On the other side of the partition, delighted customers sip lattes and snap selfies with the animals in a scene that is playing out across South Korea.
But the cafes have also stoked controversy, with animal welfare advocates long pushing for tighter restrictions or even an outright ban on such businesses.
The growing pushback prompted the South Korean government to clamp down with a set of new laws that went into effect in December, effectively prohibiting cafes from displaying live wild animals unless they are registered as zoos or aquariums.
Experts say while it’s a positive step, more needs to be done, given the law’s narrow scope and opposition from business owners who argue their livelihoods are at risk.
“Since everything has to do with money … I think the effects of (the law) will be very minimal,” said Jang Ji-deok, general manager of the Department of Zoological Management at the National Institute of Ecology, which advised the government on the legislation.
“However, (the law’s introduction) still means that things are gradually getting better.”
Rise of the animal cafe
Since the world’s first cat cafe opened in Taiwan in 1998, the craze has spread internationally, with many cafes opening across South Korea in the early 2010s. At a typical animal cafe, customers can enjoy drinks or food while petting or feeding the furry residents – an especially novel concept in urban centers where opportunities to interact with non-domesticated animals are few.
But the animals on display in Korea quickly expanded beyond your typical housecat – one cafe in Hongdae, for example, draws in visitors with its fluffy sheep and sheep-themed interior.
Seoul resident Kang Aesol said she recently visited the sheep cafe, having heard about it for years. She described the visit as a way to “gain peace of mind” after spending long, frustrating days behind a computer at work.
“When you see the innocence of animals, doesn’t the anger in your heart melt away?” she said. “The sheep seemed at ease, and so did I.”
Until the recently amended laws, there were few regulations in place. Under the previous animal protection act, it was only illegal to collect or trade endangered species. That meant wild animals like raccoons, livestock such as sheep, and other animals seen as novelties were fair game for pet cafes – which were further shielded by their official business registration as restaurants or rest areas.
And with surging demand, big profits beckoned.
“Owners who run regular cafes, restaurants, and other stores but are having difficulty operating them because they’re not making sales!! Try switching to a pet cafe, which is popular these days. Your profits will make a huge difference!!” advises Aevan, a Korea-based pet business consulting company, on its website.
Under its business model, Aevan estimates that a dog cafe would cost a minimum of $40,000 to launch – and could bring in more than $15,000 a month in net profit.
Social media has also played a role; a quick Google search brings up countless travel blogs, YouTube videos, and Instagram posts about Korean pet cafes. One Samoyed dog cafe in Seoul has more than 81,000 Instagram followers, and the line for entry often stretches out the door.
What the critics say
As animal cafes proliferated, criticism followed.
Local media reports have pointed to the animals’ small, cramped living spaces; the stress caused by constant touching and handling by visitors; health problems from poor diet, with visitors often given treats to feed the animals; and other gaps in care such as insufficient enrichment or grooming.
Many businesses do have rules such as banning customers from picking up certain animals or not allowing children below a certain age to enter.
Kang said the sheep cafe she visited had rules to prevent customers from startling the sheep; there was also a sink for customers to wash their hands before and after petting the animals.
She said she only stroked the sheep “very carefully” a few times, afraid further handling would make them uncomfortable, and spent the rest of the visit watching from a distance “as they ate, chewed their cud, and rested among themselves.”
“When you hear the term ‘animal cafe,’ you may have preconceptions about animal abuse, but after learning about this (cafe), I thought it was a really good system,” she said. “The sheep looked very healthy and did not appear anxious.”
But not all cafes have these systems in place – and the risks may be higher depending on the animal species, experts say.
“Through physical contact, not only are the animals affected, but it can also affect those who are touching them as well, such as the possibility of zoonotic diseases spreading. Despite this, visitors and trainees continue to (touch) them for the sake of having the full experience,” said Jang, from the National Institute of Ecology.
“The same goes for feeding the animals,” he said, adding many indoor zoos and cafes close on Mondays “because that is when all the animals get sick from eating the food given by visitors.”
Despite years of lobbying, previous attempts to introduce regulations have stalled – including a proposed amendment to the Animal Protection Act that ultimately failed.
But, Jang said, the new legislation enacted last month reflects growing concern in the government toward “cases of venomous and dangerous animals being displayed and sold indiscriminately in the country” – as well as growing pressure from the public.
Under the new amendments in the Wildlife Protection Act, only facilities officially registered as zoos or aquariums are allowed to exhibit “live wild animals.” Existing animal cafes now have four years to either obtain registration as a zoo or aquarium, or shut down, according to the law – with the grace period intended to minimize any animal abandonment by cafes closing.
“A lot of raccoon and other animal cafes closed due to Covid-19,” Jang said. “The reality is, with these cafes shutting down, a lot of these animals are being abandoned and the places that are supposed to take them in are also closing.”
A government-run shelter for abandoned endangered animals is at risk of overflowing, so the Environmental Ministry is now building more such facilities, including one for non-endangered “exotic wildlife,” he said.
Jang added that the licensing for zoos and aquariums sets certain standards for animal enclosures, staffing and personnel, disease and safety management, and demands regular inspections.
“With this, I believe better environments for animals will be provided as there is more enforcement of education on animals’ welfare,” Jang said.
But the law has worried some business owners, who say the government’s measures don’t do enough to cushion the blow to cafes – or their resident animals.
Koo Jung-hwan, the owner of a meerkat cafe in Seoul, says he’s at a crossroads on whether to make a legal dispute, close his business, or apply to be licensed as an indoor zoo. Given the grace period, he plans to keep his business open for now – but expressed concern about other cafes potentially abandoning their animals.
“The law prohibits animal cafes, but it doesn’t provide any alternatives or solutions such as what to do with the animals. The government should’ve thought about that,” he said, adding that he would keep his meerkats even if his cafe eventually closes.
“I have to keep them for the rest of their lives as they’re my family,” he said. “I have a duty to look after them.”
On the other side of the debate, some activists and advocates say the law doesn’t go far enough because it only focuses on cafes displaying wildlife – meaning cafes with animals classed as “pets” or “livestock” are exempt from the regulations, whether that be dogs and cats or ferrets and sheep.
These exceptions “could be taken advantage of,” Jang said, adding that animal welfare laws are “not as strongly implemented” in South Korea compared to some European countries with stricter rules. However, he said, authorities are unlikely to expand the law to include pets and livestock, which could decimate the animal cafe industry and small ranches across the country.
“Because the owners of these businesses have a right to survival, I don’t think the state can enforce it,” he said. “It’s like a double-edged sword. Some people … are telling us that we can’t take people’s livelihoods away, while animal rights activists want all these establishments to close their doors.”
Further proposals are in the works; the government-owned National Institute of Ecology has suggested guidelines like introducing educational programs at animal cafes, requiring visitors to put on gloves before handling animals, and limiting them to only a minute or two with each animal, Jang said. And while progress is gradual, he’s buoyed by the new laws.
“It’s nice to see how the things that I once hoped for are slowly becoming a reality,” he said, adding that the next step is securing more funding for zoos and aquariums to improve their facilities. “I’m positive that our country can do it.”