Owls fluff up their feathers and preen beneath the stroking fingers of customers at Owl Village, one of many owl cafes that have popped up around Japan amid the nation’s pet cafe boom.
Here children can play and pet the eight owls, while adults take photos with the birds that are often tied by their feet with a rope so that they don’t fly away.
But behind the squeals of delighted children and the popularity that has the cafe fully booked most days lurks a much darker story of careless treatment that may endanger the animals, activists say.
Owl Village representative Aya Matsuda said they are aware of the issues and have made efforts to ensure that the animals in her cafe are as stress free as possible.
“Some owl cafes lack enough staff, and customers can freely interact with owls, but in our café, customers are only able to enter the owl room with staff, who explain how to touch the animals or give them a rest when they look tired,” she told Reuters.
Some customers who had just visited the cafe in Tokyo’s Harajuku entertainment district showed some concerns for the welfare of the birds.
“The nature of the animals is not to be awake at this time, they’re completely nocturnal, they’re not used to being with humans. But here they are kind of trained and the people that are here are not mistreating them, at least in what we saw, in any kind of way,” said a Mexican tourist Eduardo Rosco, who had visited the cafe in a pre-booked time slot.
Others think the cafes just need to be more careful in the way they manage the animals.
“Certainly I think any situation when you have an animal in captivity whether it’s in a zoo, whether it’s as a pet there can be situations where it’s mistreated and there can be situations where they are treated very well, all be it in a different way to what they might be treated or living as they were in the wild but, so I think there is certainly a role for some oversight,” said Canadian Liz Montgomery, who was on her holiday trip to Japan and enjoyed her time in the cafe.
Just disrupting the natural sleep cycles of owls, which are nocturnal, and tying their feet to perches, as many cafes do, can constitute animal abuse, said Chihiro Okada, an activist with the Animal Rights Centre in Tokyo.
“People think of kicking or hitting of animals when we think of animal abuse, but it isn’t just limited to that. Confining an animal to a small space is certainly a form of abuse,” Okada said.
The situation for owls is especially difficult since they are birds of prey used to hunting in expansive habitats at night. Their keen sense of hearing and vision are also poorly adapted to dealing with the brightness and noise of crowded cafes.
In addition, they can also develop neurotic and self-destructive behaviour such as pulling at their feathers, pacing, and rocking back and forth, activists say.
“We were particularly shocked to hear that seven owls died within one year at an owl cafe,” Okada added, without naming the cafe.
The problem has worsened in recent years as the cafes have seen a surge in popularity with both domestic and foreign tourists, leading to a rapid proliferation of cafes with lax rules.
That said veterinarians who deal with owls as pets at home, says pet cafes do not need to be banned if they’re properly managed and maximize the welfare of the bird.
“(Owl cafes) can exist. But its important to have checks on how they are kept. And more importantly we need to make sure the birds there are happy and not stressed. So I don’t think it’s necessary to say owl cafes should not exist,” said veterinarian Nobumoto Izawa.
Japan is home to many animal cafes, including those featuring cats, hawks, goats and hedgehogs, and they have become a popular draw for tourists. But there has also been criticism about the animals’ treatment, leading to regulations that have limited the operating hours of cat cafes.
Across Japan, owl cafes are experiencing a boom in popularity. In Harajuku, one of Tokyo’s many entertainment districts, there are over five separate owl cafes operating.
The owl is a particularly significant animal in Japanese culture as it is commonly considered to be a symbol of good luck.
According to animal rights groups, the fact that the owl is a symbol of good luck means that the birds are exposed to exceedingly large amounts of customers towards the end of the year.