By Tan Hui Yee
The Straits Times
Asia News Network
It is a Sunday afternoon and a sunlit cafe on Bangkok's outskirts is buzzing with patrons. The air smells of french fries and disinfectant. Kittens and corgis are darting around between the legs of customers, who are trying to poke at two parakeets shuffling warily along the edge of a wooden shelf.
Excited murmurs ripple through the crowd as a waitress announces that the playpen is ready for the next round of customers. One by one, the patrons squirt disinfectant on their palms and enter a glass-walled room to cuddle a squad of meerkats.
Asia may have seen its share of pet cafes, but none quite with the menagerie offered in Thailand. Aided by relaxed laws and a thriving wildlife market, at least four exotic pet cafes have sprung up recently around the capital.
Animal activists, however, fear this trend will feed demand for smuggling and breeding of exotic wildlife purely for entertainment.
Little Zoo Cafe, with one branch in Bangkok and another on its outskirts, touts raccoons, fennec foxes and silver foxes. The Animal Cafe, tucked in a quiet neighbourhood in Yannawa district, boasts a white-faced owl as well as caracals and a serval - both African wildcats. Zoota Bistro, housed in a shopping mall in northern Bangkok, advertises close encounters with a South American squirrel monkey, wallaby and furless sphynx cat.
Together with the existing mix of cafes nationwide featuring cats, dogs, bunnies, Siberian huskies, parrots and sheep, they are drawing steady interest from both Thais and tourists looking to touch creatures they can usually see only from afar.
"Kawaii (cute)! Kawaii!" Ms Kiyoko Nagashima, a 44-year-old sales executive from Japan, squealed upon entering the Animal Cafe last week, as she spied the exotic cats prancing around two soft-lit glass enclosures.
"I came here because I saw on Facebook that you could hug a raccoon," she told The Sunday Times. "In Japan, you can see them only in the zoo. You can't hug them."
Typically, customers must buy at least one food item and drink before they can interact with the animals. The prices are marked up - one meatball pasta dish at the Animal Cafe, for example, costs 320 baht (S$13).
Customers are made to clean their hands and take off footwear before entering the playpens. "Play" is supervised by staff, who sometimes scoop up the critters and place them on customers' laps.
Some of the more knowledgeable employees explain the animals' behaviour. At the Little Zoo cafe, for example, as meerkats clambered onto their human visitors and tried to search the contents of their pockets, one employee explained that this is how the creatures forage for food in the desert sand.
Wildlife activist Edwin Wiek, founder of Wildlife Friends Foundation, is critical of the trend, saying the artificial environments of these mini petting zoos could stress the animals. Owls, for example, are nocturnal by nature, but "if you keep them awake the whole day, they will be so tired they will sleep at night".
According to a 2013 report on the illegal wildlife trade by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Thailand is "mainly a consumer and trans-shipper of pets and high- value luxury items", with the rising sales of illegal wildlife on the Internet posing a challenge to law enforcement. Raids and Customs seizures in the past have turned up everything from pangolins to otters.
While the pet cafes typically do not use endangered animals, activists warn that Thai law provides little protection for non-native species. Also, some wild-caught animals have been known to be passed off as captive-bred.
"It is a bit difficult to differentiate between which is traded legally and illegally," says Ms Nancy Gibson, founder of Thailand-based Love Wildlife Foundation.
Animal Cafe co-owner Athit Samatiyadekul, 36, says his operations are all above board, and he has the paperwork to prove it. One raccoon, he said, was bought from a fur factory in Europe for 35,000 baht.
"We give them food. We give them a job. And we give them love," he told The Sunday Times. He started his cafe last year to showcase some of his personal collection of wildlife, which includes about 300 iguanas, some 80 giant tortoises, arowanas and Alaskan malamutes. He breeds caracals and servals, which he sells for 250,000 baht each.
He said the cafe is not profitable but he keeps it afloat by infusing money that he earns from his job as the marketing director of Sirivatana Interprint, one of the region's largest printing companies. The same applies to his partner, a friend who runs a Thai boxing gym, apparel store and restaurant.
"In other restaurants, people will eat many things," he said. "Here, they come to play with the animals and to take selfies, so they buy the cheapest food."
Yet they keep it running because "we like people to come here to be happy". Unconvinced members of the public have complained about the cafe to the wildlife authorities, he reveals.
On the day he was interviewed by The Sunday Times, officials turned up to check his paperwork - the second time in a year.
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
Kawaii (cute)! Kawaii! I came here because I saw on Facebook that you could hug a raccoon. In Japan, you can see them only in the zoo. You can't hug them. - MS KIYOKO NAGASHIMA, a 44-year-old sales executive from Japan, on the exotic cats at Animal Cafe.
CAN'T TELL THEM APART
It is a bit difficult to differentiate between which is traded legally and illegally. - MS NANCY GIBSON, founder of Thailand-based Love Wildlife Foundation, on wild-caught animals being passed off as captive-bred.
BENEFITS FOR ANIMALS
We give them food. We give them a job. And we give them love. - MR ATHIT SAMATIYADEKUL, Animal Cafe's co-owner, on the animals at his eatery.