Christian Artuso, Ph.D., August 2015
– An owl biologist’s expert commentary provided to Birds Korea
The recent establishment and popularity of owl cafés or “owl shops” (fukuro no mise) in Japan has caused considerable concern for the wellbeing of the birds housed in such establishments. The sensitivity of owls is well known and their use in a shop, café or bar-like setting strikes many owl biologists as inappropriate. The following summary highlights several of the main concerns.
Proximity and Handling Stress
Understanding an owl’s response to petting or stroking requires training and knowledge of owl physiology and even “personality”. Most rehabilitators and owl keepers strongly advise against touching owls. To the untrained eye, an owl’s duress when being stroked is difficult to perceive and may even be misinterpreted as pleasure.
Michael Romero (Tufts University, Massachusetts, USA), an expert on stress in wild animals, has observed and measured large stress responses in many animals (both in terms of stress hormones, corticosterone in birds, and the sympathetic nervous system as a fight-or-flight response). He noted that “When you bring those animals into captivity, they retain those responses for years so that they have a stress response every time you handle them”. However, in the case of owls, this often applies to animals that have been housed in captivity from a very early age and even in individuals born in captivity. Every handler interviewed for this article has commented that owls do not like to be touched or petted (K. Bloem, D. Holt, K. McKeever, J. Parry-Jones, J. Radley, T. Williams, pers. comm.). Trystan Williams, head keeper at the Scottish Owl Centre, commented that they have a ‘no touch’ policy and that “I daily have to explain that owls actually do not like being touched or stroked”. It is true that individual owls react differently to human interaction, perhaps related to how the owl was raised, the species or the individual bird’s temperament (K. Bloem, pers. comm.); however, this only makes it more important that well-trained professional animal technicians are on site to judge stress caused to the animals. Some owls will tolerate, or perhaps even enjoy, touching that involves highly stereotyped motions that simulate allopreening or breeding behaviour but will react negatively to any other form of touching (K. Bloem, pers. comm.). Some owls will bite if they are touched; for example, Alice, an 18 year-old Great Horned Owl who has been an education ambassador at the International Owl Centre in Houston, Minnesota, U.S.A, will still bite if touched or stroked despite her many years of working with children and adults (K. Bloem, pers. comm.).
Jemima Parry-Jones (International Centre for Birds of Prey), world-renowned author of books and zoological training manuals on the handling of owls and other raptors, examined many of the videos of owl cafés (see list of URLs below) and noted that the owls “I have seen on the videos are most definitely stressed”. Many of the signs of stress, such as stiffened body posture, feathers held erect, staring, gular flapping, rapid changes in pupil size, and certain vocalisations such as twittering noises are ignored or misinterpreted by the owl café owners and clients (J. Parry-Jones, pers. comm.).
An additional problem with handling owls is that the oils from human hands soil owls’ feathers and reduce their flight performance (T. Williams and J. Parry-Jones, pers. comm.). This can lead to excessive moult and feather regrowth and may cause bald spots that can take 6 months or more to regrow (T. Williams, pers. comm.). Many clients of the owl cafés do more than pet the owls lightly and can be seen to press the owls down or knock them off balance (J. Parry-Jones, pers. comm.). This of course further contributes to the stress that the owls are under in this context.
Touching owls is not the only stressor. Even close approach of an owl can cause stress and, contrary to popular belief, a stressed owl will not always fly away in such contexts, presumably owing to the fight-or-flight response. As part of my own education and awareness work, I have found myself increasingly using social media to inform people of stress responses visible in photographs (sometimes accompanied by written descriptions of behaviour) of wild owls, which led to the publication of the following photo essay: http://artusobirds.blogspot.ca/2014/12/signs-of-stress-in-owls.html. Sharing and discussing photos on social media has revealed that many people are blissfully unaware of the stress they can cause. Rather, there is a strong tendency for pseudo-empathy, ignoring the visible signs of stress and supplying an anthropogenic interpretation for the owl’s failure to flee such as “the owl was curious about me” or “the owl tolerated me” or even the demonstrably false “the owl was not bothered by my approach”.
In addition to the above concerns, there are further examples of bad practices endorsed or tolerated by the operators of owl cafés. This includes the unnecessary use of jesses on very small owl species, lack of space to exercise flight muscles, and excessive amounts of time spent indoors without direct sunlight which may compromise the owls’ immune system and contribute to calcium deficiencies (J. Parry-Jones, pers. comm.). In addition, loud noises in a confined space, as may be expected in a café, are potentially damaging to the sensitive hearing of owls (J. Parry-Jones, pers. comm.).
Owls are predators and larger species prey upon smaller species. As a result, many owls react strongly to the presence of other raptors. Placing different species in close proximity is likely to produce a stress response from the smaller, more vulnerable species. Some of the worst examples of deliberately provoking a stress response in owls have been seen on Japanese television and subsequently popularised in a series of videos entitled “Owl Transformer” and other similar titles on www.youtube.com (examples include: https://youtube.com/watch?v=WRXT_TrUbiw and https://youtube.com/watch?v=fRSCI1HWBC4). These videos demonstrate the stress response of a White-faced Owl (Ptilopsis sp., presumed to be Southern White-faced owl Ptilopsis granti) to other species of owl without offering any commentary on the cruelty of deliberately inducing such a stress response. The White-faced Owl in question demonstrates different camouflage and defensive responses to the other owls (J. Parry-Jones, pers. comm.) in rapid succession. This is highly stressful and particularly cruel. It well-illustrates the unavoidable risk of interaction stress in owl café settings. Photos of owl cafés (see links below) also reveal significant overcrowding, which is known to cause stress and aggressive responses (Parry-Jones and Ferguson 2003). Both overcrowding and interaction with humans and other birds greatly increase the risk of disease and many diseases, such as aspergillosis, are commonly associated with stress (Parry-Jones and Ferguson 2003).
Perhaps the biggest problem with owl cafés and this form of public “entertainment” is that it enhances stereotyping of owls as pets rather than wild animals. Owls are not suited to being pets (International Owl Centre 2015). Opportunities for positive education on species and habitat conservation in such a setting as a café are extremely unlikely to occur.
Numerous web links document owls revealing signs of handling or interaction stress, without commenting on the problems inherent in such situations, including:
It is sometimes argued that any opportunity to interact with animals builds empathy; however, these videos clearly demonstrate a lack of empathy and a failure of the participants to attempt to understand the animals’ perspective. This is combined with a failure of the educator (café owner) to use the experience to educate about owls and their response to humans. In addition to these videos, numerous blog posts and testimonials document that visitors to these owl cafés remain unaware of the cruelty they have inflicted and, as such, the educational value of the experience is negative rather than positive. Owl cafés do not educate people about wildlife, nor the needs of conservation, but rather reinforce the damaging belief that humans have a right to keep wild animals for their entertainment (and to remain ignorant about the animals’ experience).
Illegal capture and transfer of owls for the black-market pet industry is a serious problem for conservation. Owl cafés are only legal if the birds are captive bred; however, there is no truly effective mechanism to ensure this is the case. The prevalence of illegal smuggling and trading is becoming an increasingly severe problem (Shepherd 2006, Shepherd and Shepherd 2009). In the case of owls, this often involves the removal of chicks from nests (Shepherd et al. 2004). From November 2008 to September 2009, 1500 illegally exported owls were confiscated in Malaysia alone (Nijman 2009). In the Japanese context, many of the owls used in cafés are being bred in the United Kingdom and sold to Japan rather than being bred locally (J. Parry-Jones, pers. comm.). The lack of local breeding and the increase in demand, since owl cafés also sell owls to clients, is almost certain to foster an increase in black market trade and illegal capture of wild birds.
The concept of owl cafés may derive from the famous cat café concept; however, owls are clearly far less suited than domestic cats or dogs to this method of display. These cafés pose numerous problems related to causing stress to animals and poor education. They do not enhance appreciation for wild animals and their habitats but rather compromise the important public awareness work that must be done to halt the loss of biodiversity on this planet.
Christian Artuso, Ph.D.
Bird Studies Canada – Manitoba Program Manager
Box 24-200 Saulteaux Cr, Winnipeg, MB R3J 3W3
Tel: 204-945-6816 Fax: 204-945-3077
- International Owl Center. 2015. Owls as Pets — Top 10 Reasons You Don’t Want an Owl for a Pet. Retrieved June 2015 from: http://internationalowlcenter.org/owls-humans/owlsaspets
- Nijman, V., 2010. An overview of international wildlife trade from Southeast Asia. Biodiversity and Conservation 19, 1101–1114.
- Parry-Jones, J. 1998. Understanding Owls: Biology, Management, Breeding, Training. David and Charles, Brunel house, U.K.
- Parry-Jones, J. and A. Ferguson. 2003. Management Guidelines for the Welfare of Zoo Animals – Strigiformes (Owls). The Federation of Zoological Gardens of Great Britain and Ireland, Zoological Gardens, Regent’s Park, London, United Kingdom.
- Shepherd, C. R. 2006. The bird trade in Medan, North Sumatra: an overview. Birding ASIA 5:16–24
- Shepherd, C. R. and Shepherd, L. A. 2009. An emerging Asian taste for owls? Enforcement agency seizes 1,236 owls and other wildlife in Malaysia. Birding ASIA 11:85.
- Shepherd, C. R., J. Sukumaran, S. A. Wich. 2004. Open Season: An analysis of the pet trade in Medan, Sumatra 1997 – 2001. TRAFFIC Southeast Asia.