Owl cafés in Korea? An introduction to some of the main issues

Dr. Nial Moores, Birds Korea, June 17th

In late May, one of the nation’s most-watched reality TV shows featured an episode with a family visiting an owl café in Japan. The beloved young girl, her father and grandfather were given the chance to “play” with several of the captive owls, stroking and holding them (apparently without use of special gloves or without any veterinarians present). The experience seemed to be a well-intentioned attempt by her family to help the young child become less frightened of animals, by giving her the chance to see “cute owls” close-up.

It seems likely that such a program could stimulate interest in owl cafés in Korea.

After doing a quick google search and finding images that included one of a Ural Owl Strix uralensis wearing a magician’s hat,  I therefore sent a post to the Japanese Kantori Listserver to ask about owl cafés in Japan and their legality. I received two helpful mails. The first, from Neil Sheffield, described an owl café recently visited by some students: “Located in Kawasaki. Visitors need to make a reservation. When they arrive they have to take their coats off and are instructed about how to handle the owls. Then they are able to freely pick them up. Most of the owls have names and are on sale”.

The second mail, from Damon McKinlay, stated that, “Owl cafés have been popular in Japan for about five years now. Some of them have been around for a lot longer. There are various kinds, ranging from small family run cafés that just have a well-loved pet owl in the shop, to large cafés that exploit both native and exotic owls, hawks and eagles, displaying them and breeding them to sell as pets. Owl cafés in the middle of the spectrum, that keep about 10-20 owls for viewing and holding and that keep a handful of owls for breeding and selling are the most common, and have been featured in English media”.

Owl cafés of this kind seem to raise multiple troubling issues, not least because many visitors seem to enjoy the excitement of the experience without much sincere reflection (how many visitors have subsequently become members of conservation organisations or have modified their lifestyles to help conserve wild owls?).

This post is therefore intended as the first in a short series, aiming to introduce more about the ecology of owls; wildlife trade; and animal welfare issues. The views below are largely my own, written after some helpful communication about owls and owl cafés with two Kantori members in Japan (as above); with Dr. Christian Artuso (an avian biologist specialising in owls and their conservation with Bird Studies Canada); Dr. Richard Thomas (Global Communications Coordinator for TRAFFIC); and Charlie Moores (of Birds Korea and Birders Against Wildlife Crime, in the UK).

Some of the reasons to oppose the spread of owl cafés include:

  • The treatment of the owls at these cafés raises serious animal welfare issues. What kind of stress is experienced by a naturally secretive and nocturnal species, being exposed to bright lights and repeated close human contact and noise? What are the birds fed on to keep them so docile (or is this also a result of stress overload)? Have some of the owls been declawed to make them safer to handle?
  • Owls can be long-lived. If people can buy them as a fashion accessory, how well will they be treated in the months and years of remaining life?
  • The keeping and selling of owls raises serious legal issues. All owl species are listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES). That means all international trade of owls needs CITES permits (Appendix II) or is banned (Appendix I). In many countries, the taking of owls into captivity is already illegal. So how will birds used in owl cafés in Japan (and elsewhere) be “sourced”?  Here in the ROK, most owl species are listed as National Natural Monuments and three are on the formal National Red List developed by the Ministry of Environment (with Eurasian Eagle-owl Bubo bubo listed as nationally Vulnerable, Eastern Tawny Owl Strix [nivicolum] ma as nationally Vulnerable and Ural Owl as nationally Endangered). Owls, in common with most wild species, should also be given protection under the Wildlife Protection and Management Act, in which Article 9 states that “No one shall acquire, transfer, receive, transport or store wild animals captured, imported or brought into Korea in violation of this Act” and Article 14: “No one shall capture, collect, set loose, naturalize, process, distribute, keep, export, import, take out, bring in, damage or wither (hereinafter referred to as “capture, collect, etc.”) endangered wildlife”.  We are as yet unaware whether the articles and provisions of the Korean Animal Protection Act, enacted principally for the welfare of domesticated species, might potentially also relate to the keeping and displaying of owls, noting only that an online version of the Act on the Korea Animal Rights Advocates’ website includes Article 1: “The purpose of this act is to provide the adequate protection and management of animals by preventing their mistreatment and to guide Korean citizens in the care, safety and respect of animal.”
  • The use of owls, and other raptors, to promote business in this way seems likely to stimulate wildlife crime, as it increases the financial incentives for those who are willing to take eggs and young birds from nests illegally. Wildlife crime is a gravely serious business, causing great harm to individuals and species and in its challenge to the rule of law. A 2010 study found that “illegal trade in animals and animal products is a growing concern, with estimates of the cost ranging from US$10 billion up to US$20 billion globally per year… Offenders are often associated with other trafficking offences such as drugs, guns and humans and flow-on offences such as forgery, with the counterfeiting of CITES documents” (Wilson-Wilde 2010).
  • Illegal collection of wildlife can lead to declines in already scarce species. Several raptor species that used to breed commonly (such as the Northern Goshawk Accipiter gentilis) historically suffered unsustainable nest-robbing, contributing substantially to their extirpation in Korea as breeding species. Several such species now appear to be undergoing a slow recovery, and species like Little Owl Athene noctua plumipes and Ural Owl have only been confirmed as breeding species in the ROK during the past decade or so. What might happen to the wild populations of such species if owl cafés start to open in the ROK?   In Japan, according to Damon McKinlay, “in general it is illegal to keep a wild bird as a pet, so the cafés stay within the law by only keeping and breeding imported ‘pet’ owls, or by obtaining permits. Anyone can keep a wild bird if they obtain a permit for it. This loophole in the law has always existed and the Wild Bird Society of Japan has been fighting for a long time to get the law changed… morals aside, as long as owl and hawk breeders don’t admit to keeping birds caught in the wild they are (appear to be) operating within the law. Authorities have no way of knowing where the young owls were bought from… In my local area, I have seen both Ural Owl and Northern Goshawk chicks mysteriously disappear from nests, and I have no doubts at all that they were taken to be sold on the black market (This is the main reason why the Wild Bird Society opposes photographing and disclosing nesting bird locations). So owl cafés operate within the law, but it is obvious they are feeding a larger problem”.
  • Owl cafés potentially raise issues of human health. The prey fed to owls and other raptors (mostly rodents) can be a source of disease in humans.
  • The use of owls in this way further contributes to the prevalent attitude that the natural world is here primarily for our own species to control and to use how we like. The experience provided by such unnatural encounters helps to reinforce the usually unspoken belief that other species are here either to be eaten, to be used for entertainment, to profit from or to be killed. That is their “value”. And this, of course, is the underlying value system that has resulted in the industrial-scale slaughter of other animals for food (be they fish, cows, pigs or chickens); that is now driving the mass extinction of other species, many of which are considered lacking much value to people; and that drives the wholescale conversion of natural ecosystems into degraded, artificial landscapes (e.g. Saemangeum and the Four Rivers). It is a dangerously flawed value system that helps numb us to cruelty and exploitation; and blinds us to our own true position in the world, as one species whose survival is dependent on the health of other species and of natural eco-systems. Further impacts of this value system include the emergence of several diseases (including Poultry Flu and perhaps even MERS) and a rapidly-changing climate, detrimental to almost all life on earth.

Fortunately, a growing number of people are concerned about the exploitation of other species. In Japan, again according to DM, “Currently there is an ongoing controversy over a pachinko parlour (slot machine casino) in Hokkaido that displays a handful of live owls in the entrance 24 hours a day. This case has received a lot of online exposure and even some mainstream media coverage stemming from a popular online petition to have the owls freed. The change.org petition got 35,000 signatures. This petition was started here in Japan and I am hoping that the debate it has started will lead to a discussion about the ethics of owl cafés.” In the UK too, some media suggest that there was massive popular opposition to the opening of an owl café, even when it was (eventually) branded and held as an event set up to raise funds for an apparently unnamed wildlife conservation charity. The glib, oh-so-witty comments of the reporter for the London Evening Standard (who wrote that the event “turned out to be a hoot”) suggests a low level of reflection: what was learnt from this event?

So what do owls and owl cafés mean to you? Some of my first encounters with owls were as a kid and they were special: the shivering sounds and the mysterious dark outline of a western Tawny Owl by our house in the middle of a frost-cold night; the golden-winged glide of Short-eared Owls over rough pasture, illuminated by low December sunlight (an experience repeated many years later with two young Birds Koreans in Busan!); and the penetrating yellow-eyed stare of a Little Owl, glowering at me from the low branch of a dead tree. These were “encounters of the owl-kind” that helped me simultaneously to imagine and to experience a world far beyond my own. Fantastic!

What an awful contrast then, to see images of owls lined up, paraded and groped by inexperienced handlers in a café, exploited as a fashion accessory for a fun-day out.  Parents who choose to take their children to such places are only trying to do their best for them. But how much better would it be for a young child instead to spend time with a loving parent (or teacher) outdoors, moving quietly, together learning to understand, respect and value the natural ecosystems that keep us all alive?  And as part of this experience, how much more meaningful and memorable then to hear or see a wild owl, free and perfectly at home in its own natural environment?  Going birdwatching in a more natural landscape is far more educational than going to an owl café, pet shop or poorly-run zoo.

Birds Korea is a small conservation organization with only limited capacity and a strong focus on conservation of birds and their habitats. We would therefore like to appeal to our members and website visitors to help us understand more about these cafés and the threats that they might pose. Do you know if any such cafés have yet been opened in the ROK or are planned? Can you help to clarify some of the legal and welfare issues? Can you help to share best information with us and others in order to help head off the potential threat such cafés might present in the future?

As always, your comments and opinions, and any additional information, are warmly welcomed!



One comment on “Owl cafés in Korea? An introduction to some of the main issues

  1. In developed countries where most of the population has become urbanized and wild landscapes have been mostly lost, I think the media can and should have a large impact when it comes to instilling the correct values and attitudes. There needs to be more quality wildlife documentaries for example rather than shows which present wild creatures with comic voice-overs. And people need to know that you don’t have to go on safari to gain a strong connection to the natural world, there is plenty that is worth watching and preserving even within densely populated areas.

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