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CRUEL TO THE LAST DROP: Exotic Animal Cafés Featuring Otters, Lizards and Owls Raise Alarms

The number of exotic animal cafés has grown rapidly, notably in Japan. More than 60 opened between 2011 and 2018. Some of the shops even offer animals for sale.

DANIELLE BEURTEAUX: Coffee shops where patrons can cuddle with a cat or pet a dog have sprung up in cities around the world in recent years. But some venues have gone beyond typical domesticated pets… Sharne McMillan… happened to be researching a rare Eurasian otter population for her Ph.D. at the University of Hong Kong… and heard about otter cafés… Her interest was piqued, so she investigated further. She found that babies of a different species than she studied, Asian small-clawed otters, could be bottle-fed or walked on leashes at some cafés, while adult otters might be available to play with or feed…

McMillan was concerned because the small-clawed otter is designated as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) Red List, which tracks the extinction risk of thousands of species… And the issue is not limited to otters. In follow-up research covering a broader swath of Asia and published this fall in Conservation Letters, she and her co-authors found these cafés keep a broad range of exotic animals, from iguanas to owls to raccoons. The businesses “influence the accessibility and exposure of these exotic species to the visitors” and thus could fuel the overall exotic pet trade, McMillan says…

To find these cafés, the researchers did online keyword searches, using English and local languages, in 10 regions in Asia. Of the 406 shops they turned up, 27 percent advertised having exotic animals encompassing 252 species of mammals, reptiles and birds… Some of the shops even offer animals for sale. McMillan’s research shows the number of these cafés has grown rapidly, notably in Japan, where more than 60 opened between 2011 and 2018. (Japan’s Ministry of the Environment did not respond to requests for comment.)

Elsewhere, those in search of an unusual coffee break can also hang with water lizards in Vietnam, prairie dogs in Thailand and African grey parrots in South Korea. The IUCN already considers all of these animals to be under threat from the pet trade… Brett Scheffers, a conservation biologist at the University of Florida, who was not involved with the study, agrees these cafés could normalize exotic animals as pets and help raise demand. “There’s lots of misconceptions that these animals are domesticated,” he says. “Fundamentally, they are not”…

It is also unclear where cafés are obtaining their animals. Some claim to get them from legitimate captive breeders, McMillan says. But research by the nonprofit conservation group TRAFFIC found that, at least in the case of otters, they are part of the illegal wildlife trade… Animal sourcing is a very “blurry area,” McMillan says. “We need to be thinking about that. Where are these animals coming from? How are they being impacted? And how does it link into the broader exotic pet trade issue?”…

There is also the possibility that café animals could escape—or be dumped or abandoned—and establish invasive populations, both McMillan and Scheffers say… At least three of the species McMillan found in cafés are highly invasive—and 45 of the 406 cafés her search found had closed—raising questions about the fate of those animals. There is also the risk of diseases being transmitted to native animal populations—and, in some cases, to humans. The wildlife trade contributed to the spread of the H5N1 virus, monkeypox and other diseases, according to a 2007 study in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases. SOURCE…

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