Is the growing popularity of animal cafes and dining with animals helping or hurting our furry friends?

Are you a cat, bird or reptile lover? Would the idea of having coffee while a cat softly brushes its fur over your legs or purrs peacefully on your lap excite you? That is the kind of experience some coffee shops in Cambodia are seeking to provide for their customers. Animal cafes around the world are becoming increasingly popular and in Cambodia, the coffee with animals trend is gaining popularity even as wildlife experts raise concerns that it is abetting illegal wildlife trade.

With cut-throat competition in the business, coffee shop owners in Phnom Penh – the capital of Cambodia – have resulted to applying innovative measures to attract more clients. One such measure is integrating pet animals in their shops where the customers can interact with them, watch them play or listen to the sounds they make.

The animals are put on display in cages where the customers are free to pet them or in glass-made enclosures where they can only be observed. In some instances, animals such as cats are left to roam freely in the café to interact with the customers more closely.

Different animals of different species and sizes and from different parts of the world can be found in these shops. There are at least animals such as cats, dogs, iguanas, snakes, rodents, scorpions, spiders, monkeys, kangaroos, parrots, turtles and even a giant cockroach.

Popular Animal Cafes: Reptile Cafe and Zoo Cafe

Reptile café is one of the popular coffee shop in Phnom Penh with numerous animals on display. Its founder, Chea Raty, 32, says he opened the restaurant after failing in another business of selling computer spare parts and put the animals in order to attract customers. “I started forming the idea to open Reptile Café and stock it with a variety of reptiles and other living creatures,” says Raty.

“My café has received a lot of attention due to its natural decorations. Customers can relax, eat and learn about the different species we have. They can also take selfies with the iguana which is our top star,” he adds.

Zoo Café is another popular such restaurant within the city. Its founder Nay Sokhonra, 26, says she founded it as a home for her pets after they outgrew the limited space in her home and that the idea of serving coffee with animals was just an afterthought. “Many people would think that I am using my pets to earn money for marketing. That’s definitely not true…The café is just secondary. This is my pets’ home,” she says.

But even as the trend of having coffee with animals continue to gain popularity in Phnom Penh, wildlife experts are concerned that the animals are wild and exotic and as such don’t have proper documentation.

“Wild animals do not make good pets, so it is not good to encourage this practice,” says Sarah Brook, a technical advisor to Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). “Even when bred in captivity, they need a lot of care, a good diet and an environment similar to their natural habitat, and free of disturbance and stress. I don’t think a café in Phnom Penh can provide that,” she adds.

Nick Marx, a director with Wildlife Alliance supports her saying “keeping wild animals in a small cage is unkind” and that it serves no conservation purpose other than entertainment purposes only. To avoid instances of illegal cross-border wildlife trade, Marx says, “It should be the job of the Cambodian government to make sure all these animals are kept properly and all these shops are acting legally.”

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