The animal café craze has spread across Asia and the rest of the world, leaving Seoul with no exception to this phenomenon of pairing coffee and desserts with adorable creatures. Since the opening of first animal café in Taipei in 1998 (Galloway, 2012), the range of animals offered have transcended beyond the popular pets, to a menagerie of exotic animals. However, animal cafes, particularly those with animals such as raccoons, meerkats, which are not familiar to our usual homes, provide a unique dimension to the topic of animals in cities. It blurs the common binary domestic and wild (Wolch, 1996), the associated fondness and distaste towards these animals (which will be discussed in this post), while also raising questions of ethics.
Raccoons – Pet or pest?
Figure 1. Photo of customer with one of the raccoons at Blind Alley cafe in Seoul
One of the more popular and exotic animal cafes in Seoul are raccoon cafes such as Blind Alley (Figure 1). While a corgi roams around freely in this café, the two raccoons kept separately in the ‘raccoons room’ takes the spotlight. These raccoons highlight how humans’ interactions and interpretation of animals shape their attitude and socio-spatial practices towards them (Yeo and Neo, 2010).
In popular media, raccoons have been portrayed as intelligent (Rocket Raccoon in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ film) but deceitful (in the film ‘Over the Hedge’), and often as a thief (in the ‘Sly Cooper’ video game series) and a havoc-wreaker (in the film ‘Furry Vengeance’) (Figure 2). These nuances serve to ‘promote certain facets of a ‘perceived reality’ (Entman, 1993: 51), shaping public perception towards raccoons. In addition, A quick search of ‘raccoons’ on Google displays other questions that people have asked, such as ‘How do you get rid of a raccoon?’ and ‘What can I use to deter raccoons?’, with 4 out of 6 of them having a negative connotation (Figure 3).
Figure 2. Rocket Raccoon in the film ‘The Guardian of Galaxy’ (left) and RJ in the film ‘Over the Hedge’
Figure 3. Related questions to the Google search of ‘raccoon’ (Retrived on 20 November 2017)
Traditionally and increasingly in ‘borderland’ communities where wild raccoons and humans share spaces, raccoons have been viewed negatively as pests (Wolch, Emel and Wilbert, 2003). Their search for food often results in breaking into poultry houses to feed on chickens and their eggs, scavenging rubbish bins (and toppling them) and also damaging of plants. For example, in a two-year study, raccoons were responsible for 87% of the damage to corn plants in Indiana, US (Macgowen et al., 2004). This image of raccoons from popular media and experiences in ‘borderland’ communities contrasts greatly to the adorable fluffy creatures that visitors of raccoon cafes are swooning over (Figure 4 and 5).
Figure 4. An extract that was written by an American tourist who visited Blind Alley cafe in Seoul.
Figure 5. A photo of a customer taking a selfie with an albino raccoon at Blind Alley cafe in Seoul
There are various factors contributing to this distinctively different attitude towards raccoons. The clean café environment, controlled setting with rules to adhere to (the process of taking off shoes and having the hands of customers sanitised) (Figure 6), the often domesticated nature and well-grooming of these animals send a subconscious positive signal to visitors. As such, interactions under such conditions shape visitors’ fondness towards the raccoons and inclusion into the shared space, with no protest of them being out-of-place (Philo, 1995: 664; Hovorka, 2008).
Figure 6. Rules found at Blind Alley cafe and Meerkat Cafe in Seoul
- Galloway, L. (2012) Feline fun in Japan’s cat cafe. BBC, [online]. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20120402-worldwide-weird-feline-fun-in-japans-cat-cafes [Accessed 18 Nov. 2017].
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Hovorka, A. (2008) Transspecies urban theory: chickens in an African city. Cultural Geographies, 15, 95-117.