I can never resist checking out a themed restaurant when I travel.
During trips to Taiwan, I visited a hospital-themed restaurant, Hello Kitty-themed cafe, and Barbie-themed restaurant. In South Korea, I checked out both a dog cafe and a cat cafe. In Thailand, I even had lunch at a condom-themed restaurant. Yes, it’s true: One of the first things I do when I’m planning a trip is research if there’s anywhere quirky to eat.
I touched down in Japan, then, with an enormous list of spots I wanted to dine in. This country is undoubtedly the land of themed eateries and a surprising number of them focus around animals. This isn’t particularly a good thing, unfortunately, but I’ll discuss that later. From goats to penguins, otters to owls, and capybaras to chinchillas, there’s a wide range of places in Japan where you can sip on a green tea and get up close with some adorable animals.
There are also hedgehog cafes.
While I was exploring Harajuku during my first few days in Tokyo, I saw a sign for Harry — a hedgehog cafe — and then, with a great deal of dedication and patience, convinced Dave to head inside with me.
I’ve always adored hedgehogs.
As a kid, I would gleefully rescue them from unlit bonfires in my back garden, and if I ever found one that seemed unwell, would take it to the vet and nurse it back to health. Understandably, I was over the moon about the prospect of spending time with some of my favourite spiky animals, and I only hoped the cafe could live up to my sky high expectations.
Inside, the scene was surprisingly tranquil. Gathered around small tables were cooing couples taking photos, friends nervously picking up mealworms — food for the hedgehogs — with tweezers, and families helping each other work up the courage to handle one of the animals.
There was a lot of photo taking, and the cafe was primarily full of locals.
Around us, the walls were adorned with large illustrations showing how to handle the hedgehogs, what their specific behaviours indicate, and how the staff ensure they are well taken care of. I’d briefly researched the cafe online before arriving to check it wasn’t unethical as hell, and after reading many positive reviews and interviews with the owners, I took my place in the queue.
Like in many places in Japan, we ordered from a vending machine.
We paid 1630 Yen (around $15) each for the experience, which entitled us to 30 minutes with a hedgehog, a handful of mealworms to feed them, and a drink to sip while we played with our new friends. The machine printed us our tickets, and I handed them to one of the staff members.
She led me and Dave to a wooden table with a glass tank inset into its surface, then handed us each a pair of thick gloves. Below us were two tiny hedgehogs, one of which was drinking from its water bowl while the other took a snooze in the corner.
As I attempted to suppress the part of me that yearned to squeak with joy, we were told how to take care of our hedgehogs. We had someone standing close by for the entirety of the experience to check we weren’t harming or distressing our hedgehogs in any way.
Unlike the European hedgehogs of my childhood, which were wild, large and covered with darker brown spines, the ones at Harry are African pygmy hedgehogs. That means that outside of Africa, they’re bred to be domesticated, and they’re also smaller with lighter-coloured spines, and an adorable pink snout.
I went first, donning my gloves and scooping the active hedgehog from its tank. I held it carefully in my hands and after three minutes of breathlessly letting it walk across my palms, it curled up in a ball and promptly fell asleep.
I just about melted inside.
Dave went afterwards, once my spiky friend had reawakened, gently scooping it into his hands then falling in love in one fell swoop. I snapped a photo then later giggled when I realised it looked like he was a proud father, holding his newborn baby for the very first time.
Welcome to the world, baby Juliff-Dean! We love you so very much! <3
Our thirty minutes with the hedgehogs flew by, and after we’d spent some time holding them and taking a few photos, we were content to let them rest.
So, for now, enjoy some more adorable hedgehog photos, and then I’ll take a deep dive into the ethics of visiting a place like this.
Are Hedgehog Cafes Ethical?
It would be remiss of me to publish this post and fail to consider the ethics of animal cafes, especially when so many of them around the world are masters of cruelty. In Japan, owl cafes offer the chance to sit beside a tethered owl that’s been forcibly domesticated and will never be allowed the opportunity to fly. In 2016, a cat cafe in Tokyo was shut down after it was discovered owners were keeping 60 cats within a 30 square metre rom. A penguin bar in Tokyo keeps four penguins captive in a tiny enclosure at the back of a smoky bar. This country is one of the worst in the world when it comes to animal welfare, often treating animals as accessories or entertainment.
So what about hedgehog cafes?
Is it unethical to keep these animals in glass tanks, continually picked up and put down by people, exposed to sunlight despite being nocturnal, and crowded into hedgehog-filled rest areas while they’re typically solitary creatures?
I kind of answered my own question there, didn’t I?
I believe that relative to other animal cafes, the hedgehog cafe isn’t anywhere near the worst. The African pygmy hedgehog is bred to be domesticated, so the cafe isn’t snatching animals from the wild. The hedgehogs at Harry are rotated out often in order to ensure they all receive regular breaks from human contact. The cafe doesn’t open until midday to reduce their exposure to sunlight. And, at least, while I was there, the staff were everywhere, making sure the animals were handled correctly and pouncing on you if you so much as moved the hedgehog from directly above its tank. It makes the hedgehog cafe more ethical than many other animal cafes around the world (see: the racoon cafe in South Korea), but it’s still not perfect.
Perfect would be having the hedgehog cafe only open at night. It would be not allowing visitors to touch the hedgehogs, it would be giving them each separate enclosures to live in.
One of the lessons travel first taught me is that few animal experiences around the world exhibit perfect ethics. Dog and cat cafes are everywhere these days and widely accepted, but their ethics are rarely discussed. And what about owning pets? Is it fundamentally unethical to keep a pet? Can you even be outraged about unethical animal encounters around the world as a meat eater? Can you feel outraged over elephant riding if every day you pay to eat slaughtered animals as food? Which is worse? Where do you draw the line?
And so, I’m torn.
And when I’m torn, I look to the experts.
DJ Schubert, a wildlife biologist at the Animal Welfare Institute, told The Dodo, “Hedgehogs are nocturnal, but even if they weren’t, the fact that they just allow people to handle and touch and harass these animals is completely inappropriate. Some hedgehogs might acclimate to being handled, but they are, by nature and instinct, wild animals. While the animals may or may not demonstrate outward signs of stress, I can guarantee you that they’re stressed.”
Maho Cavalier of local animal welfare group Animal Walk Tokyo told the BBC, “I firstly worry about the fate of animals when these businesses go wrong and close down,” she said, referring to the case of a Tokyo cat cafe that was shut down over allegations of animal neglect. There may be benefits to humans, such as possible humane education, learning about animals and hedgehogs husbandry, or healing effects. There may also be benefits from being provided food, water, and special attention and affection. However, I tend to think that the negative factors of this kind of business, especially to animals, outweigh positive aspects.”
When you add in a Vice article quoting Deborah Weaver, president of the Hedgehog Welfare Society, you have a fairly solid case for avoiding the cafe. She pointed out that hedgehogs “are nocturnal, so forcing them to socialize during daylight hours is “not ideal.” Plus, the hedgehogs are ill-suited to living in empty tanks like the ones used by café. “Because they’re African hedgehogs, they still think of themselves as prey. They like to be under something for safety.”
It’s worth mentioning that the vast majority of media outlets — the Guardian, New York Post, Jezebel, the Japan Times and so many more — have articles gushing over the cuteness of a hedgehog cafe without stopping to question the ethics. And the TripAdvisor reviews are full of people talking about how happy they were. It’s easy to feel bewildered by it all.
Overall, I confess that I enjoyed my time at the hedgehog cafe, and while I was there, felt comfortable with the experience. The hedgehogs didn’t exhibit any signs of stress that have been mentioned online — balling themselves up or walking backwards off people’s palms — but I’m also not an expert. I recognise that I love hedgehogs and I wanted to spend time with them, so I know I’m going to be biased over whether it’s acceptable to do so, and most likely attempt to convince myself it’s all good. And I also recognise that as someone who happily devours meat and seafood and eggs, I’m contributing to far higher levels of cruelty in the world by doing so.
Of course, it’s impossible to live your life in a truly ethical way.
I take 20 flights a year. I own a smartphone. I buy cheap clothes from H&M. I use Amazon. I’ve stayed in over 60 Airbnb apartments. I use products that contain palm oil. I’m drawn to gentrifying neighbourhoods. I’m far from an ethical human and I’m fully aware of it. But what I try to do to counteract this is educate myself so I’m aware of what I need to work on, and attempt to minimise the damage I cause by looking for alternatives to all of these unethical practices.
In this case, I would not go back to the hedgehog cafe.
I’ve read too much about the potential downsides to be able to visit with a clear conscience, and while I feel like a hypocrite given what a small step up my ethical ladder this is, it’s still an improvement.
I’ll be steering clear of animal cafes from now on.
How about you? Would you go to a hedgehog cafe?
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Thank you, I am so happy you did your research and decided this is not something you want to support. I wish more bloggers would be this honest and open about addressing the ethics of the choices they promote.
I do too! I know I’ve been guilty of skimming over the topic in the past, but now that I’m no longer travelling full-time and have much more time to dedicate to my blog posts, I’m excited to start digging deeper into the topics I write about.
I’ve written a bit about ethical animal attractions. I went scuba diving at Stingray City in Grand Cayman long before I ever stopped to think about the ethics of it (and after delving into that, I’ve decided it’s not an ethical thing to repeat). It did lead me to research and write about animal attractions in the Caribbean. That research led to me deciding that I will have to avoid most! I have also been thinking about how I’m not a vegan, I don’t avoid all zoos, etc. I am, however, comfortable with my choices and the reasons they work for me. Plus, I look for articles like this. I know knowing about this place and the issues with it will help me make better decisions in the future.
It’s tough to take a look into ourselves and admit that we have made a mistake. Kudos for that!
I really really enjoyed this article – thank you for writing such a balanced post. I am planning my first trip to Tokyo and came across their best themed restaurants. I personally don’t care about hedgehogs so much but would love to see the owl cafe but was wondering about the ethics. I have been to cat cafes and that seemed alright to me as the ones I have been to were very well treated and closely supervised, but then again – these were domesticated cats.
I really appreciate your honesty about wanting to have such an experience but ultimately coming to the conclusion that one shouldn’t support such businesses – gives me the answer for my own trip to Japan, owls are meant to fly.
I considered visiting an owl cafe when I was in Japan too, but unfortunately, they’re one of the worst offenders, and there are several campaigns out there trying to get them closed down for animal cruelty.
This is a toughie Lauren. No human being – experts included – are in the minds or bodies of hedgehogs. They think they know based on observation but no hedgehog has spoken up on it LOL. With that in mind we always want to do what we feel clear on as individuals, because every human being can pass judgement on other humans, deeming literally anything they do as being unethical. That’s the way judgment works. Thanks much for the fair article. Really interesting stuff.
Yep, totally true — that’s why I personally err on the side of caution 98% of the time, and give most things a miss.
This was a very informative piece Lauren, thanks. Like you, I always loved hedgehogs and was at the same cafe in Tokyo myself just a few months ago. I didn’t even consider it might be unethical until days after I’d been. Now I think I’d take the same approach and avoid such attractions.
Yeah. I think because cat and dog cafes are so widely spread and rarely thought of as unethical, it’s easy to assume that all animal cafes are good, especially when they’re for domesticated animals. And there are so many articles out there that don’t even take into account the potential ethics of a place like this that it’s hard to find solid information when you research.
Thanks for such an educated and balanced post Lauren. The issue of ethical travel is such a difficult one, and in all honesty, it seems like you could find problems with nearly any aspect of travel if you looked into it deeply enough. As you say, education and research is key and it’s definitely encouraged me to be more careful with the kinds of activities I plan to do (because I don’t think I would’ve been able to resist a hedgehog cafe either!). Thanks again!
Lauren, you should consider becoming a vegetarian! I stopped eating meat 2-3 years ago out of guilt from the suffering I was causing the farm animals I ate. Most meat comes from animals who led terrible, painful lives. But personally, I don’t think I’d have a problem with this cafe (although I don’t expect everyone to feel the same way). The hedgehogs “look” happy and seem to be treated well (I realize I don’t have much evidence to support my claim). Probably no worse than my pet rabbit. Obviously it’s not perfect and they are not running wild, but I’m also living in a tiny apartment in an overcrowded city! For now, my guilt over not being vegan will take precedence.
Either way, thank you so much for this post. The world would be a much better place if everyone considered the consequences of their actions as much as you do.
Thank you so much! That means a lot :-)
I’ve considered going vegetarian or vegan, but I don’t think it’s for me right now. Given that a paleo diet — basically the exact opposite of a vegetarian diet! — has been the only thing to help me overcome my 15-year battle with anxiety, I’m going to stick with that way of eating and enjoy not having to deal with panic attacks. I definitely do experience some levels of guilt around it, but I want to prioritise my health, too. The fact that paleo doesn’t include dairy does help, though, as I know the dairy industry is pretty awful.
I love this (as always!) and the honesty of it – I was looking at an article with my boyfriend about the otter cafe in Tokyo. After ten minutes of squealing, we suddenly looked at each other and said “that would be awesome for us, but what about the otters?”. It’s so easy to get caught up in the excitement of seeing and interacting with animals that we love, that the full concept of the cafes doesn’t occur to you straight away.
I think it’s great that you went there, experienced it, and then gave it proper consideration as to if it were for you or not. I too lead far from an ethical life, so it’s good to read about others’ experiences, and see where I can make changes myself! And I still want to visit Tokyo, but I’ll give the otters a miss!
Thanks for such a thought-provocative look at this industry. I spent all morning reading the linked articles and have decided to now stay away from any type of animal cafes in the future.
Thank you! :-)
I love hedgehogs and squeeeeeed over the photos – but would never go to an animal cafe, for all the reasons you mentioned. We, as humans, have the ability to see and even touch just about anything we want. That doesn’t make it right. I think it’s a huge problem that we now expect to have access to literally everything. I visited the Dao Tien Endangered Primate Center in Vietnam last year, where you can see, but not get remotely close to, the golden-cheeked gibbons, but you cannot see the loris at all, as they are nocturnal. Our guide told us of one visitor who simply WOULD NOT accept that he could not see a loris. He argued, he cajoled, he offered money…and then he left, angry. And sent an email a few weeks later saying he had visited a far less ethical animal preserve where he was allowed to see loris, and it was ALL THEIR FAULT that he gave money to an organization that he knew was not treating animals well, because they wouldn’t let him take a peek at their loris.
Appreciate your thoughts on this. A hedgehog cafe sounds fun but I don’t think I’d go after reading this article.
Yeah, I definitely plan to steer away from all animal cafes in the future, even the cat and dog ones.
This is a great article – we visited the hedgehog cafe in Roppongi, Tokyo yesterday. Very excited to go and see the hedgehogs and the place was very clean, calm, and the animals seemed well looked after. However during the visit I suddenly felt terribly guilty and thought “I’m contributing to something very unethical” – leading me to search for more information and hence finding this article. Wish I had read it first – would not have gone – easy to get caught up in the excitement of seeing something novel. I wouldn’t want to be manhandled by strangers every day and I’m sure the hedgehogs don’t either. It would be marginally improved if the room was darker for the hedgehogs too.
I’m researching for a trip next summer and my first reaction was, “heck, yea, owls!” Thank you for your honest assessment – may be super cute but… while I worry about being sad to be away from my cat and my dog, Bauer and Chloe (a la 24) for 8 days, I guess photos of my babies will have to suffice. Snuggling with other exoctic fur babies isn’t for me – a little cuteness for me doesn’t justify perpetuating stress and hardship for the animals that is never allow my babies to endure.
Yeah, it’s definitely a tough call to make, because it’s so tempting to want to play with adorable animals. But like you say, it likely does cause them stress and it doesn’t feel good to know you’re the cause of that.
This is a refreshingly well written and balanced article! Thanks! You are winning. X I’m going to head to the Pokemon cafe in Tokyo instead, Pikachu is basically a hedgehog anyway. Thanks XD
Yeah I’m always one who tries to steer away from things like this. When I was in Australia I really wanted to see koalas and we never did. Or kangaroos up close, and never did.
I remember everyone was saying to go to the zoo, but I’ll never step into a zoo. Or there was this sanctuary in Brisbane I almost went to, but I’m glad I didn’t because even though it’s a sanctuary, it’s still pretty much the same as a zoo.
These animals are not their for our amusement.
I appreciate you looking a bit at the ethics here. And the notion of responsibility. It is more than many will do.
Nope. I wouldn’t go to a hedgehog cafe. I live in Japan and have not.
I struggle with so many choices daily around ethics and my consumption habits. The world has gotten so very big and complex. I’m a vegetarian, but I know it’s not enough. What brands should I support, what clothes to buy, what food. I travel A LOT and realize that I’m contributing to climate change much more than most and constantly dipping my toes into the ethical complexities of every place I visit. I carry my own bottle everywhere I travel, my own bags, my own metal straw, my own tableware.
But how can I ever be informed enough? How can I ever be aware of all of the variables and still have time to eat, sleep and live?
But this one is not a headscratcher. It’s not one you have to riddle out or a tough choice. I love love love animals, and that makes this choice easy. It’s not hard to imagine that animal cafes are not an ideal situation for the animals. I think unless it’s a thoughtfully, carefully managed case of a venue that rescues animals and aims to get them rehabilitated or adopted, it just makes sense that no animal would choose to spend their days this way … that this is not natural and not for the benefit of the animals. This is for humans who equate handling an animal who has no choice or say in the matter with having a magical bonding experience across species boundaries.
I get it. There is nothing I’d love more than for a sweet, wild hedgehog to walk up to me and crawl into my lap. But barring that very unlikely scenario, I’ll just have to admire — and respect them — from afar.
If you must have an animal encounter, do the research and pay for an ethical rescue or volunteer experience that further supports helping wild animals stay safe in the wild. Or just check them out in a wild encounter, from a safe and respectful distance. Obviously, it’s a lot less likely that you will be able to hold something wild in your hands, but why should you?
I mean, how would any of us feel if we lived our lives in glass boxes without natural habitat or bonding opportunities, and randos picking us up whenever they liked? … Even if they were nice about it?
This NatGeo article below might be a good start for getting people thinking about the ethics of animal encounters. I am always shocked by how many fellow travelers I meet who haven’t considered their actions beyond instant animal gratification, and my hope for a better world grows when I meet those who do.
Thanks for sharing your experience.
My partner and I visited Harry a few months ago, this was for the second time actually, but this time around we decided to also visit the bunny cafe downstairs.
It was then where discovered the business had also acquired chinchillas and meerkats. Immediately the thought of a captive meerkat felt strange and off (but shouldn’t the thought of most captive animals? double standards right.) But being on our holiday high, we decided to shift focus onto the fact that we were in the presence of adorable chinchillas.
We were then informed that the chinchillas were sleeping so the assistant recommended the meerkat. We were hesitant at first but as we looked over, it was pacing back and forth in its 50cmx50cmx80cm enclosure and appeared frantic to get out. “At least it’s better than the box.”
I don’t know a lot about Meerkats but as the lady placed it on our laps and struggled to keep it on us, (all it was interested in was running off) I couldn’t help but think back to documentaries that showed they are very intelligent and highly social animals.
I asked whether it had a friend and the lady responded by saying She was it’s best friend. I opened youtube on my phone and played a video titled “meerkat social sounds”. The meerkat went crazy and tried to dig behind my phone as though to look for others. I don’t know if I should have done that but to this day the thought it wrenches me on the inside.
Back in the shop, The mental image of it pacing back and forth in its perspex box resurfaced. “Do you think it would benefit from having a friend?” I asked. “Visitors love him” she replied, and that was it.
After we left, I realised It wasn’t her fault, and as an employee, what else could she have said?
Of course, in our world, there are many worse fates that befall captive animals, but the experience at HARRY did trigger an uneasy realisation.
We have since also learned that the business has acquired otters. I’ve read there is currently a huge poaching and smuggling problem in South East Asia and more than half the otters intercepted by authorities are headed for Japan. When exotic animals reach Japan, the absence of laws means their welfare is entirely at the discretion of individual businesses.
My Partner and I run a Japanese themed T-shirt company and we have since even dropped our design which referenced animal cafes.
I wish to encourage anyone who reads this to do further research as we did. Thank you.
Thanks for your decision of avoiding animal themed cafes in future. It is the most appropriate thing to favour the cause of animal welfare. Thanks for the nice article.
Your travel stories are a great source of joy to me. I also admire your sense of humour.
Thanks for the kind words, Sumon!
Hi Kat! I’ve been reading Lauren’s well-written article, and the further comments, after a friend showed me a (very cute) photo of someone holding a hedgehog in the Hedgehog Cafe in Japan. I think the question you raise, ie ‘would the animal choose to be in this situation?’ is all we need to ask ourselves in any animal encounter. I live in north west England(UK) and I and many other people in my village have hedgehogs calling most nights from Spring up to late Autumn for supplementary feeding. It’s a delight to see them, but it’s on their terms and we’re just fortunate that we all share the same patch of earth. Kind regards.
I’ve seen that you talked about the ethics of the hedgehog cafe and the snow monkeys park, but would you also consider that Nara was an unethical place or not?
Thank you for your answers and the information provided by your blog in general :)
I appreciated the article but found it a tad selfish that you went and experienced the cafe even while debating the ethics then condemned the practice only after you went and loved the experience. Gives the appearance of trying to absolve yourself of some guilt…
In my article, I said: “I’d briefly researched the cafe online before arriving to check it wasn’t unethical as hell, and after reading many positive reviews and interviews with the owners, I took my place in the queue.”
So I’m not sure why you think I was debating the ethics while I was there. I did a brief bit of research, found a ton of good reviews, and felt comfortable visiting.
Afterwards, I spent a solid 30 hours reading up about the cafe from a variety of sources to ensure my article was as well informed as possible. It wasn’t realistic to do this before visiting and that’s why I didn’t condemn it before I went.
No real feelings of guilt here! As I said, we all do dozens of things that are far worse than holding a hedgehog for twenty minutes.
I just stumbled upon this and your snow monkey article while planning a trip to Japan and I want to say how much I appreciate that there’s a blogger out there willing to tackle the more unpleasant issues surrounding travel! Keep doing an awesome job!
Thanks so much, John :-)
I really enjoyed reading this article. Thank you so much for your research and sharing your experience at the hedgehog cafe. It was a truly great read, and it was very informative. Thank you and wishing you a lovely day ahead.
I really appreciate your honesty in this article! I’m planning a trip and saw a friend visit this exact cafe. I thought that most of these cafes were pretty bad but maybe this one was an exception since my friend is usually quite conscious of these things. It looks like Harry is better than others but regardless I won’t be visiting any of them now.
Do you have any recommendations for places to go to see animals? I have heard the zoos aren’t great there either.
I am off to Japan in March, I was tempted to visit the hedgehog cafe as the least of all evils. I got really excited about the thought of the Penguin Cafe and then thought no I can’t do it. That really is a step too far.|Then I read your blog on the Monkeys in the onsen…. I am still divided by this. I don’t know what to do about the hedgehog cafe if I do any of them it will be that one.
Much love for this post. I think it’s easy to judge trends but we forget that unless we’re 100% vegan, buy sustainable products only, and travel by sailboat around the world, we’re all contributing to some eco-ethical issues ourselves–plus how could we categorize which is worse?? It’s so hard being an animal lover and staying away from animal tourism. I had such a great time at a cat cafe in Seoul but definitely struggled with promoting my visit. Thanks for your honesty!
Yeah, it’s really tough. Every time I try to improve an aspect of my life to be more ethical, something else pops up to remind me I still have so much more work to do. We can only do our best, take small steps, and know that it all can make a difference.
Thanks for this thoughtful, balanced write-up. I agree with everything you’re saying, especially that ethics is always a complicated topic.
Great, thoughtful, mindful article. I really appreciate reading your thoughts on this.
I guess no one else has pointed this out but your quoted wildlige biologist is incorrect. African pygmy hedgehogs, which these are, are domesticated animals. Many of them adapt readily to handling, and even seek it out (depending on the lines you’re looking at).
It’s entirely ethical to keep and handle domesticated hedgehogs if you do it correctly. Virtually every hedgehog available on the market has come from domestic stock that hasn’t been wild since the 80s. Hundreds of generations have passed, they are fully domesticated.
I dislike animal cafes too but I dislike misinformation even more.
I did refer to African pygmy hedgehogs as domesticated several times in the post.