Since debuting in Taiwan nearly 20 years ago, the pet cafe craze has spread like wildfire across Asia and migrated to other parts of the world, too; cat cafes are now almost commonplace on several continents, and last year, the US opened its first dog cafe.
But in Seoul, the pet cafe experience goes far beyond just cats and dogs. Some of South Korea's most unique dining experiences now include a menagerie of exotic animals.
One day last month, I set out to visit Seoul's three most unusual pet cafes. They promised experiences of sipping Americanos and eating waffles while hanging out with sheep, raccoons, and meerkats. While exploring the pet cafe scene, I found that some of the cafes had added a few animals I'd never even heard of. What the hell is a capybara, anyway?
I began with Thanks Nature Cafe, also known as the "sheep cafe." It's located in Hongdae, Seoul's go-to area for indie shows, crazy coffee shops, and innovative fashion. Thankfully, the section with the sheep is separate from the dining area, which serves coffee, smoothies, juices, and waffles.
As with most pet cafes, in order to spend time with the animals, you need to first purchase a concession of some kind. Aside from the sheep, patrons come for the waffles and patbingsu, Korea's popular dessert of shaved frozen milk with assorted toppings. Thanks Nature Cafe's version of patbingsu is the classic shaved ice milk topped with red bean paste, roasted bean powder, and red bean mochi. The ice has the light, flaky texture of fresh snowfall, making it the perfect antidote to Korea's oppressive summer.
As soon as we walked in, the barista handed my girlfriend and me a menu and a flyer with a number of rules such as 'Do not lift the raccoon' and 'Do not touch a sleeping raccoon.'
My number-one concern before going to any of these establishments was the potential sanitation issues that might come from having animals roaming around near where food is prepared and consumed. I figured that the outside area would smell like sheep piss, but the owner constantly rushed out to clean and disinfect the area. As a result, the pen was immaculate, and the sheep even appeared freshly bathed themselves—cleaner and fluffier than most of the clouds that you see in polluted Seoul.
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As far as their welfare goes, they have their own penned section with a small barn in which to sleep and avoid annoying visitors if they please. The sheep, named Anna and Sam, are very friendly, coming out to greet and possibly jump on any guests who'd like to feed them. Their soft "baa"s were soothing compared to the blaring K-pop outside.
Next up on my pet cafe quest was Blind Alley's "raccoon cafe". At first, this one seemed like the weirdest of them all. Coming from the suburbs of New Jersey, I was raised to think of raccoons as malevolent pests that rifle through your garbage and inevitably carry rabies, not any type of creature near which one should dine.
Blind Alley Cafe is located in a relatively quiet part of Seoul, where there are few other pet cafes. After speaking with a few baristas and the owners themselves, I came to understand why these pet cafes have become such a popular trend in South Korea's capital.
With Seoul's population density being double that of New York City, most city dwellers live in high-rise apartments, many of which don't allow animals. And Korean culture's emphasis on hard work means long hours; Koreans have the third-longest average work week in the world, leaving little time to take care of pets. So after dealing with the stresses of city life and a 60-hour work week, sometimes all you want is to eat gelato and pet a raccoon to blow off steam.
Although there were a number of empty tables—unlike at Thanks Nature Cafe, which was packed—there was a steady flow of both locals and foreigners. As soon as we walked in, the barista handed my girlfriend and me a menu and a flyer with a number of rules such as "Do not lift the raccoon" and "Do not touch a sleeping raccoon." I wish I could be present for the moment when a clueless customer was stupid enough to try to pick up a raccoon as if it was a harmless puppy.
More alarmingly, the flyer also let us know the creatures may attempt to eat our belongings or bite us, so, you know, "Do not be alarmed and firmly say 'no' to a raccoon."
"Good to know. I'll take an Oreo Bong Bong and a ricotta salad," I told the barista.
Aside from the raccoons, Blind Alley is known for its homemade ricotta cheese and gelato. The salad is comprised of a mound of fresh ricotta cheese topped with tomatoes and raisins. The Oreo 'Bong Bong' was a warm brownie made with Oreo wafers and topped with homemade vanilla gelato, chocolate sauce, caramel, and almonds. I stirred it until the melted swirls of chocolate began to resemble the face of a raccoon.
As with the last cafe, the section with the animals is separate from the eating area. I was on edge when I came in and didn't see them, figuring the vicious vermin would soon pounce on me from a dark corner. In reality, the three raccoons were all sleeping. The staff handed me bits of dried squid, and they all woke up one by one at its pungent smell. The most interesting and playful of the bunch was an albino raccoon with smooth, tiny white paws, with which it grabbed one piece at a time.
Like all the other Americans I saw there, I flinched each time its hand touched mine. The dimly lit room had brick walls and low-hanging pipes, giving it the appearance of a city's dark alley, where in Jersey, you might find a horde of raccoons overturning your trash cans and drinking rancid milk. The raccoons clawed up the boards of one wall and scurried across the pipes.
Raccoons aren't native to South Korea, so locals, blissfully unaware of the species' less-than-stellar reputation in the States, just smiled and took selfies inches from the animals' faces. A corgi even came in and began wrestling with one of them. In a nearby room, the cafe recently added a capybara, which is like nothing I'd ever seen. Native to South America, it's the world's biggest rodent. It looks like a 140-pound groundhog with the face of a rabbit and tiny ears. Drinking an Americano nearby these wild creatures made me feel like I saw all of the strangeness Seoul's cafe culture had to offer, but it was just preparation for what came next.
Speaking from experience, the sensation of meerkats trying to burrow holes in your clothes is… strange.
Finally, I came to the third and arguably most unusual destination on my list: the Meerkat Cafe. Unlike the others, there was no designated animal area; the entire cafe was for creatures of all kinds to scurry about. Above my head waved the long, spotted tail of a genet, a spotted mammal native to Africa that looks like a cross between a lemur and a mongoose. Behind me, a wallaby, the cafe's newest addition, bounced past all the tables. A mischievous Arctic fox ran along the window behind me and began to pick a fight with the wallaby. All the while, assorted cats leapt onto the table or lap of whoever wanted to feed them.
Because there isn't a separate dining area, the cafe only serves cold bottled drinks like iced coffee and juices. I grabbed an iced coffee and waited in line to go into the meerkat pen, where you get ten minutes to play with around a dozen meerkats. Visitors are provided with a blanket, and the meerkats, which are friendly and social, come and sit in your lap.
Speaking from experience, the sensation of meerkats trying to burrow holes in your clothes is… strange. Observing these meerkats attempting to follow their animal instincts in an overcrowded cafe far from their native land, I had to wonder: Can these pet cafes really be an ethical way for any of these creatures to live? I consulted the owner of Meerkat Cafe, Natalie, and asked her opinion on the treatment of animals in Korean pet cafes.
"Some cafes are bad. They don't take care of the animals. They don't clean them or feed them right. They only care about money," Natalie said.
"What makes yours different from those?" I asked.
"I love these animals. They come home with me sometimes. The meerkats and Arctic fox were my pets before I opened this place. I used to feel bad leaving them alone at home when I went to work so I started this cafe so they can have more attention."
This seemed like a common story. The raccoons from Blind Alley were originally the owner's pets after she rescued them from getting made into fur coats, she said, while she got the capybara from a zoo that was shutting down. Although the owner of Thanks Nature Cafe didn't keep the sheep as his own pets before starting the cafe, he told me that he has raised them since they were young.
With a number of Seoul's dog and cat cafes being recently outed for mistreating their animals, these cafes claim that they hope to stand out not only for their unusual brood, but for their approach to welfare.
Still it's hard to say how truly humane it is for wild animals to be put into an unnatural habitat and pet by crowds of strangers all day. But for some, the alternative could be being left alone in a small city apartment, abandoned, or killed for their fur. And at least for Natalie, her intentions seemed sincere.
"I'm an animal lover," she said, "and I just want to share my animals with people, who love them like I do."