Japan's Owl Cafes: Harmful or a Hoot?

Owls in a Japanese cafe.

Ace of Diamond / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

From cat cafes to bunny cafes, Japan has long had an obsession with pairing cute critters with cups of coffee, but the country's latest venture has many crying fowl.

Several owl cafes have popped up in Japan in the past year. The coffee shops double as petting zoos, allowing visitors to stroke the birds or even perch a raptor on their shoulder or head.

Practices differ among cafes. Some don't charge a cover but do require you to purchase a drink. Others require a fee upfront and limit how much time customers can spend with the birds.

A popular owl cafe in Tsukishima known as Fukuro no Mise keeps curtains over its windows and admits guests for hour-long sessions.

There’s no cover charge, but guests must buy a drink, which range in price from $8 to $10. Owl-themed food can also be purchased.

Most of the birds are tethered to wire trays, and customers are free to pet them as long as they do so softly and from front to back.

Guests who wish to hold an owl may do so, but a staff member must place the bird on the person and the guest must hold onto the bird’s tether for the duration of the visit.

The cafes seem to be a hit, with visitors often lining up outside to await a turn to sip coffee with the raptors.

However, animal advocates have criticized the cafes, arguing that owls are wild animals that don’t like to be touched.

Because the birds are nocturnal, critics say that being kept in busy cafes that are patronized during daylight can be stressful for the animals.

"We would have serious concerns for the welfare of wild animals kept in captivity in this way in the U.K.," Dr. Ros Clubb, senior wildlife scientist for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, told The Daily Mail. "The conditions shown in the pictures are totally unsuitable."

Cafes like Fukuro no Mise, as well as Japan’s other animal cafes — which feature cats, dogs, rabbits, goats and reptiles — are popular destinations in cities like Tokyo, where pets often aren’t allowed in apartments.

Owls have gained widespread popularity with the success of the Harry Potter franchise, and owl sanctuaries have reported an influx of owls that were adopted as pets and abandoned by their owners.

The trend prompted Potter author J.K. Rowling to make the following statement on behalf of the Suffolk Owl Sanctuary:

"If anybody has been influenced by my books to think an owl would be happiest shut in a small cage and kept in a house, I would like to take this opportunity to say as forcefully as I can: You are wrong," she said.

"The owls in Harry Potter books were never intended to portray the true behavior or preference of real owls. If your owl-mania seeks concrete expression, why not sponsor an owl at a bird sanctuary where you can visit and know that you have secured him or her a happy, healthy life."