Tourists in Japan are flocking to 'otter cafés,' but there's evidence that the animals are illegally taken from the wild and kept in small cages

World Animal Protection/Aaron GekoskiAn otter sits in a cage at the Kotsumate Otter Café.
  • Japan is home to tons of animalcafés, many of which charge visitors to pet and spend time with Asian small-clawed otters, a threatened species.
  • In a new documentary, British environmentalist and photojournalist Aaron Gekoski worked with World Animal Protection, an international nonprofit organisation, to investigate the state of these animals.
  • Through their research, Gekoski and World Animal Protection have found evidence that many of the otters are imported illegally from Indonesia, and are kept in small cages without water or suitable food.
  • World Animal Protection also believes that the trade of otters and other exotic pets has ties to organised crime in Japan.
  • Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.

The business of animal cafés in Japan is booming. Currently, tourists and locals can pet and spend time with species ranging from cats to owls for a small fee. Similarly, a search for the hashtag “Animalcafé” on Instagram brings more than 17,000 results, many of which feature a location tag in Japan.

But, according to Aaron Gekoski, a British environmentalist and photojournalist, cafés like these are doing more harm than good – especially for the threatened species of Asian small-clawed otters. On a recent trip to Japan, the activist says he found evidence that many otters are ripped from their families in the wild, kept in small cages, and forced to live in unsuitable environments.

Gekoski investigated the cafés with the help of World Animal Protection, an international nonprofit organisation, and compiled their findings in a new documentary on YouTube.

Some animal cafés in Japan are said to breed otters and keep them small cages

During his first stop in Japan, Gekoski visited the Harry Harajuku Terrace, a café that allows visitors to spend up to one hour with Asian small-clawed otters and feed them treats.

According to an employee who was interviewed in the documentary, otters at the café are bred in Japan. The employee also said the otters are transferred daily from one enclosure to a smaller box where visitors can view and feed them.

Japan harry cafeWorld Animal Protection/Aaron GekoskiAsian small-clawed otters inside the Harry Harajuku Terrace café.

Otters living in cafés are often fed ‘unsuitable’ diets

Gekoski then visited the Kotsumate Otter café, in which the environmentalist found that the animals are being fed a diet that mainly consists of cheese.

“One of the things you notice here is the stench – it absolutely stinks,” Gekoski said in the documentary. “A lot of the otters seem pretty agitated and apparently, they can be soothed with cheese.”

According to the Australia Zoo, Asian small-clawed otters typically eat fish, crustaceans, shellfish, small land prey, and eggs” in the wild. They are also said to spend the majority of their days hunting, and can eat “one third of their body weight in food each day.”

In otter cafés, however, the animals “have no choice but to consume a totally unsuitable diet,” Gekoski said.

Asian small clawed otterWorld Animal Protection/Aaron GekoskiAn otters sits against a wire cage inside the Kotsumate Otter Café.

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Some otters have been said to harm themselves after being kept in stressful environments with no water

“Otters spend the majority of their time in the water, but here, most don’t have access to any at all,” Gekoski said in the documentary while visiting the Kotsumate Otter café.

“It was clearly affecting their mental and physical well-being,” he continued.

Otters japanWorld Animal Protection/Aaron GekoskiAn employee handles an otter at the Kotsumate Otter Cafe.

In one instance, Gekoski came across an otter who had “gnawed off” most of its tail.

According to Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute, Asian small-clawed otters have broad and robust” teeth that are “well suited for crushing shells.”

Otter biting tailWorld Animal Protection/Aaron GekoskiAn Asian small-clawed otter bites its tail in distress.

Social media is likely to blame for the rise of interest in otter cafés

On Instagram, more than 686,000 posts can be found with the hashtag “otter.” Similarly, Instagram users like CartelTheOtter and Ponchan918 regularly share photos of their semi-aquatic pets with 300,000 and 279,000 followers respectively.

Cassandra Koenen, the Global Head of Campaign for World Animal Protection, said in the documentary that there’s a direct link between the amount of otter cafés in Japan, and the number of otter-related photos on Instagram.

“The recent increase in the number of otter cafés that are popping up around Japan, as well as the number of otters that are showing up on Instagram and becoming Instagram-famous, is really driving the pet trade, and the desirability for wanting an otter as a pet,” Koenen said.

Pet otterWorld Animal Protection/Aaron GekoskiA pet otter plays with toys inside the home of its owner in Japan.

In a statement sent to INSIDER, Ben Williamson, the US Campaigns Director for World Animal Protection, said influencers are spreading the wrong idea about otters.

“Being cute is no justification for denying wild animals their freedom by keeping them locked up in someone’s home,” Williamson said. “There is no way to replicate the space and freedom these otters enjoy in the wild.”

“Regrettably, social media is increasing the worrying trend of keeping wild animals as pets,” he continued. “Influencers who present otters as fun and cool pets are perpetuating a trade that ignores the complex habitat, nutrition, and health needs of the animal.”

Asian small-clawed otters are often sold illegally as pets throughout Indonesia

While visiting the Kotsumate Otter café, an employee told Gekoski that the animals at that particular café are bred in Indonesia and shipped to Japan.

This led Gekoski to travel to the region and visit an otter owner named Georgian Marcello, who told him that farmers commonly find otters in rice fields, but see them as pests. To clear the fields and save their fish, farmers commonly shoot the adults, and sell the babies to pet owners or cafés.

Exotic animal market indonesiaWorld Animal Protection/Aaron GekoskiAn exotic animal market in Indonesia.

However, World Animal Protection’s investigation found that “not only are otters killed because they’re considered pests,” but they’re also “killed specifically to sell the babies into the exotic pet trade,” according to the documentary.

World Animal Protection believes the sale of otters is part of an organised crime network in Japan

According to an anonymous investigator for World Animal Protection, who speaks in Gekoski’s documentary, there is no documentation to prove that otters are being legally imported from regions like Thailand and Indonesia.

World Animal Protection believes the otter trade in Japan has ties to Yakuza, an organised crime network in Japan.

“Police have initiated an investigation to uncover the connection of mafia or swindlers in this importing operation,” the undercover investigator said in the documentary. “From my experience, I can fairly say Yakuza is involved here.”

The anonymous investigator also said that because the business “involves such an enormous amount of money,” those who research or attempt to stop the trade can place themselves in serious danger.

According to World Animal Protection, the only way to protect otters is to avoid purchasing them

Asian small-clawed otters are currently found on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. According to the IUCN, the population of Asian small-clawed otters is decreasing and they are considered “vulnerable” to becoming extinct.

“What we’re asking people to do and how they can help stop the global rise of the exotic pet trade is to simply not buy them, and simply not accept that wild animals belong in their homes,” World Animal Protection’s Global Head of Campaign Cassandra Koenen said.

To find out more, watch the documentary created by Aaron Gekoski and World Animal Protection here.

INSIDER was unable to reach representatives for Harry Harajuku Terrace and Kotsumate Otter café for comment.

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