give it a go.
Even though the owls did seem healthy and looked after properly, visiting it still felt kinda off. Yes, the lights were dimmed, our hands were disinfected before touching the owls and they asked us not to use flash when taking photos. But seeing owls chained down to a fake tree where they are forced to be awake during times they usually sleep seemed pretty cruel. These birds are wild animals. It felt wrong that they couldn’t just fly wherever they wanted to, or avoid the visitors if they didn’t want to be touched. Even though Owl Village is probably one of the better ones out there and seemed to look after their birds, it still felt strangely unsettling.
Should you visit an owl cafe in Japan?
Owl cafes, in particular, seem to be getting more and more popular in Japan. Owl shares the same word as good luck in Japanese (Fukuro). Add that to their big, kawaii eyes, cute latte art and you’ve got yourself a big hit in Japan for both locals and tourists. Let’s be honest, owls are beautiful creatures. Who wouldn’t want to see one up close?
I recently read an article about someone who used to work in an owl cafe. They shared how inhumane the conditions are for the animals. After having been to the Owl Village myself, I wasn’t too surprised. I decided not to include it in my Tokyo itinerary and my two week Japan itinerary because it didn’t feel right to promote/support a place that seems quite stressful for the animals. After reading the article, I decided to dive into the topic a bit deeper, do some proper research on it and share my experience and thoughts with you guys.
I’m not here to judge anybody who’s ever been to any of these cafes. Nor am I here to tell you what to do. I merely want to spread awareness and give you the information to make an educated decision whether you want to visit one of these cafes when in Japan.
In the article from the ex-employee of an unnamed owl cafe, they shared some of the incredibly cruel and inhumane ways the owls were treated. These cafes are businesses and money will come before animal welfare in most cases. In the article, the ex-employee shared that the owls barely had any room to move. From 30 square centimetres to 100 square centimetres for larger birds. This gives them barely any space to move away when they don’t want to be touched. They also shared that the owls barely got any rest during business hours (10 hours a day!) and remained chained in the same position, even after the cafe closed. The brightly lit rooms force the animals to be awake at times that are unnatural to them, causing a lot of stress.
The article goes on and explains that the birds were deprived of water, in order to reduce waste. The owls weren’t able to drink water on their own terms and had to wait for staff to come feed them. Too much waste acted as a big inconvenience for a cafe that was already understaffed. The whistleblower worked at the cafe for just over a year. In that time, seven owls died. If that’s not bad enough, the cafe owner lied on their website stating the owls were “fostered by a family”. Sick owls went without treatment because they prioritized managing the shop during business hours.
Of course, not all owl cafes are as bad as this. But even if the owls are well looked after, they are still wild animals. Unlike cats and dogs, owls haven’t been selectively bred to become domesticated. Most owls are also nocturnal animals, which means they are active at night and sleep during the day. Forcing these animals to be awake during business hours for humans to come and pet them seems… wrong. I can only imagine the stress these animals go through.
Like mentioned before, there are tons more cafes with different animals in Japan. What about those? Obviously, I can’t speak for all the cafes out there. I only visited one with owls. But when I look at articles by experts, it seems obvious that wild animals shouldn’t be caged for us humans to take cute Instagram pictures with. Hedgehog Cafes are another type of cafe that seems incredibly popular, alongside Owl Cafes. Hedgehogs, much like owls, are nocturnal animals. Just looking at the pictures online about Hedgehog Cafes, you can see them curl up in a little ball. It’s cute, yes. But it’s also the hedgehog’s natural defence mode. The poor thing is obviously very stressed when being held by humans when its natural body clock tells them they should be sleeping.
On The Dodo, I found an article about the ethics of hedgehog cafes in Japan. DJ Schubert, a wildlife biologist at the Animal Welfare Institute, was quoted, “It’s inhumane to subject those animals to that kind of treatment. Hedgehogs are nocturnal, but even if they weren’t, the fact that they just allow people to handle and touch and harass these animals is completely inappropriate. Some hedgehogs might acclimate to being handled, but they are, by nature and instinct, wild animals. While the animals may or may not demonstrate outward signs of stress, I can guarantee you that they’re stressed.” (The Dodo, 2017)
Are all animal cafes cruel?
It goes without saying that not all places that house animals in Japan are evil. There are places that do look after their animals properly and provide a home for sheltered cats and dogs. I would, however, recommend doing a bit of research. Try googling the name of the cafe and read a few reviews online. Looking back, I wish I had done more research before going to the Owl Village in Harajuku. Your money is powerful. Spending it means funding an ideology, values and beliefs. If people stop going to cafes that treat animals poorly, they will eventually have to change their ways.
The first thing to keep in mind when deciding whether an animal cafe is animal-friendly is looking at what type of animal it houses. Are they wild animals? Or domestic animals? When it is a wild animal, the answer is probably pretty obvious after reading the rest of this article. Personally, I will avoid any of those in the future.
Cat and dog cafes may be a much better alternative, but I’d still recommend doing the proper research before committing to one. Personally, I’ve only visited a cat cafe in Manchester (UK) and they seem to look after the animals very well. But after having read a lot of reviews on cat cafes in Japan, it seems that the opinions are split.
This YouTube video that addresses the issues with animal cafes in Japan also talks about her experience visiting a cat cafe. She states that the cats seemed strange, almost like they were sedated. A quick Google search lead me to more blog posts and reviews of people who also thought the cats looked sedated. An article on Japan Today shared the sad news that a cat cafe in Tachikawa (west of Tokyo) closed after five cats died due to a feline parvovirus outbreak. The news wasn’t properly addressed by the company until an anonymous source leaked the information. This caused a public backlash against the cafe which forced it to close.
Cat or dog cafes that take in shelter animals or strays are a much better option. Especially since 82% of animals that end up in shelters in Japan are gassed to death. That’s over 200.000 cats and dogs every year (source: Japan Times). If cafes are able to take in some of these sheltered animals, look after them and try to find them a new home; that’s amazing and should be supported!
One of these ethical cat cafes is located in Asakusa, Tokyo: Asakusa Nekoen Cat Cafe. All the cats in this cafe are from a shelter, making this cafe much more animal-friendly.
Animal Cafe Alternatives in Japan
If you’re looking for more alternatives to animal cafes in Japan, I’d highly recommend checking out this article by Tokyo Cheapo. They go over a lot of cool alternatives in Tokyo and other parts of Japan where you can spend time with animals in an ethical way. Alternatively, you can visit animal shelters in Japan. Erica Lion has a huge list of animal shelters in the description of her video about animal cafes in Japan.
I’d like to hear your thoughts on it! Have you ever visited an animal cafe? What did you think? Or if you haven’t, what’s your opinion about it? I will definitely be more careful in the future when visiting places that house animals. From now on, I’ll avoid any cafes that have wild animals and do proper research before visiting any cat or dog cafes.
- Erica Lion’s Youtube video on animal cafes in Japan
- Tokyo Cheapo’s article about animal-friendly alternatives to animal cafes
- ISSH international’s article about the ethics of animal cafes
- Article about the ex-worker of the owl cafe
- Global News’ article about owl cafes in Japan
- The Dodo’s article about Hedgehog cafes
- The Guardian’s article about a cat cafe closing down due to neglect
- Japan Today’s article about the closing cat cafe
- Japan Times’s article about sheltered animals