Otter cafes and pet fever accelerate illegal trade in Japan and Indonesia

On World Otter Day 2019, a documentary film was released highlighting the illegal trade in small-clawed otters in Asia. The small-clawed otter is categorized as a vulnerable species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, and its population is declining.

A film by wildlife photographer and filmmaker Aaron Gekoski of World Animal Protection, Pet Otters: What Happens Behind the Recent Wildlife Pet Fever? The Truth is an investigative film that reveals that wild animals are kept in poor captivity and unsuitable as pets.

In places such as Tokyo and Indonesia, otters are confined in small cages at otter cafes and forced to interact with visitors, while others are kept as pets in private homes. Undercover research conducted for the film suggests that otter-related businesses are easily profitable and may be linked to organized crime. 

What is interesting or interesting about this film and what makes it appropriate for World Otter Day? 

Aaron Gekoski: Otters are considered cute, surreal, loyal and intelligent animals. Otters hold each other’s hands when in rivers to keep them from being swept away, live with blood-related families, use tools to secure food, and use pebbles to make beanbags and bodies. Roll it around and play with it. These unique, human-like behaviors have made the otter an increasingly popular choice. However, these are also the causes of their death at the same time.

What dangers do otters face?

Otters are in great danger in many ways. Their habitat is being lost, and they are sometimes hunted by farmers because they destroy rice paddies and eat farmed fish. Otters are now in great demand in the trade as exotic animals. Because of these factors, only one of the 13 species of otter remains unthreatened. The other 12 species have been confirmed by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) to be in decline.

Why do you think you’re concerned about the popular cafes in Japan where you can pay to cuddle an otter?

There are now more than six otter cafes in Tokyo, and they differ in terms of how much contact customers have with the otters and how the otters are kept. In some of the cafes we visited, the otters were kept in rooms full of people, allowing customers to make noise inside. Others were confined in cages for most of the day. Pleasing the customer is a priority, and the otter’s happy life is greatly undermined.

Cassanda Koenen, Global Head of Campaigns for World Animal Protection, said: “When guests try to play with the otters, they cry, shriek and scream in distress. “Some individuals are left alone, biting their nails, exhibiting traumatic behavior. They are sometimes kept in the worst conditions, such as in cramped cages with no water (for swimming).” says.

One otter we saw lost its claws from biting its own nails.

What else did you learn during your research?

In long-term research conducted for World Animal Protection, we explored otter habitats in Indonesia, otter cafes in Japan, ‘otter celebrities’ in Tokyo, wild otter colonies in central Singapore, and otter colonies in Jakarta. We interviewed an undercover investigator who visited an exotic animal market and revealed ties to the Japanese Mafia. We also spoke with experts and environmentalists to explore this growing trend and its impact on otters.

As a result, we found a fairly complex network with connections to organized crime. As Koenen puts it, “The pet otter trade is driven by a network of farmers, hunters, collectors, middlemen, law enforcement agencies and transport agencies. Putting it on social media drives demand for otters and makes it a lucrative industry.”

During our research, it became apparent very early on that otters were not suitable pets. We visited Komunitas Otters Indonesia (KOI), a group of Indonesian otter owners who strongly agree with this idea. Georgian Marcello, founder of KOI, said: “Otters are very hard to keep. We created a slogan called 3B. 3B means bau (smell) and berisik (noisy). , and of course baros (costs money).”

Otters eat 25% of their body weight in food per day. Therefore, they are often fed cat food, which does not contain the nutrients otters need. Also, although not included in 3B, otters bite. Given what we’ve witnessed, you wouldn’t want your pet otter to be your worst enemy!

The top story on otters recently published was that otters are making a comeback in Singapore . In Singapore, waterways have been cleaned and otters can be seen throughout the city. Also, when looking at an otter, people keep a certain distance. If you want to cuddle an otter in a café, does that mean you also need population recovery and education?

We visited Bishan 10. They lived in central Singapore in what could be called an ideal environment, the complete opposite of the otter cafés in Japan. They are used to people, but this is one of the few places in the world where you can see otters up close. But I don’t want to say what the answer is or comment on the current situation in Singapore like a photojournalist is just there to make an article. I think an otter expert is the right person to answer this question.

What made the biggest impression on you personally?

In the process of doing this work, my thinking changed. Especially when we visited the “made famous” otters. Takechiyo lives with her owner in an apartment in Tokyo. He has an Instagram account with nearly 300,000 followers. Videos of Takechiyo eating, bathing, and going about her daily life have made her famous among otter fans.

At Takechiyo’s house, we watched him chew cat food pellets eagerly and then lift them into his mouth over and over again. It is easy to imagine that, watching the moment from a distance, or viewing photos and videos, people who saw this would mistakenly think that an otter is suitable as a pet and they can live happily together. rice field.

But after that, when he went around destroying the whole house, the illusion disappeared in an instant. He climbed and chewed on every piece of furniture, screamed, and even bit and scratched our translator. That’s when he realized. Otters are cute, but they are the worst pets. And otters are best seen in nature from a distance.

Are otters caught in the pet trade hopeless once caught? Also, are there any rescue or rehabilitation programs where they can learn how to lead a more otter life?

There are some organizations like the Kuningan Wildlife Center in Indonesia that are doing great work on otter rehabilitation. There, otters are provided with expert health care and extensive rehabilitation programs. The center then works with the government to release the animals (after the rehabilitation program) into the wild and monitor them closely over the long term. Rehabilitation of otters is an expensive and multifaceted task that requires a lot of resources and expert skills. Given the scale of the trade, it is likely that only a small percentage of rescued otters end up in places like the Kuningan Wildlife Centre.

Just this week, I was able to photograph a baby otter seized by customs in Bali. A trafficker was caught trying to transport a baby otter to Russia. After that, the authorities transferred them to the zoo. These otters have been treated roughly. After their parents were killed and taken from where they lived, they were placed in suitcases to be sent to Russia, confiscated, and spent the rest of their lives in zoos. It’s a tragic situation, the epitome of the problems facing the charismatic and popular animal.

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