In case you’ve been living under a rock, a dog café called Wagging Tails recently went under fire after a customer tweeted her negative experience at the café. According to her, the employees were both hitting the dogs and hitting on her. Scouring through the year’s worth of bad reviews left on the café’s Facebook page, it’s safe to say that many experienced the same.
While the story of the employees harassing the female customers is unusual, the part about them abusing the animals isn’t new. Many animal cafés (mostly dog cafés) have had the same stories swirling about them. Back when I was in college, a dog café opened a stone’s throw away from campus. The dogs were cute, but they all seemed sad and tired. Customers would try to wake up sleeping dogs to play with them; we heard rumors that the employees would tranquilize unruly dogs. I don’t know how true those stories were, but there was always something off about the dogs. I’ve visited other dog cafés since, and they also left me feeling something similarly off about the animals. Don’t they smell weird? Don’t they look jumpy? Don’t they look sad? Chalking it up to not being that much of a dog person, I pushed those thoughts away. Maybe I shouldn’t have.
When does a café cross the line between entertainment and exploitation?
Growing up a cat mom and spending some time rescuing cats, I’ve grown to differentiate between people who loved animals because they’re creatures that need to be protected, and people who loved animals only when they’re cute or cool-looking. How many times have you seen a self-confessed cat lover shoo away a puspin because it was ugly? A dog-loving family that gave up their dog because it wasn’t as cute anymore? When I gave away a kitten I had rescued to her new family, I cried as the new owner carried her out the driveway. I don’t know how people can give up a pet that they cared for just because the animal grew older.
In this same way, I’ve started divvying up two kinds of pet cafés: socially-conscious ones, and exploitative ones. The former is pretty self-explanatory, cafés that are run with the goal of championing animal rights, usually filled with an all-puspin cast (but not always). Think Maginhawa’s now-defunct Cat Café Manila, whose puspins are adoptable. These places typically partner with animal welfare organizations, and/or ensure that their cats receive enough nap time away from people. Noticed I mentioned cats? Well, the only pet cafés I know of (and I know many) that enforced these rules and animal loving attitudes were cat cafés.
However, not all pet cafés are like that. Like I mentioned before, I’ve been to ones where the animals always seemed sad, where stories of employees manhandling the animals abounded. These were always pet cafés that rested on having animals that were exotic and/or purebred. Those always made me uneasy. When your only selling point is that you have purebred cats, you’re resting on pretty (cats). Or: these places weren’t targeting people who cares about how the animals were doing, but on how pretty they looked. This is what exploitation looks like.
It’s a widespread problem: in Singapore, many pet cafes have been called out for animal abuses. Owl cafes in Japan have also been tagged because of the unhealthy and inappropriate living conditions most of the owls are kept in. The moment an animal is harmed, it’s no longer a cutesy place but an institution that houses abuse.
And when I think about it, of course these exploitative places would end up abusing their animals. There’s no real effort to train their employees right or make sure that the animals get rest because it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that the customers had a cute picture of the animal, buy a drink, and come again.
These are the same kind of customers who once wrote on one of the all-puspin café’s suggestion board with, “Get more cats with breed :),” completely missing the point of the café.
When it comes down to it, the only way to stop these from happening is to change the kind of customers who visit these places. Cat Café Manila closed down earlier this year, while unethical pet cafés are still running. This sends the message that exploitation is profitable while ethics isn’t. This should be the opposite. How do we fight against abuse of animals in pet cafés? Stop going to abusive ones, and if you see it happen, scream as loud as you can.
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