Rabbit Advocacy Animal Matters

 

Asia Gets Passionate About Pets

November 2, 2007 Steve Mollman, The Wall Street Journal 

SEOUL, South Korea -- I really need a shower. I've been licked, nuzzled, nipped at, rubbed against and slobbered on in the past two hours. Yet it's hard to leave the Bau House Cafe, a popular establishment in the bustling Hongik University area of Seoul where people come to mingle with a few dozen dogs that reside at the cafe.

The first thing that hits me at the door is the smell -- unmistakably of urine and dogs. Then it's the sound of all the canines yelping their hellos to me, followed by the brief sensation of being the center of attention as all eyes -- canine and human -- check out the newcomer.

Things settle down quickly and now a beagle named Anny won't leave my side. As closing time nears, and I'm on the last few sips of a $5 Diet Coke (I pass on eating dinner here; fried rice with shrimp is on offer), it occurs to me that I'm lingering, happy to be surrounded by mutts as they vie for attention, sniff for treats and stage playful sneak attacks on one another.

Cat Store Cafe
The 20 or so other customers seem reluctant to leave as well. A few of them have brought their own pooches, who mix with the resident dogs, but many people are here because they can't have their own pet for various reasons: Their apartment building bans animals, their urban lives are too hectic (or transient) or their living spaces are too cramped. Some cafe customers are considering buying a pet, and visits serve as a sort of a trial run.

More cafes like the Bau House have been springing up around Asia in recent years. Some host dogs, others boast cats. The idea is to enjoy food and beverages while socializing and playing with the pets on site. For people who want to go a step further, a brisk business has been building in shops that rent pets by the hour, day or week. Driving the trend are higher disposable incomes and a growing desire for animal companionship.

Betty Carmack, a professor at the University of San Francisco who studies human-animal bonding, attributes the growing attraction of pets in Asia to changing family structures and more mobile societies that prompt people to seek stable relationships. An animal companion often provides that stability, she says, and "I would expect that this is what is happening with the growing popularity of animals in these Asian cities."

Asia's passion for pets is clearly on the rise. According to research firm Euromonitor International, the market size for pet food and pet care products in Asia swelled to nearly $7 billion this year from $4.6 billion in 1998.

The grooming service at Dog One Life
In Tokyo, for instance, the number of registered pet-rental businesses leapt to 134 this year from 17 in 2000, according to government statistics. Among them is Puppy the World, which says revenue from its rent-a-pet business been increasing about 20% each year since it opened in 2004. The most popular breeds are the smaller ones such as Chihuahuas and miniature dachshunds.

"We're not crazy about pets," confides James Hart, a British expatriate who lives with his family in an apartment in Tokyo and is a Puppy the World customer. "We don't want to have to look after them."

Still, last year, the Harts wanted their then 2-year-old son, Kai, to be exposed to canines. So, they rented a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel from Puppy the World.

When they entered the shop, Mr. Hart and his wife were asked to select a pooch from a brochure full of photos. Then Gajiro, their selection, was consulted to see if he was "in the mood" for a walk. Puppy the World also checks each dog's personality, says store owner Junichi Takahashi; if a dog is uncomfortable with men, for instance, only women can rent it.

As soon as the Harts began their walk, the dog made a steamy deposit near a tree, which they had to scoop up. Professional dog walkers, notes Mr. Hart wryly, get paid for such work, whereas he paid $8.45 an hour for the privilege.

The rent-a-pet phenomenon has spread throughout Asia. In Jaipur, India, a pet shop called the International Dog Bazaar caters to relatively well-heeled clientele. Proprietor Viren Sharma, who used to take in stray dogs as a child, says he rented his first pet to an uncle about three years ago. Now, Mr. Sharma says the shop's rent-a-dog business has jumped to between 50 and 80 canines a month from just two or three a few years ago. "The canine industry in India is booming like anything," he says.

Bau House Cafe
Mr. Sharma counts on his customers to fall in love with the rental pets and purchase them, which he says happens 70% to 80% of the time. "Indians are basically very emotional people," he says. "The attachment and the bonding becomes so strong that within a few days it's next to impossible to leave the pet at the shop."

He also rents other animals for between $1 and $10 a day, including cats, birds, hamsters, guinea pigs, and snakes imported from Nepal. Mr. Sharma says he rents five to 10 iguanas -- from places such as Thailand and Malaysia -- each month and charges $50 a day.

All told, these animals make up only about 20% of his rental business. Dogs dominate, with rents starting at $2; the most popular breeds of Labradors, St. Bernards and Pugs command the top daily rate of $10.

Of course, some people object to the idea of renting a pet, especially a dog, given the potential stress on the animal. Angie Tan, a canine behavior counselor in Singapore, believes a dog rental service is "one of those things that can be good, but can also be abused...As long as the dogs have a base they can always go back to, and a main caregiver that they can trust, it can work out." Renters should be carefully screened, Ms. Tan notes, and only dogs with an outgoing temperament should be used.

Many people in Asia have never owned a pet before, and many discover it's too much work only after they've purchased one. The result can be abandoned animals. Danny Tam, owner of Uncle Toby Professional Pet Grooming in Hong Kong, started a rent-to-own program partly because there were so many dumped pets in the city. Many first-time owners ditched their dogs after realizing how much work is involved, Mr. Tam says, something that would happen less if they could "try before they buy."

Indeed, says Mayumi Kitamura, a manager at pet-rental service Zoo Japan in Tokyo, many rental customers "want to try out a pet to see what their lives would look like with a pet around." They also want to make sure they aren't allergic to the pet they want to buy, she says.

Bau House Cafe
Zoo Japan mostly rents out dogs, but also birds, rabbits and reptiles such as iguanas. "We first thought it would be outrageous to rent out a living thing," says Ms. Kitamura. "But we realized that there are needs for this in society."

Others reached the same conclusion. A few years ago Manabu Araki, who owns a pet shop in Tokyo called Wanko Club Janet Village, spotted an elderly man lingering outside his store window. It turned out the man wanted to buy a dog, but was hesitant because of his age. Mr. Araki let him take a dog home for a week. After noticing how much it lifted the man's spirits, "I was convinced then" that such a rental service is useful, Mr. Araki says. He soon began renting dogs from his shop.

For people who can't come to grips with taking responsibility for an animal for even a day but who nonetheless still want such interaction, there's the cafe option.

Dog and cat cafes tend to cluster in trendy urban neighborhoods. Hong Kong's Causeway Bay has a handful of such pet cafes with names like Dog One Life and Mad Dog Come. There's also Cat Store Cafe, which is for felines only. Besides its Hong Kong branch, Dog One Life has outlets in Tokyo and Taiwan, and plans to expand to Macau.

Some operate as private clubs. Some have food; others serve only drinks. They are particularly popular among young women. The Cat Store Cafe, which began life as an antiques shop, says about 80% of its customers are female, generally between the ages of 18 to 30.

The owners missed their cats while working long hours at the antiques shop, so they started keeping them there. Customers started asking after the cats. So, the owners added more felines, and then made a cafe for sitting and socializing. "So it's somehow an accident," says co-owner Cynthia Leung, of the store's evolution. "But many cat lovers want to have a place to sit together and talk and have drinks and food." (Ms. Leung says the cafe is registered under a club license with the Hong Kong government, not as a restaurant "so it's OK." Hong Kong regulations generally ban dogs from restaurants; live animals aren't allowed in food-preparation rooms.)

At the Bau House Cafe in Seoul, nearly everyone around me is young and female. Seung-mi, a 26-year-old hairstylist, sits at the next table with her girlfriend who is a few years younger and works as a clerk at a department store.

Huh Jun-hyuk, a doglover who thought other pet lovers would like to socialize with dogs in a restaurant setting, started the cafe in 2001. The cafe's popularity has ebbed and flowed, he says, but the business has proven sustainable over a long period. Currently, the cafe draws about 60 to 70 customers a day.

Many are long-time regulars who have bonded with the resident dogs, says Mr. Huh, busily snapping pictures of patrons with pooches that he posts on the cafe's Web site (tinyurl.com/36m3os).

In a nearby neighborhood, another type of restaurant serves a traditional Korean dish of dog soup. While Mr. Huh thinks that these days more Koreans regard dogs as pets rather than meals, eating dogs "is a part of our food culture."

Pet cafes like Bau House aren't to everyone's taste. They are not, generally, the most hygienic of places. At the Bau House, the dogs poop on the floor and lick the tableware, cups and dishes, staying one step ahead of the cleaning staff, who are prompt and thorough.

On a work trip to Seoul last year, Meredith Wilson, a Chicago business consultant, missed her own dogs back home. So she dropped into Bau House. "The dogs walk everywhere," she says. "They spend a lot of time on the tables," which "doesn't bother me in the least." But with all that fur flying around, Ms. Wilson says she can understand how it might turn off other people.

--Miho Inada in Tokyo, SungHa Park in Seoul and Iris Kuo in Hong Kong contributed to this article.

Comment: Profiting from animal exploitation. Sadly, this trend is spreading.

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