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’m drawn to gentrifying neighbourhoods. I use products that contain palm oil. 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.