Cat cafés have been popular in Japan for over a decade, and it’s easy to see why. In cramped cities like Tokyo, where residents often don’t have space to accommodate a pet, cat cafés let customers cuddle and hang out with domesticated felines, without the responsibility that comes with ownership.
The cats serve as a stress reliever for many, and some sociologists believe they fill a void in the country, which is home to a large aging population and comparatively few children.
But over the last year, a new and exotic twist on the old trend has gained popularity, and it’s a lot more bizarre. Japanese residents are flocking to owl cafés, where the decor and even the menus are raptor-themed. Their biggest draw is that they also hold live owls, some of which patrons can pick up and pet.
“I don’t agree with this treatment of wildlife,” said January Bill, a board member of the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association and co-director of the Humboldt Wildlife Care Center in California. “I don’t think it’s a fair life for them to live...I’m kind of horrified.”
The issue of using owls in a commercial business raises some ethical issues—among them the question of whether the animals were poached from the wild, or bred in captivity. Pictures from some of the cafés show owls that are captive-bred, identified by the bands encircling their talons.
Kate Marden, a licensed falconer and owner of the West Coast Falconry Center in California, says that while the idea of using animals as public entertainment doesn’t exactly sit well with her, the owls in the photos do look well-cared for and calm. “I’m looking at a bird with a very clean perch, healthy feathers and a beautiful beak” she said, while viewing the images online. “These are some of the things we look for birds in captivity.”
Marden wonders if the owls are kept inside the café around the clock, or taken out for exercise. Raptors in the wild do stay mostly perched, but on average spend about 20 minutes a day in flight, she said, and owl-café attractions would need that same level of activity.
But how safe is it for people to handle these birds? According to Marden, not very. “I have a problem with them allowing people to pet and hold and touch the birds,” she said. “They give the public the assumption that these birds respond to physical affection and are cute and cuddly and okay to touch.”
According to the International Owl Center, even owls bred in captivity don’t typically like to be handled and may suddenly lash out because of it. Though we didn’t find any reports of customers in Japan getting injured, even experienced falconers have lost an eye or incurred other permanent injuries when an owl suddenly decided it had enough of being touched.
Despite the dangers, plenty are still captivated by the idea of spending time with the birds. But for them, J.K. Rowling seems to provide the best advice. After her Harry Potter series inadvertently popularized the misguided notion of keeping owls as pets, Rowling said in a public statement, “If your owl-mania seeks concrete expression, why not sponsor an owl at a bird sanctuary where you can visit and know that you have secured him or her a happy, healthy life.”