Otter cafés and ‘cute pets craze’ fuel illegal trafficking in Japan and Indonesia

A new documentary film has been released that shines a spotlight on the illegal trade in the Asian small-clawed otter, a species listed as vulnerable and in decline by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

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SOURCEMongabay
Image Credit: Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal
  • A new investigative film reveals the extent of illegal trafficking of otters to supply Tokyo’s ‘cafés’ where people pay to cuddle the wild animals, and it also shows their unsuitability as domestic pets.
  • Otters kept in these cafés endure poor conditions and are fed items like cat food, which is not good for them.
  • The business is highly profitable and is likely linked to organized crime, according to the film’s undercover investigation. Adults are often killed and their young captured for the trade.
  • Mongabay interviewed the filmmaker as the movie was released, and one can also watch the film below.

On World Otter Day 2019, a new documentary film has been released that shines a spotlight on the illegal trade in the Asian small-clawed otter, a species listed as vulnerable and in decline by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Produced by wildlife photographer and filmmaker Aaron Gekoski for the wildlife charity World Animal Protection, “Pet otters: the truth behind the latest wildlife craze,” is an investigative project that reveals the poor conditions these wild animals endure, and their unsuitability as pets.

Corralled into tiny cages and made to play with paying customers at ‘otter cafés’ or kept as pets in private homes in places like Tokyo and Indonesia, the business is highly profitable and may be linked to organized crime, according to the film’s undercover investigation. Mongabay interviewed Gekoski as the film was released to hear what he learned.

Internet star Takechiyo lives in a private home and here takes a rare break from play. His owner now warns against keeping otters as pets. Image by Aaron Gekoski for World Animal Protection.

Mongabay: What makes these creatures interesting, important, and worthy of a World Day of Otters? 

Aaron Gekoski: Otters are seen as cute, romantic, loyal and intelligent. They hold hands to ensure they don’t float away from each other, live in close family units, use tools to access food, and pat stones in the air and then roll them around their bodies. These unique behaviors and human-like characteristics have made them hugely popular animals, globally. However, it’s these traits that are also contributing to their demise.

What threats do they face?

Otters are facing extreme pressures in a variety of forms. Along with losing their habitat, they are killed by farmers for destroying their paddy fields or eating their farmed fish. And now, they are in high demand for the exotic pet trade. In order to supply the demand, babies are being poached from the wild after their parents are killed. Due to these threats, only one of the 13 species of otters is thriving: the other 12 have been identified by the IUCN as having declining populations.

About this fad in Japan of cafés, where people pay to cuddle otters, why do you think it’s worrisome?

Tokyo now has more than half a dozen otters cafés, which vary in terms of the contact visitors are allowed, and the conditions the otters are kept in. At some of the cafés we visited, otters were confined to small rooms filled with people allowed to run riot. Others were locked in cages for the majority of the day. The otters’ welfare is severely compromised for the entertainment of visitors. As Cassandra Koenen, Global Head of Campaigns for World Animal Protection noted:

A stressed otter bites its tail. Image by Aaron Gekoski for World Animal Protection.

“The otters are heard whimpering, shrieking and making distress calls while customers are interacting with them. Some are kept in solitary conditions with no natural light, others are seen biting their claws and exhibiting traumatized behavior – some of the worst housing conditions included small cages with no access to water.”

One of the otters we saw had even bitten the end of its tail off.

Watch the documentary here:

What else did you find during the investigation?

During our lengthy investigation for World Animal Protection, we visited an otter community in Indonesia, multiple otter cafés in Japan, an otter ‘celebrity’ in Tokyo, wild otter populations in the heart of Singapore, exotic pet markets in Jakarta, and interviewed an undercover investigator unearthing links to the Japanese mafia. Along with this, we spoke to experts and conservationists to investigate this growing trend and the potential impacts on otters.

What we found was a highly complex network with links to organized crime. As Koenen put it: “The trade in otters as pets is an interlinked trade network involving farmers, hunters, collectors, dealers, enforcement agencies, and transportation operatives. The explosion [of] famous otters on social media is driving the demand for otters, making it a lucrative business.”

At Kotsumate otter café, groups of visitors get 30-minutes play time with the otters. Critics say this increases the risk of disease transmission and causes stress in the otters. Image by Aaron Gekoski for World Animal Protection.

During our investigation it became evident quite quickly that otters do not make good pets. We spent time with Komunitas Otters Indonesia (KOI), a group of otter owners in Indonesia who reinforced this belief. “Keeping an otter is a big commitment,” the founder of KOI, Georgian Marcello, told us. “We have a slogan, which is the 3B’s, meaning otters are bau (smelly), berisik (noisy) and of course they are boros (an extravagance).”

Otters can eat 25% of their body weight in a day. As a result they are often fed cat food, which doesn’t meet their nutritional needs. Along with this, otters bite, one of the b’s they do not mention. From what we witnessed, you wouldn’t wish a pet otter on your worst enemy!

Social media star Takechiyo and his playmate, Aoi, at bath time, one of their favorite activities. Otters spend a large proportion of their time in the water but in captivity it is confined to the bathroom. Image by Aaron Gekoski for World Animal Protection.

One top story about otters Mongabay recently published is about their big comeback in Singapore, where the waterways have been cleaned up and otters are now commonly seen around the city, and people enjoy watching them from a respectful distance. Is the answer to the desire to cuddle otters in cafes perhaps some combination of restoration and education?

We also visited the Bishan 10. Seeing them in the slightly surreal surroundings of central Singapore offered a stark contrast to the otter cafés in Japan. It is one of the few places where it’s possible to have close encounters with otters – albeit habituated ones – in the ‘wild’. However, as a photojournalist just there to document the issue, I don’t want to speculate on where the answers lie or comment on the situation in Singapore. This is perhaps best left to otter experts.

Singapore residents pause to photograph a Bishan 10 otter-crossing near Marina Bay. Photograph courtesy of Jeffrey Teo.

What is it about otters that you personally find compelling?

My views changed during the course of this assignment, particularly during a visit to one ‘famous’ otter. Takechiyo lives with a family in an apartment block in Tokyo. He even has his own Instagram account, with nearly 300,000 followers. Videos of Takechiyo eating, bathing and going about his daily life have rendered him a celebrity among otter enthusiasts.

At Takechiyo’s home, we watched him hoist pellets of cat food into his mouth, before repeating the process over and over, chewing enthusiastically. When viewing these moments in isolation, or via a photograph or video clip, it’s easy to see how people can be fooled into thinking that otters make for suitable and happy pets.

A member of KOI plays with his otter at a waterfall outside of Bogor, Indonesia. The group meets regularly to discuss the challenges of owning them. Image by Aaron Gekoski for World Animal Protection.

However, the illusion was quickly shattered as he then went on a tour of destruction around the house; climbing on all the furniture, chewing, shrieking, and even biting and scratching our translator. It was a lightbulb moment – otters may look cute, but they make terrible pets. Otters are best observed at arm’s length and in the wild.

These otters caught inside the pet trade, is there any hope for them once they’re in captivity, are there rehab rescue and rehabilitation programs where they can learn to live a more otter-like life?

There are some organizations who are doing great work rehabilitating otters, like Cikananga Wildlife Centre in Indonesia. Here they are provided with specialist health care and an extensive rehabilitation program. Cikananga then works with the government to translocate suitable candidates, which they will carefully monitor over time. Otter rehabilitation is an extensive and expensive process that takes a lot of resources and specialist skills. Given the scale of the trade, only a tiny percentage of rescued otters will make it to centers like Cikananga.

Just this weekend I documented some baby otters that had been confiscated at customs in Bali, where smugglers were caught trying to traffic them to Russia. The authorities then sent the babies to a zoo. These otters have been dealt the roughest of hands: parents killed, stolen from the wild, packed in a suitcase to be smuggled to Russia, confiscated, and then sent to live the rest of their lives in a zoo. It was a tragic situation, and a microcosm of the problems facing these charismatic creatures.

At Harry Zoo Café, the otters live in a glass playpen with holes so they can reach out for food. Visitors will feed them cat food, despite otter diets mainly consisting of fish in the wild. Image by Aaron Gekoski for World Animal Protection.

Learn more about World Animal Protection’s exotic pet trade campaign at www.worldanimalprotection.org and follow along on social media via #wildlifenotpets.

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