In the Japanese metropolises, it is expensive to find accommodation and the apartments are mostly small, a reason which often prevents the Japanese from hosting at home. Very often, owners also prohibit the presence of pets. So, to be able to take advantage of the presence of a cat or any other animal, establishments have opened up to offer this possibility to animal lovers. This is how it is possible to rent a dog by the hour or by the day. Since the boom in this market in the early 2000s, the offer has unfortunately expanded and owl, snake, lizard and otter cafes have emerged. Ever more “crazy” commercial practices that question the welfare of animals.
Entering a Neko Cafe (a cat bar), the customer immediately receives strict instructions to preserve the tranquility of the little cats who inhabit the place. We take off our shoes (Japanese style), we wash our hands so as not to bring germs, we place our order (drinks or cakes). Interaction with cats is strictly established : do not wake them up, use a flash when taking a picture, run after them or insist if the cat no longer wants attention and walks away. Taking them in the arms is most often prohibited. In short, although they do not have access to the outside, the quality of life of kitties takes precedence over any other consideration and protection associations closely monitor establishments also subject to regular veterinary control.
In 2012, the associations obtained the passage of a law prohibiting the exhibition of cats and dogs after 8 p.m. in pet shops. It was a question of circumventing the stress undergone by the animals exposed throughout the day and until late in the evening in glass cages and subjected to a powerful lighting. A law which in turn also applied in the Neko Cafe. The owners have argued that their activity is mostly nocturnal since their clients are mainly salarymen coming to de-stress after work. They put forward their respect for the biological rhythm of cats which are more active in the evening, some even going so far as to calculate the hours of presence of the cats to establish a turnover of the cats, some being with the customers while others lie in a separate room. In 2016, animal bars were once again allowed to open until 10 p.m..
Such measures and attentions suggest that these cats are far from cruel exploitation, see maybe even better treated than in some families (although cases of mistreating Neko Cafe have been to be deplored on a case by case basis). However, we can understand the opinion of cat lovers for whom a cat should only have one family, not be permanently with too many congeners (sometimes up to 30 cats in the same room) and in contact with dozens of strangers per day.
In France, where cat bars have opened for a few years, cats come from shelters (often overcrowded) having established a partnership with the bar. Cats are chosen for their sociability, their ability to live with other cats and not to be afraid of humans. So, rather than being crammed into a shelter, they live in a larger and more comfortable space (and the cats who stayed at the shelter benefit indirectly). Customers can even adopt a protégé after familiarizing themselves with them for a while in the bar, to avoid an impulsive act. Everyone wins from this system, which could be emulated in Japan where there is a surge of dropouts. Conversely, the Japanese like purebred cats and these are bought by professionals for the occasion.
But cats aren’t the only pets that can be hired for company in Japan. This is where the gray area settles. Dog lovers who cannot have one at home have the option of renting a dog, by the hour or by the day. More than a hundred brands offer this service in Tokyo. It is also possible to buy them there. But this practice arouses criticism from veterinarians for whom the dog needs environmental cues and habits. Where a cat is more territorial, the dog becomes attached to its owners. And being in contact with a new human every day can cause these rental dogs anxiousness and even behavioral disturbances. However, the practice is not prohibited even if it remains morally questionable.
We find the same issues with NACs (new pets) whose success with the population has spread to bars. In addition to cat bars, we can also visit for a few years snake bars, owl bars, hedgehog bars, meerkats, lizards, otters,… The list is limitless. No need to be an animal expert to see that whatever the care and attention given to these animals, the bar environment can only be very far from the natural environment of these untamed wild animals. Cat bars sufficiently faithfully reproduce a domestic environment where the little feline can feel at ease as in a “real house”. But what about the small cages in which snakes, iguanas, ferrets, etc. are confined? passed from hand to hand from one client to another all day ? The law allows you to have these same animals in your home, but for their well-being, a conscientious owner should have a vivarium or a cage of an appropriate size. And he won’t disturb them and handle several times a day without allowing a single minute of rest. As for the owl, nocturnal animal, you can easily imagine the stress induced by being in a well-lit room all day, if not on the street to attract the customer.
The development of exotic animal bars also endangers certain species, such as the otter, the embodiment of the ultra-cute wild animal. The first otter bar (and chinchillas) opened in Tokyo in 2017. However, several species of otters are endangered: the Eurasian otter will soon be threatened with extinction, the hairy-nosed otter already is, the vulnerable small-clawed otter and the smooth lacquered otter are declining in numbers. In parallel, illegal trafficking to Japan is increasing. Because this type of bar also feeds the demand of customers who fall in love with these exotic animals. Between 2015 and 2017 Thai authorities seized 35 otters including 32 on their way to Japan. TRAFFIC South Asia estimates that otter trafficking to pet stores now represents one of the greatest threat to the survival of species than hunting. In addition, the otter is not a domestic animal and life within four walls is not suitable for it. It is not uncommon for their owners to get rid of them when they reach adulthood and their wilderness takes over. In most cases, they develop behavioral problems.
But if demand does not weaken, traffic will continue, as will the stressful exhibition of wild animals. Hence the need to inform the public about the consequences that certain animal bars leave in their wake. Unfortunately, trade is king in Japan, and information on these subjects virtually non-existent. More than curiosity towards an exotic animal, should above all take precedence over the desire to respect the animal by not depriving it of its natural environment.