South Korea cracks down on controversial animal cafes

(CNN) — A chubby raccoon captured behind glass runs for a few seconds on an exercise wheel before falling to the ground. In the next yard, a pair of groundhog-like prairie dogs sit on logs under the bright artificial light of a ceiling lamp.

On the other side of the glass, happy customers drink lattes and take selfies with animals in a view across South Korea.

Animal cafes have gained popularity in the country over the past decade, first with cats and dogs, then with increasingly unusual wildlife species in the age of online virality.

This café alone in Seoul’s trendy Hongdae University district is home to more than 40 species including porcupines, snakes, foxes and ferrets, according to a sign on the door advertising it as a unique date spot.

A staff member feeds an albino raccoon at an animal café in Seoul, South Korea, on April 2, 2020. (Credit: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

But cafes have also sparked controversy, and animal welfare advocates have long pushed for tighter restrictions or even a complete ban on such businesses.

The growing opposition prompted the South Korean government to get stricter with a set of new laws that took effect in December, effectively banning cafes from displaying live wild animals unless they were from zoos or aquariums. Do not register as.

Experts say that while this is a positive step, more needs to be done given the limited reach of the law and opposition from business owners who argue that their livelihoods are at risk.

“Since it’s all about money… I think the impact (of the law) will be minimal,” said Jang Ji-deok, director general of the department of zoological management at the National Institute of Ecology, who advised the government on the law. .

“However, (the introduction of the law) still means that things are slowly improving,” he said.

Rise of the Animal Café

The trend has spread internationally since the world’s first cat café opened in Taiwan in 1998, and by the early 2010s, numerous cafés were opening throughout South Korea. In a typical animal café, customers can enjoy a drink or meal while petting or feeding furry residents, a particularly new concept in urban centers where opportunities to interact with non-pet animals are fewer.

But animals on display in Korea rapidly expanded beyond the common house cat: a café in Hongdae, for example, attracts visitors with its furry sheep and sheep-themed interior.

Seoul resident Kang Esol said he recently visited the Sheep Café because he had heard about it for years. He described the trip as a way to “find peace of mind” after spending long, frustrating days behind a computer at work.

He said, “When you see the innocence of animals, doesn’t the anger in your heart subside?” “The sheep seemed calm and so did I.”

coffee animal south korea

A woman takes a selfie with a sheep at a sheep café in Seoul on February 17, 2015. (Credit: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

Until recently changed laws, few regulations existed. Under the previous animal protection law, it was illegal to collect or trade only endangered species. This meant that wild animals such as raccoons, livestock such as sheep, and other animals seen as novelties were easy prey for pet cafes, which were protected by their official business registration as restaurants or rest areas.

And with increasing demand, huge profits were being made.

“Owners who run cafes, restaurants and other stores but are struggling to operate them because they are not making sales! Try visiting a pet café, which is popular these days. Your profits will make a big difference!” Aven, a pet business consulting company based in Korea, advises on its website.

Based on his business model, Avan estimates that launching a dog café would cost at least $40,000 and could net profits of more than $15,000 per month.

Social networks have also influenced. A quick Google search brings up countless travel blogs, YouTube videos, and Instagram posts about Korean pet cafes. A Samoyed dog café in Seoul has more than 81,000 followers on Instagram and the line for a table often stretches beyond the door.

what critics say

As animal cafes spread, so did criticism.

Local media reports have noted the small, cramped spaces in which the animals live; Stress caused by constant contact and manipulation by visitors; Poor diet causes health problems, and visitors are often given something to feed the animals; and other deficiencies in care, such as inadequate enrichment or preparation.

Many businesses have rules such as prohibiting customers from owning certain animals or not allowing children under a certain age to enter.

Kang said the sheep café he visited had rules to prevent customers from scaring the sheep. There was also a sink for customers to wash their hands before and after petting the animals.

He said he stroked the sheep only a few times “very carefully”, fearing that further handling would cause them discomfort, and spent the rest of the trip watching them from a distance “while they were eating, ruminating and Relaxing with each other.”

She said, “When you hear the term ‘animal café,’ you might have preconceived ideas about animal abuse, but after hearing about it (the café), I thought it was really a It’s a good system.” The sheep looked very healthy and “they didn’t seem worried.”

In this photo taken March 31, 2020, a group of kangaroos eat food at the Eden Meerkat Friends Animal Café in Seoul while a staff member looks on. (Credit: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

But experts say not all cafes have these systems and the risks may be higher depending on the species of animal.

“Not only are the animals affected through physical contact, but it can also affect the people who touch them, such as the possibility of spreading zoonotic diseases. Despite this, visitors and trainees must touch them to get the full experience. Let’s continue,” Zhang said. National Institute of Ecology.

“The same applies to feeding the animals,” he said, adding that many zoos and indoor cafes are closed on Mondays “because at that time all the animals get sick from eating food given to them by visitors.”

changes in laws

Despite years of lobbying, previous efforts to impose regulations have stalled, including a proposed amendment to the Animal Protection Law that ultimately failed.

But, Jang said, the new law enacted last month reflects the government’s growing concern over “cases of indiscriminate display and sale of poisonous and dangerous animals in the country” as well as growing public pressure.

Under new amendments to the Wildlife Protection Law, only facilities officially registered as zoos or aquariums can exhibit “live wild animals”. Existing animal cafes now have four years to obtain registration as a zoo or aquarium or close under the law, with the grace period intended to minimize any abandonment of animals by closing the cafe.

“Many cafes dealing with raccoons and other animals have closed due to COVID-19,” Zhang said. “The reality is that with these cafes closing, many of these animals are being abandoned and the places where they are supposed to be kept are also closed.” ending”.

A cat sits on a table at Table A Raccoon Café in Seoul, in a photo taken on April 2, 2020.

In a photo taken on April 2, 2020, a cat sits on a table at Table A Raccoon Café in Seoul. (Credit: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

Government-run shelters for endangered abandoned animals are in danger of being filled, so the environment ministry is building more such facilities, he said, including one for non-threatened “exotic wildlife”.

Zoo and aquarium licensing sets certain standards for animal enclosures, staffing, disease management and safety and requires periodic inspections, Jung said.

“With this, I believe a better environment will be provided for animals as animal welfare education is more enforced,” Jang said.

But the law has worried some business owners, who say the government’s measures don’t go far enough to reduce harm to cafes, or their resident animals.

Koo Jung-hwan, owner of the Meerkat Café in Seoul, says he is undecided whether to get involved in a legal dispute, close his business or apply for an indoor zoo license. Given the grace period, she plans to keep her business open for now, but expressed concern about the possibility of other cafes abandoning their animals.

“The law bans animal cafes, but it does not give alternatives or solutions as to what to do with the animals. The government should have thought about it,” he said.

He said, “I have to keep them with me for the rest of my life because they are my family. It is my duty to take care of them.”

next steps

On the other side of the debate, some activists and advocates say the law does not go far enough because it only focuses on cafes that display wildlife, meaning “pets” or “livestock”. Cafés with animals classified as ‘non-essential’ are exempt from the rules. , whether it concerns dogs and cats or ferrets and sheep.

“These exceptions can be exploited,” Jung said. He said animal welfare laws in South Korea “are not so strongly enforced” compared to some European countries with strict regulations. However, he said, authorities are unlikely to expand the law to include pets and livestock, which could decimate the animal café industry and small farms across the country.

South Korea

A staff member holds a wallaby at an animal cafe in Seoul, South Korea on March 31, 2020. (Credit: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

He said, “Because the owners of these companies have a right to survive, I don’t think the state can impose this.” “It’s like a double-edged sword. Some people… tell us we can’t take it.” “People’s livelihoods should be taken away, while animal rights activists want all these establishments to close their doors.”

More proposals are being prepared. The government-run National Institute of Ecology has suggested guidelines such as starting educational programs at animal cafes, requiring visitors to wear gloves before handling animals and limiting time with each animal to only one or two minutes, Jang said. And although progress is slow, new laws encourage it.

He said, “It’s good to see that the things I had hoped for earlier are slowly becoming reality.” He said the next step is to secure more funding to improve facilities at zoos and aquariums. “I believe our country can do this.” it”.

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