This week’s column deals with two queries that highlight cultural differences in attitudes to animal welfare.
First up, JJ from the U.S. contacted Lifelines after visiting one of the “owl cafes” that have mushroomed all over Japan in the past year or two. The basic premise is that customers pay a fee to enter and interact with the owls for a set period of time. This usually involves stroking the birds and having them sit on your gloved hand. Drink and food services may also be available, depending on the shop. These owl cafes have received a lot of media attention, both domestically and abroad, and seem to be quite popular with foreign tourists. JJ writes:
There is an owl exhibit where people can go see and touch live owls that are chained to their perches. These owls seem very unhappy in this place. They are unable to get away because their legs are chained and are forced to let people touch them whether they like it or not. It seemed very inhumane and we left there feeling sad and upset for the owls being held captive.
I was able to identify the place JJ visited and made contact with the president of the company, which operates several similar establishments in tourist spots around Japan. The president listened to the concerns expressed by the reader, but fearing a negative backlash, he declined to be named and asked that the shop’s location not be revealed.
He did explain that the owls used in his company’s cafes are all hand raised and are used to being around people. They are not tethered at night and can move around in their cages. I asked if he didn’t think being touched and stared at under artificial lights is stressful for such birds, which would naturally be active at night and free to roam over a wide area. He replied: “Our staff take good care of the birds and we do not think they are subjected to undue stress. We believe owls can have a place as therapy animals, since many people say they feel an iyashi — healing effect — after interacting with the birds.”
Putting aside my personal feelings about subjecting owls to this experience, I felt it would be unfair to single out this company. To complicate matters, there are several chains of owl cafes with almost identical names. From my investigations, this company’s method of operation is standard among owl cafes, so in that respect it is no better and no worse than the majority.
Friends and acquaintances that have visited an owl cafe say the birds are generally in good health and the premises are clean. Foreign nationals, however, usually added that they left feeling sad after seeing the tethered birds, while Japanese remarked on their cuteness and the “healing effect.”
Animal advocate Maho Cavalier, the international relations liaison for ALIVE (All Life in a Viable Environment), shares our reader’s view on the owl cafe boom.
“Owls are nocturnal, yet these cafes are usually open during the day. Owls also have a sophisticated sense of hearing, so they can catch various kinds of sounds,” Cavalier explains. “During the day, while the cafes are open, people keep coming close to them to play with or pet them. So, considering the natural habitats of owls, being placed in a busy cafe or shopping area would cause great stress.”
She also expresses concern about what would happen to all the owls once the boom subsides and there is less money to be made in the business.
JJ says she tried contacting a variety of organizations in Japan about the welfare of the owls, but since nobody is breaking the law with these cafes, nothing is likely to change soon. Cavalier suggests writing reviews on platforms like Trip Advisor to tell other foreign tourists about the situation is a good place to start.
The second query is from LJ, a Tokyo-based reader and owner of an 11-year-old-dachshund dog. Two years ago the dog was diagnosed with perineal hernia, when weakness in the muscles in the pelvic floor caused some of the pelvic contents to protrude into the region around the animal’s anus. The condition can afflict both dogs and cats, but it is most commonly found in middle-aged dogs that haven’t been castrated. Surgery is expensive and in around 20 percent of cases, it is unsuccessful with the hernia recurring.
As JL is on a tight budget, she decided against surgery but has since been faced with the unpleasant task of having to manually help her dog go to the bathroom, which is painful for both the dog to endure and for her to have to go through. She writes:
I believe this has taken away the last remains of his pride and dignity. He can’t go to the bathroom, nor enjoy his walk or playing as he hardly can stand on all four paws. This is no life for him. Where can I find a kind, caring vet who wants to help my dog by giving him a pentobarbital injection? I refuse to let him die with others in a “gas-box.”
Euthanasia by injection of sodium pentobarbital is recommended by The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) as the most humane method of euthanasia for animals and the one most commonly used by vets. It is administered via IV, typically with the animal being held by a caregiver. The “gas-box” mentioned by JL is euthanasia through the use of carbon monoxide in a gas chamber, and the method is routinely used to dispose of unwanted dogs and cats at Japan’s animal-control centers (hokensho).
Mie Kikuchi, a pet therapist who works with cats and dogs, says that many Japanese people believe in trying to save an animal’s life right up till the end, and so vets do not want to administer euthanasia.
“In my experience it is case-by-case, but when it comes to the issue of euthanasia, it depends not only on the owner’s wishes but also on whether the vet will go along with it,” she says.
Mioko Honda, a licensed vet and an associate professor at Yamazaki Gakuen Daigaku, an institution specializing in animal health technology, agrees.
“When an animal’s health worsens beyond a certain point, Western vets will typically offer euthanasia as an option, and many owners choose it to end their pet’s suffering. However, this isn’t the case in Japan,” Honda says. “One major difference is the overriding belief among Japanese vets that their job is to sustain life, and so as long as an animal’s life can be sustained with medical techniques, they will advise this course of treatment. In my view, at least, another underlying factor is that vets who routinely offer euthanasia to patients may gain a reputation as being ‘too unskilled’ to treat animals with medical techniques, and nobody wants to risk that.”
Honda says that costs for euthanasia with IV can range between ¥8,000 and ¥25,000, depending on the location and the size of the pet.
I spoke to animal rescue and rehoming organization ARK’s Tokyo office, and the representative invited JL to contact them directly about trying to find a sympathetic vet in her area of Tokyo.