Ashley Davies: Owl bars and cat cafes

IS THE latest in the pet cafe craze – an owl bar – an innovation too far for animal lovers, asks Ashley Davies.

Japan already has cat cafes, which should guarantee a critical reception. Picture: Jane Barlow

You know those scenes in gangster movies when there’s a visit to a brothel and the women who work there stand in a line, waiting to be selected? Some are young and pretending to be enthusiastic – hey, they’re paying their way through college – and there are always a few who look wrung-out, strung-out and depressed.

Well, that’s what popped into my head when I first heard about the cat cafe that opened in Edinburgh recently.

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Picture the scene: the door ding-a-lings open as a new punter enters and Snowball, staring hollowly at her reflection in the mirror, mourning the loss of her kittenish features and wondering what has become of her life, sighs: “Here we go again – another creep who’s going to try to grope me.”

She takes an expert, discreet sniff of catnip (she can give up any time she likes, this just helps the day go faster) and gathers up today’s props – a ball of wool and a cardboard box – and puts her best paw forward.

Back in the real world, I don’t think I have a problem with the idea of cat cafes because, as someone who moonlights as the exploited personal assistant to a cat, I know they do as they please.

The notion that you can force cats to be friendly when they don’t fancy it is as funny as the idea of a dog saying: “Nah, you’re all right, mate – I won’t stick my head out of the window of this moving car – I don’t like the way it makes my jowls flap.” And I don’t think, in this country anyway, anyone would be so cruel as to force an unhappy cat to be in that environment.

But when it was announced this week that someone was opening an owl bar in London my initial response was sweary exasperation. I can tolerate all the gimmicky cafes springing up in hipster heartlands – there’s that one that will only sell breakfast cereal, also in London, and the crisp sandwich place in Belfast – but bringing wild animals into urban environments to entertain humans bothers me a lot.

I love owls. I mean, I really, really love owls. I’ve spent quite a lot of time with them, been bitten and charmed by them, marvelled at how light even the heavy-looking ones are, and been beguiled by how each one can have a different personality, despite having a brain the size of a lump of chewing gum. And I know certain things have to be done to raise awareness and funds for conservation but, my God, how depressing is it to see them tied to little stands in broad daylight outside Ikea or random car parks?

People who look after owls assure me, however, that being tethered doesn’t bother these big-eyed guys – even in the daytime when they’re supposed to be tucked away, snoozing in a tree hollow. They say they only fly around in the wild when they’re hunting, not for the fun of freedom, so when food is laid on they don’t really need to be out in the sky.

Not sure I buy that, but anyway.

On the plus side, the Annie Owl bar, which will be named after its star attraction, will only be open when it’s dark, and all profits will go to the Barn Owl Trust. The £20 entry pays for two cocktails and two hours in the company of owls.

It will surprise no-one that the idea of animal-themed cafes and bars largely comes from Japan, where thousands of people crave furry or feathery contact but where there’s such a premium on housing that owning your own is either impossible or just unfair.

The theme is pretty popular in South Korea too. One review of a dog cafe in Seoul explained that you don’t have to buy snacks for the pooches but they’ll probably ignore you if you don’t (not unlike what one reads about the economics of strip clubs).

The reviewer described a visit to the Bau House, where you can play with their dogs or bring your own. He witnessed a very large hound jumping on a window sill and dropping a large, comical (from a distance, anyway) poop, right beside a well-groomed couple.

Then the reviewer’s own dog accepted a cuddle from some of the other visitors but did a “drive-by pee attack” on their umbrellas. The moral is clear: if you want to spend time with territorial animals you’re kidding yourself if you think you can curb their instincts.

In Seoul there’s a sheep cafe that goes by the name of Thanks Nature. And there’s a place where you can play with snakes. All the Tripadvisor reviews describe these places as being spotlessly clean – smelling of disinfectant in fact – which must be horrible for the poor animals that “work” there. Getting rid of all the smells for the animals there is probably the equivalent of spraying whipped cream directly on to our eyeballs.

In Japan, city-centre rabbit cafes are also quote popular, and in some, if you really get a taste for bunnies, they have them on sale. It’s like a try-before-you-buy pet shop with rabbit-themed cakes. Others insist a rabbit is for life and their cotton-tails are emphatically not for sale.

Some of the names of such establishments are as weird as the concept. There’s Ra.a.g.f (which is short for “rabbit and grow fat”) and Cafe Rabbi. Not sure who ate the “t” but it does conjure up the idea of a restaurant where the resident rabbis ignore you unless you offer them bagels and gefilte fish.

A campaign has already begun on to stop the owl bar from opening, but if it does go ahead, I do hope the punters will be suitably quiet and gentle, and don’t mind hearing the unsettling thud of digested mice and baby chicken. And if some bright spark decides to set up a nearby vole bistro, they might want to keep the doors closed.