Animal cafés – making matters worse for threatened wildlife

A small-clawed otter in a cage
A Small-clawed Otter for sale in a pet market. Small-clawed Otters are the most frequently traded otter species in the pet markets, according to Monitor Conservation Research Society. Photo by Lalita Gomez

By Dr. Chris R. Shepherd
Monitor Conservation Research Society

An animal café is a place where people can see and interact with various animals, and take lots of selfies, while enjoying food and beverages – all for social media fame.  Ignoring zoonotic disease risks and important animal welfare concerns momentarily, let’s talk about the impact these places may have on threatened wildlife.

Animal cafés have sprung up in many parts of Asia, especially over the past decade.  While there are some animal cafés that specialise in caring for and rehoming rescued animals, such as domestic cats, many showcase wild animals.  These animals are usually acquired from the illegal wildlife trade – and are often also offered for sale as pets. 

In 2018, I visited an animal café in the pet shop section of the sprawling Chatuchak Market in Bangkok, Thailand.  As part of my job, I have been surveying wildlife markets in Asia and other parts of the world for decades and have seen hundreds, perhaps thousands, of species for sale, but this dingy little café still had a few species I had not seen for sale before: Nine-banded Armadillos, Rheas, Meerkats, a Putty-nosed Monkey and more.  The animals were not only for display as photo props but were also for sale.  Clearly the main goal was to sell expensive and unusual animals, rather than coffee — there were more cages than there were tables.  It was also interesting to note that none of the animals were native to Thailand as wildlife protection laws in this country are generally stricter for native species than for non-native species. 

Research suggests that even the cafés that do not directly offer animals for sale on the premises are still likely to stimulate demand and trade in illegal species.  The presence of animals in the cafés and the implication that they make good pets can influence public attitudes towards keeping these wild animals as pets. 

Japan has specialised otter cafés, and sadly, the demand for otters as pets in Japan and in many other countries is on the rise.  This growing demand is putting many threatened otter species at greater risk of extinction.  The recent emergence of the illegal trade in otters as pets in Asia has become a major cause for concern, with not only Japan, but also Indonesia and Thailand standing out as key players in this trade.  While much of the trade in otters, especially in Indonesia, supplies a domestic demand for wildlife as pets, there was substantial evidence linking Indonesia and Thailand in the trafficking of otters to Japan and other countries.  Other countries in Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam, are also increasingly noted as growing hubs of illegal otter trade, though less information is available to determine the extent of the otter trade in these countries. 

Southeast Asia is home to four otter species, all facing a perilous future due to the increasing loss of suitable habitat, the impact of pesticides on their wetland biomes and human–otter conflicts.  This is exacerbated by the growing threat posed by the illegal wildlife trade.  The capture of live otters, usually the young, for commercial trade is one of the key reasons for the depletion of otters across much of Asia.  In addition to the rapidly growing pet trade, otters are hunted to meet the by demand for their skins to be made into fur coats and hats, and as embellishments on traditional garments. Their parts are used to make traditional medicines.  Much of this trade is increasingly carried out online, making monitoring and enforcement difficult.

Animal cafés are making matters worse for otters and other threatened species.  Showcasing playful otters and allowing people to interact and take selfies with them gives people the illusion that these animals make good pets, and that perhaps the trade is legal and above board.  Otters certainly are attractive and active species, and a joy to watch – but belong in the wild. 

For the sake of otters, and many other species, as global travel opens up, think before you visit wildlife cafés.  Ensure you are not supporting a business that deliberately or inadvertently contributes to the illegal wildlife trade, and instead join ethical wildlife tours to observe wildlife in the wild.  Buy your coffee somewhere else (and make sure it is not a civet coffee – but that is a topic for another time!). 

Dr. Chris R. Shepherd is the Executive Director of the Monitor Conservation Research Society and a member of The Fur-Bearers’ advisory board. Learn more about Dr. Shepherd and MCRS at MCRSociety.org.

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