Animal cafes in Seoul – Pet or pest? (Part 1)

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?

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Figure 1. Photo of customer with one of the raccoons at Blind Alley cafe in Seoul

Source: Refinery29

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).

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Figure 2. Rocket Raccoon in the film ‘The Guardian of Galaxy’ (left) and RJ in the film ‘Over the Hedge’

Source: Marvel and Animation Source

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Figure 3. Related questions to the Google search of ‘raccoon’ (Retrived on 20 November 2017)

Source: Google

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).

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Figure 4. An extract that was written by an American tourist who visited Blind Alley cafe in Seoul.

Source: Vice

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Figure 5. A photo of a customer taking a selfie with an albino raccoon at Blind Alley cafe in Seoul

Source: Refinery29

Concluding thoughts

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).

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Figure 6. Rules found at Blind Alley cafe and Meerkat Cafe in Seoul

Source: Becomingjihye and Ginabearsblog

[490 words]

References:

  • 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].
  • Wolch, J. (1996) Zoöpolis. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 7:2, 21-47.
  • Yeo, J. and H. Neo. (2010) Monkey business: human-animal conflicts in Urban Singapore. Social & Cultural Geography, 11: 7, 681-699.

  • Wolch, J., J. Emel and C. Wilbert. (2003) Reanimating cultural geography, in Anderson, K., M. Domosh, S. Pile and N. Thift, Handbook of Cultural Geography. London: Sage, 184-206.
  • MacGowan, B. J., L. A. Humberg, J. C. Beasley, T. L. DeVault, M. I. Retamosa and O. E. Rhodes. (2014) Corn and Soybean Crop Depredation by Wildlife. Purdue Extension, 6: 06, 1-14.
  • Philo, C. (1995) Animals, geography and the city: notes on inclusions and exclusions. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 13, 655–681.
  • Hovorka, A. (2008) Transspecies urban theory: chickens in an African city. Cultural Geographies, 15, 95-117.

     

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3 thoughts on “Animal cafes in Seoul – Pet or pest? (Part 1)”

  1. Indeed, I find animal representations by avenues such as the media (and in this case, an animal cafe) having strong impacts in shaping our perception of these animals – they could either be portrayed as transgressors that ought to be removed or ‘cute-little-beings’ that have come to be part of our ‘borderland community’. Very often, such representations are human-centric, in that their representations depends on how we want them to be viewed and how we make sense/ value of their existence in our everyday life. I have also explored something similar in my post on Urban Animals I and II if you are interested (:

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    1. Hello Wei Xuan and Yi Ming!

      It certainly is interesting to read about animals and their place in human society. As Wolch (1996) exposes, we see that Animals are the victims of Capitalism to the environment and the nonhuman animal life, where animals are merely treated as a commodity or object, ignoring their own realities and worldviews.

      Hence, despite the tempting prospects of meeting adorable animals, I have strongly been against the torture of these animals and I will keep resisting these spaces of unjust.

      Best Regards! Joey

      Like

      1. Hi Joey,

        I think torture might be too strong a word to describe animals in pet cafes. 😦 I believe if it is indeed very uncomfortable for these animals, visitors to these cafes would recognise this and stage some kind of protest – a close example (and one that I shared with Yi Ming as well) was the protests by Singaporeans against a dog circus show http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/china-dog-circus-show-axed-after-online-flak.

        I do agree that animals may also be disadvantaged and how can we say what’s good for them? But sometimes some human intervention may be better than none like in the case of a wounded otter found in Singapore, which was then caught, treated and released back. http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/wounded-otter-pup-successfully-caught-treated-in-first-such-operation I personally follow the https://www.facebook.com/OtterWatch/ community and prior to the rescue, there was indeed a lot of thought and preparation put into ensuring the most comfort for the injured otter, and also ensuring that his family will not be alarmed. Yet with good intentions, there’ll always be naysayers (e.g. saying that they’re going against nature).

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