Coffee with raccoons: Taipei’s animal cafes serve up ethical quandary
Coffee with raccoons: Taipei’s animal cafes serve up ethical quandary (2020/07/19)From owls to cats and hedgehogs to alligators, if you can find it at a zoo, there’s a good chance you can pet it at a cafe. In Taipei, animal cafes are a thriving trade. They sell drinks and desserts, but the main attraction is their animal stars. In June, these cafes shot to notoriety, when a leaked video showed the reprehensible treatment of an animal behind the scenes of a cafe. It’s raised questions about a business model that’s gone, for the most part, unchallenged. Are animal cafes legal? Are they ethical? Formosa News reporter Stephany Yang finds out.Rocket the raccoon scales the fence, scurrying from one end to the other.It plays with a ball as people line up to take photos.Cafe customerIt’s kind of scary, but it’s pretty cute. I was expecting there to be some interaction. A few weeks ago, this raccoon cafe was still hugely popular with Taipei locals. It served up coffee and desserts, along with the companionship of inquisitive raccoons.Tang Yueh-juiOwnerDo not be fooled by its cute appearance. It is still wild at heart. Be careful of getting bitten. If you have a watch, necklace, earrings, or money in your pocket, it might make away with it like a thief.Two weeks after our visit, a customer video of the owner in a back room went viral. It led to all four raccoons being confiscated.The raccoon struggles desperately but can’t escape. It wails as the border collie latches on. The owner stands by, watching. The customer who filmed the video accused the owner of habitually mistreating his animals.CustomerThey always said it was only a rumor. But it’s true that a raccoon and a fox died in his care.Then a former employee of the cafe revealed comments by the owner, who admitted to hitting a raccoon with a tennis racket, until the animal was catatonic and bleeding. Within days of the storm on social media, Tang was charged with violating animal welfare laws.Stephany Yang Formosa News reporterThe Taipei City Animal Protection Office inspected the store and charged Tang with a violation of the Animal Protection Act. He will face a fine of NT$45,000. The store is now closed. The four raccoons have been sent to the zoo.Tang Yueh-juiOwnerIt was because raccoons are very aggressive during mating season. They bite. Border collies are herders of sheep, and I thought it would be a good idea to have the border collie herd the raccoon back into the cage. I’m sorry. I’ve set a bad example. This animal cafe is closed, but there is no shortage of them in Taipei. Taiwan’s capital city is home to dozens of animal cafes, some more humane than others. This is the world’s first cat cafe, established in 1998. Here, customers interact with rescue cats that are free to roam. A more recent addition to the scene, called Lang Lang Don’t Cry, is part-restaurant and part-animal shelter. Customers can meet strays while they eat, and adopt the ones that win their heart.Hung Shih-minOwner If an applicant meets the basic requirements, the adoption process can begin. They’ll be asked to fill out the application form. Then there will be shop visits and home visits.Since its launch in 2015, Lang Lang Don’t Cry has found homes for 650 animals, mostly cats and tugou, the local variety of mongrel. Elsewhere in Taipei, much more exotic animals are available to pet.It’s a vast menagerie, from hedgehogs and poison dart frogs to alligators. Since the first cafe opened in 1998, the concept has widened to animals typically only seen in a zoo.Sera LinTaiwan Animal Equality AssociationIn the span of five years, there’s been a great increase in such cafes. … There are a lot of internet celebrities who go and take photos with the wild animals. And actually in Taiwan, there are no restrictions on what you can keep as a pet. There are no special restrictions on matters including pet breeding. For example, if I want to buy a raccoon, as long as I get one that is legally imported, I can breed and sell it with no restrictions.There are now at least 47 cafes in Taiwan that showcase animals. Business is fueled by public curiosity and the desire to get up close with unusual animals.Liu Yu-hsinStore managerThis cafe has been open for about five years. The hedgehogs have been a part of the store for about a year. Now our customer base is different – we have children and parents. Since having the hedgehogs, our revenue has grown 60% to 70%. The main purpose is also to allow more people to really understand the hedgehog, its habits and so on.This Taipei coffee shop houses hedgehogs, chameleons, spiders, sugar gliders, poison dart frogs, green iguanas, and more. Many are kept in cages and taken out to interact with patrons at set times. Vita Store ownerFor the animal interactions in our store, we don’t decide in advance which animals can come out to interact with the customers. Because sometimes when the weather is very hot, certain animals need to rest. We will not disturb them. But even when shop owners have the best of intentions, some experts argue that keeping wild animals in a cafe is never in their best interests.Jack LeeVeterinarianI know some reptiles like lizards or iguana – they’re not so good at interacting with humans. The petting actually disturbs their life. Rabbits are easily startled, so I don’t think they’re good. … Nocturnal species – they’re usually not good during the daytime, and people are not nocturnal so the activity is in the daytime. We are disturbing these nocturnal animals. I think those are not good for exhibition or companionship in a store.Lin Tai-chingEnvironment and Animal Society of TaiwanThey’re interacting with a stranger every time. The day can be eight or ten hours long. Over time, that puts pressure on the animal. There’s a term called stress, and stress will affect the physiology of the animal over time. There are stress-related diseases that have an adverse effect on the animal’s health over the long run.The suffering experienced by an animal doesn’t always manifest as a disease. Experts say distress can show up as repetitive behavior: pacing, tongue flicking, nibbling. Animals who are suffering may rock or swing back and forth, over and over. They may have hair loss due to excessive grooming.Sera LinTaiwan Animal Equality AssociationIf the animal has no way to act in its natural state, or if it’s in an oppressive, monotonous or dirty environment, that already constitutes abuse. An important indicator is whether he has compulsive behavior patterns. For instance, a raccoon that sways repeatedly, left and right. Currently, animal cafes occupy a loophole in Taiwan law. The government does regulate businesses that stage animal “performances,” which includes having them interact with people. But if businesses don’t charge directly for animal interaction, they do not need a permit and are not subject to regulation. Wu Ching-anTaipei Animal Protection OfficeThe animal performance law is still very new. These regulations are relatively wide-ranging, and we are still in the early stage of the regulatory process, the trial period. We still have to fine-tune the practical application. There’s a lot of fine print to work out.In the metropolis of Taipei, animal cafes meet a growing need for contact with nature. Their loyal patrons describe them as “therapeutic” and “relaxing,” an oasis in a world that can move too fast. But activists say it’s anything but for the animals involved, who can face unnatural confinement, stressful handling and sometimes outright abuse. Activists hope that as business booms and the industry thrives, Taiwan will take more responsibility for the creatures paying the price.