Animal cafes in Seoul – Ethics: commodification or protection? (Part 2)

In line with the booming animal café business, it is also worth examining the precarity these animals in cafes face, particularly in terms of commodification social relationships with animals. For example, an ethnographic research in Tokyo had found that these cats in cafes have become ‘the affective object through which patrons seek a sense of healing and relaxation’ (Plourde, 2014: 115). Animal cafes are often seen as a place of ‘relaxation’ and a ‘refuge to overstressed young people’, such that animal cafes are used to meet the needs of people (Robinson, 2017). Furthermore, commodification may take another form, where animal cafes are frequented to portray a certain kind of lifestyle. Photos of and with animals in cafes are taken and posted on social media, with implicit intent to show off that one is having a good time (Lewallen, 2016). Therefore, visits to animal cafes can also be colloquially known as ‘doing it for the (Insta)gram’ (Figure 1). Power relations may then seem obvious when café owners are profiting from using these animals as attractions, and customers of using the interactions with cafe animals as a form of relaxation or display of lifestyle.

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Figure 1. Customers taking photos of a raccoon in Blind Alley cafe

Source: Refinery29

Ethics, however, may be complicated by the alternative predicaments of these animals if they were not at these animal cafes. There are a number of examples in Seoul whereby animals at these cafes were rescued. For example, it is widely known that the famous Blind Alley (raccoon) café did not start off as a designated raccoon café. The owner had rescued one of the raccoons that was to be sold to the fur trade in China (Video 1) and another was adopted from a breeder, where it’s a third-generation domesticate (Forde, 2016). Another example is Earth Cat Café, which houses 33 rescued cats and also offers the option of adoption (Im, 2017). In addition, animals in most cafes, such as Thanks Nature Café (sheep), Meerkate Café (meerkats and Arctic fox), are often domesticated pets of the owners.

Video 1. Video of the raccoon fur trade in China

Source: Animal Equality

Concluding thoughts

With a significant benefit of doubt towards the intentions of these owners, it might be better having these animals surrounded by love and people, as compared to being left alone at home, abandoned, or killed in animal trade. Thus, this highlights the political complexities of human-animal relationships and how such relationships depend on the socio-spatial context.

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  • Plourde, L. (2014) Cat Cafes, Affective Labor, and the Healing Boom in Japan. Japanese Studies, 34: 2, 115-133.
  • Robinson, A. S. (2017) Animal Socialities: Healing and Affect in Japanese Animal Cafés. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh.
  • Lewallen, J. (2016) When Image isn’t Everything: The Effects of Instagram Frames on Social Comparison. The Journal of Social Media in Society, 5: 2, 108-133.

2 thoughts on “Animal cafes in Seoul – Ethics: commodification or protection? (Part 2)”

  1. What you mentioned about the ‘political complexities of human-animal relationships and how such relationships depend on the socio-spatial context’ really got me thinking about what I used to do when I was a kid – visits to the zoo. There are similar articles out there debating about the ethics of zoo operations and their breeding programmes… but I share the same view as you about the benefits > cons of such programmes IF the animals are indeed ‘better off’ with such arrangements… though really, who are ‘we’ to decide what might be better off for ‘them’ …hmmm…


    1. Hi Yi Ming,

      Yes I agree this will always be a political question and will depend on individual contexts. I guess, sadly, we as humans are still privileged and welding the power on determining what’s acceptable.

      This may sometimes benefit animals, for example protests from Singaporeans led to the cancellation of the dog circus in Singapore (Yay!) and how some animals may have gone extinct without the intricate care and conditions provided by zoos


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