These days when we walk down the street, we can easily find numbers of signboards advertising cafes with animals. These cafes, generally referred to as an ‘animal café’ in South Korea, provide unique experiences; customers are able to observe diverse animals from a very close distance and sometimes even feel and hold them while enjoying similar services as ordinary restaurants. It is a thrilling experience indeed to many animal lovers. Some of these cafes serve the role of animal hotels and care centers as well, places that look after animals when their owners have to leave them alone for a while. With such benefits, the animal café business market scale has increased in a remarkable speed during the recent years. Along with this rapid growth, the species that are involved in the business has also diversified. From everyday pets like dogs and cats, there are cafes presenting raccoons, tortoises, sheep, and even meerkat. This animal café culture certainly provides an enjoyable time for customers, but is it also a beneficial place for the animals inhabiting it?
Before we take a closer look at the current conditions of animal café, let’s examine the government administrations regulating the business. An animal café, in a strict sense, is a type of a zoo. However, according to the South Korean Law, the minimum qualification of a zoo is to hold more than ten species of animals or more than 50 animals, which is not applicable for most animal cafes. Such cafes are classified as restaurant and food service businesses instead, so they are out of the boundaries of law, without any specific regulations that inspect the actual conditions of these institutions. Also, as these institutions are not registered as ‘animal cafés,’ they are not differentiated from other ordinary restaurants on the official documents, which makes it even harder for inspectors to investigate them.
The animal protection corporation AWARE (Animal Welfare Awareness, Research, and Education) published a report in June 2018, about the animal cafes’ current conditions. Their report found 95 institutions throughout the nation and most of them were not enrolled as an ‘animal café’ in official records. The report showed the list of problems largely divided into categories of raising environment, safety and hygiene, and the conditions of animals. The following parts show the devastating state of animal cafes: absence of safety distance and barriers, the confinement of animals in small isolated areas like a high shelf, lack of proper animal hideouts or shelters, the mixture of different species in a single space, regardless of their prey-predator relationship, and etc. An absence of distance and excessive contacts might seriously disturb the animals and there are no proper educations for customers to teach them how to treat animals gently. Improper shelters with wire netting floor might cause deformation of legs, and the isolated shelves might cause extreme anxiety. Isolated spaces might prevent animals from acting unpredictably, but it stresses them out. In 2017 at an animal café in Seoul, a coati was killed by a silver fox, which was living in the same cage. Although a silver fox is actually a predator to a coati in wildlife, the institution kept two animals in the same cage simply because they had a similar appearance. To satisfy customers’ desire and to easily manage their business, business owners are maximizing the exposure of animals without any considerations toward the animal’s lifestyle.
While Korean society is bursting with animal café businesses, the overall global trend is to reduce such institutions and even further, to abolish them. From visitor-oriented institutions, zoos all over the world are changing into animal-oriented shelters. San-Francisco zoo is one example. They provide full-time veterinary facilities and professional staffs to look after 197 species of animals. Each animal goes through the annual health check system based on the deep understanding of each species’ needs. Also, the information recorded throughout the process is a valuable source for further rescue operations and appropriate care for the wild animals. Although animal cafes in Korea and San-Francisco zoo are similar in a sense that they are facilities holding animals, their ultimate purpose is much different. The former aims to achieve customer satisfaction, to develop exotic experiences, and reap corporate profit, while the latter aims to be a proper sanctuary for animals. Getting closer, touching and feeding them; these are exciting experiences, of course, but that’s not the only way we can express our love toward animals. This is the time that we have to look back on what we have done to them. We should confront the fact that our pleasure was built on the suffering of animals. Keeping that in mind, our street full of animal café signboards would look different.