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Asia travel

Meerkats, raccoons, foxes, an owl: Bangkok’s animal cafes bring the zoo to you

It’s easy to forget the food when you’re sharing your table with exotic menageries that wouldn’t be allowed elsewhere – creatures you can hold, pet and take selfies with, to the concern of an animal welfare group

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2016, 6:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2016, 1:48pm

The waffle with egg and bacon looks appetising, but no one at the table really cares.

There’s a bit of mischief going on at another table in the small eatery that demands more attention. Cookie has clambered onto a young Thai woman’s shoulders and is tugging away at one of her dangling earrings with intense curiosity. The woman doubles over and giggles happily, forgetting all about her vanilla and chocolate sundae.

Many women love handbags or shoes. I love animals
Wachiraporn Arampibulphol

Cookie is a young raccoon, a dashing little chap with winsome features and his species’ trademark black patches around the eyes. “He’s so cute!” the woman coos.

“Cookie is very outgoing and loves attention,” notes the owner of Little Zoo Cafe, Wachiraporn Arampibulphol. Her space is a two-storey “pet café” on the outskirts of Bangkok, and contains numerous wild creatures from around the world.

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Wachiraporn’s private menagerie has raccoons and prairie dogs from North America; chinchillas and marmosets from South America; meerkats, serval cats and caracal cats from Africa. She also has more than a dozen foxes: North African fennec foxes, European red foxes, Russian silver foxes. There’s also a hairless guinea pig, a fluffy-tailed corgi, a Pomeranian, a cockatiel and a snowy owl.

Her animals are seen as “cute” and “exotic” – a combination that makes Little Zoo Cafe something of a novelty and a big draw for enthusiasts of animal cafés, which vie for customers with live animals (usually cats, sometimes dogs or rabbits). Wachiraporn insists that none of her pets are endangered species and they are all properly licensed. Not everyone, though, might be pleased at the sight of wild animals treated as pets.

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“In my experience, these cafés tend to showcase various [rare and] purebred animals rather than promoting animal welfare,” says Katherine Polak, an American veterinarian who is director of animal welfare at the Soi Dog Foundation, a leading Thailand-based animal rights organisation. “We were in touch with a cat café in Phuket Town, but they were not interested in housing any of our adoption cats.”

To Wachiraporn’s credit, many of her animals aren’t confined to cages. They loll or scamper around inside two parquet-floored, air-conditioned enclosures with glass windows where diners can pet them. Visitors arrive in droves to cuddle the animals and take selfies once they’re done with their lattes, milkshakes, fish and chips or ice cream. The raccoons and meerkats don’t seem to mind the attention. The fennec foxes, aloof creatures by nature, appear less sanguine, shying away from stroking hands to hide in corners.

Then there is Pizza. Not the cheesy Italian flatbread but a six-month-old meerkat. Pizza is busy burrowing into the knapsack of a female visitor. The meerkat ignores the banknotes that come tumbling out of the bag and carries on digging, clawing at a pack of facial tissues and nosing around a keychain.

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“I’m really into animal cafés and this one is amazing,” enthuses Jonathan Tan, a real estate agent from Singapore. “I seem to have bonded with one of the meerkats,” he adds. “He let me pick him up. I cradled him in my arms like a baby. They seem to enjoy human interaction and don’t appear stressed or fearful.”

Mishaps do happen, however. “I’m not going to lie: some of our customers have been bitten or scratched,” concedes Wachiraporn, whose own forearms bear visible claw marks.

An exotic-animal enthusiast, Wachiraporn, 29, has been collecting wildlife since high school with a single-minded zeal. “Many women love handbags or shoes,” she says. “I love animals.”

She has some 200 sugar gliders alone at her home, where she breeds them for sale. The small marsupial gliding possums from Australia are popular as exotic pets in Thailand and farther afield.

Some of her pets have cost her so much to buy that she might as well be collecting designer bags. A raccoon costs 40,000 baht (HK$9,000), a fennec fox sells for 70,000 baht, a caracal cat sets her back 250,000 baht. “It’s easy to buy these animals, but they’re hard to keep,” she cautions. “Red foxes are stinky and shed a lot.”

I’m really into animal cafés and this one is amazing
Jonathan Tan, tourist

Wachiraporn opened Little Zoo Cafe last year and her exotic animals became instant hits.

“Some people fly to Bangkok just to see them,” she says. Many of those visitors are from Hong Kong and Singapore, where an establishment like hers would likely never be allowed to operate because of animal welfare laws.

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In Thailand, however, there is more of an “anything goes” attitude. The country’s sole animal welfare law, which was passed in 2014, is vaguely worded and remains largely unenforced. It fails to effectively regulate the use of animals for commercial purposes, whether at tiger zoos, elephant camps or pet cafés.

Some people believe these cafés are mostly interested in using animals as gimmicks. They’re essentially petting zoos with overpriced desserts, and they’re all the rage from Beijing to Tokyo to Seoul. In Bangkok alone, more than a dozen animal-themed eateries with cutesy decor and resident pets cater to animal lovers: long-haired Persian cats await at Cataholic Café, floppy-eared rabbits at Lucky Bunny, Siberian huskies at True Love Café. Several establishments let you bring your own pets (for an extra charge) and offer separate food menus for them.

The food, though, is routinely secondary.

“We don’t sell food. We sell happiness,” insists Chotiros Ratanabirabongse, who breeds Siberian huskies and runs True Love Café, a small eatery on a suburban Bangkok street. If happiness for you means polishing off a so-so slice of cake before heading out to her kennels at the back to snap selfies with some long-suffering huskies in a noisy throng of other visitors, then you’ll feel right at home at True Love Café.

These animals are not suited to a hot and humid climate
Chotiros Ratanabirabongse, husky breeder

Originally bred by the indigenous hunter-gatherer Chukchi people of eastern Siberia in a land of ice and snow, huskies sport a double coat of thick fur. In tropical Thailand, True Love’s 23 huskies spend most of their time cooped up in cages inside cold, air-conditioned rooms.

Huskies like to roam and run wild, but her dogs are let out into a small yard only for short periods when her café’s visitors can pet some of them – for a fee.

“These animals are not suited to a hot and humid climate,” Chotiros acknowledges. Yet she continues to breed them because “all of them are purebred and beautiful.” And presumably because a single one can sell for up to 450,000 baht.

Sheryl Teo, a 20-year-old university student, flew to Bangkok from Singapore with her housewife mother just to see the huskies for herself after watching online videos of them running down a small street in a pack. “I would’ve been disappointed if I’d missed this,” she says in between petting the dogs. “I cuddled them and I massaged them. I want to take a video of them dashing about in slow motion.”

Out on the street, stray dogs sprawl in the shade or loiter around lethargically in the muggy heat. It’s as if they’re already moving in slow motion. No one pays them any attention, least of all the local Thais and foreign tourists flocking to True Love Café in taxis and tuk-tuks to pet the huskies.

Not all abandoned animals are left to their fate, though. Recently a pet fennec fox was found inside a plastic bag in a garbage bin on a Bangkok street. The animal was near death with a severe back injury, which it had likely suffered in a savage beating. When Wachiraporn learned of the injured animal on social media, she offered help and the fox was nursed back to life. “He’s alive but he can’t walk,” she says. “I don’t know how someone can do something like that to an animal.”

At Little Zoo Cafe, she says, she tries to educate people about animals. “It’s not enough to love animals,” she notes. “We also need to look after them.”