Exotic animal cafes with otters, lizards and owls sound the alarm

Cafes where customers can cuddle a cat or pet a dog have sprung up in cities around the world in recent years. But some places have gone beyond the typical pets: on a visit to Japan, Sharne McMillan heard about otter cafes. She happened to be researching a rare population of Eurasian otters for her PhD. at the University of Hong Kong, and her interest was piqued, so she did more research. She found that babies of a different species than the one she studied, Asian small-clawed otters, could be bottle-fed or walked on a leash in some cafes, while adult otters could be available to play with. or feed.

Many humans see otters as furry, squeaky, cute creatures that like to play, something like aquatic kittens. But they are also wild animals. McMillan was concerned that the small-clawed otter is listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, which tracks the risk of extinction for thousands of species. “It has a declining population in the wild, and the latest emerging threat to this species is the pet trade,” she says, adding that otter cafes could boost the appeal of the animals as food. exotic pets. And the problem is not limited to otters. In follow-up research covering a wider swath of Asia and published this fall in retention letters, she and her co-authors found that these cafes are home to a wide range of exotic animals, from iguanas to owls to raccoons. The companies “influence the accessibility and exposure of these exotic species to visitors” and therefore could fuel the global trade in exotic pets, McMillan says.

To find these cafes, the researchers conducted online keyword searches in English and local languages ​​across 10 regions in Asia. Of the 406 stores they visited, 27% said they had exotic pets including 252 species of mammals, reptiles and birds. The IUCN classifies 234 of them as threatened – including the potential threat from the wildlife trade – or as declining in wild populations. McMillan says the study likely underestimates the number of such cafes because not all of them may have an online presence or show up in search results.

Cafes with exotic animals are a relatively recent phenomenon. The first appeared in 2011 in Japan, according to McMillan’s research, so she thinks they probably haven’t played a big role in driving the pet trade yet. But by offering in-person animal interactions, as well as social media accounts and websites that reach wider audiences, she says these cafes could contribute to the perception of alien species as acceptable and safe pets. , without providing the context of their peril. status. Some stores even offer animals for sale. McMillan’s research shows that the number of such cafes has grown rapidly, especially in Japan, where more than 60 opened between 2011 and 2018. (Japan’s environment ministry did not respond to requests for comment.) Elsewhere , those looking for an unusual coffee break can also hook up with water lizards in Vietnam, prairie dogs in Thailand and African gray parrots in South Korea. The IUCN already considers all of these animals to be threatened by the pet trade.

A person holds a tree frog at a pet cafe in China. Credit: Alamy

Brett Scheffers, a conservation biologist at the University of Florida, who was not involved in the study, agrees that such cafes could normalize exotic animals as pets and help increase demand. “There are a lot of misconceptions that these animals are domesticated,” he says. “Basically, they’re not.”

According to a 2017 study, exotic pets often need special diets, housing, and medical care that owners are unwilling or unable to provide. Animals. And even in more conventional settings such as accredited zoos, much remains unknown about the effects of visitor interactions on animals, according to a 2019 study in Animals which examined the types of animal-visitor interactions offered around the world.

It is also unclear where the cafes get their animals. Some claim to get them from legitimate captive breeders, McMillan says. But research by non-profit conservation group TRAFFIC has found that, at least in the case of otters, they are part of the illegal wildlife trade. TRAFFIC’s investigation traced their origins and found incidents of smuggling wild otters into Japan, but no evidence of legitimate, regulated breeding operations (as required by CITES, the body that regulates international trade in otters). wild species). Animal sourcing is a “very fuzzy area,” McMillan says. “We have to think about this. Where do these animals come from? How are they impacted? And how does it relate to the larger issue of the exotic pet trade? »

Scheffers’ own research found that almost a fifth of terrestrial vertebrate species are traded, both legally and illegally. Determining the sources of many of the animals involved is difficult, he notes, because there are “huge information gaps” even in the legal trade in exotic and wild animals. Every species in trade should be automatically regulated “because of how quickly populations become depleted when demand increases,” he says.

McMillan and Scheffers say it’s also possible for coffee animals to escape — or be discarded or abandoned — and establish invasive populations. A 2019 study in Borders of ecology and environment found that the exotic pet trade contributes significantly to non-native species invasions. At least three of the species McMillan found in cafes are highly invasive — and 45 of the 406 cafes his research found have closed — raising questions about the fate of these animals.

There is also a risk of disease transmission to native animal populations and, in some cases, humans. The wildlife trade has contributed to the spread of the H5N1 virus, monkeypox and other diseases, according to a 2007 study in the Wildlife Disease Journal.

Some of the cafes’ websites say they provide education for customers, as well as safe and comfortable homes for animals, McMillan says. But more research is needed on local regulations on wildlife trade, pet trade and captive animal welfare to see if these claims hold up, she says.

She adds that any regulation and management should be implemented on a regional basis as the trade in popular wildlife and exotic animals varies greatly from region to region, as evidenced by the different species kept in cafes in different regions. Local economic and cultural contexts should also be taken into account in future investigations to make compliance with the rules more likely.

McMillan hopes his research will inform these discussions and help potential cafe visitors, including international tourists, make informed decisions. “In many people’s minds, it’s just an innocent visit,” she said. “But it is possible that you will have an impact on wild populations.”

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