Art and culture

Asia’s strange obsession with animal cafes

Asia's obsession with animal cafes. Words by JENNIFER LIM

To be surrounded by a roomful of cats: fun or freaky? That’s the question for anyone who passes by one of the many cat cafes found in Asian cities. Some might be confounded by the idea, others might be repulsed. Let me help you to understand the appeal, as I sit here typing from my favourite cat cafe in Seoul while trying to keep a cat off my laptop.

As a freelance writer, I come here often to do work and know the cats well. Other visitors are holding out treats in the open hall area, vying for the attention of the dozen other felines. Customers pay an entrance fee that includes a drink, and they can stay for as long as they want. When a cat chooses to sit on your lap, most people feel obligated to stay until the cat budges, which can be quite a while. It is always a quiet, relaxing environment at cat cafes. And, for animal lovers, having cats around can be soothing and entertaining.

The first cat cafe opened in Taipei in 1998 and the concept became extremely popular in Japan. Cat cafes are now widespread in Asia, and the idea has made its way across the world. Many people visit cat cafes because they enjoy the animals but are unable to have pets at home because of health reasons, the cost, landlord restrictions or lack of space – the latter being a particular problem in Asian cities. Some customers are prospective cat owners who want to see if the pets are really for them.

Cat and dog cafes are the most common type of animal cafe, but there are many others in Asia. In Seoul, I’ve been to a cafe that has a few raccoons, and I’ve visited a meerkat cafe, where one meerkat kept trying to burrow up my trouser leg to look at a bandage I was wearing. Japan has cafes featuring owls, snakes and hedgehogs. Most animal cafes have numerous rules on how to treat the animals, and in some cases customers are really just having a coffee next to the animals (such as with falcons) and are not meant to touch them.

Exoticism is one attraction. It’s also just fun to be petting animals while meeting up with friends. I’m also extremely shy around strangers but cat cafes have helped me meet new people by talking to other customers about the animals. I met a few of my best friends at this cafe and we regularly catch up here. It’s almost like my second home.

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