The Bird-brained Idea Behind Japan’s Owl Cafés

You might think it's a hoot, but ordering cute owls with your coffee is bad for the birds.

Ever had a macchiato with a side of Barn Owl?

Owl cafés, spiritual successors to the popular cat café, have taken Japan by storm. They might serve a good cup of joe, but the main attraction is the live owl aviary to go with it. Customers are allowed to pet the tethered owls, ranging from tiny Scops Owls to huge Great Horned Owls, like they would a common housecat. But the birds, despite their meme-friendly giant eyes, aren’t domesticated animals. Is it ethical to stroke one with your latté?

A big fat no, says Kent Knowles of the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia. In fact, he was horrified that anyone would try to treat an owl like their beloved Spot or Fluffy. “I just can’t imagine the mentality that would allow that,” says Knowles. “They’re not pets. They never will be pets.”

Owls, he says, are just not built to be indoor companions. They mostly hunt at night (the business hours better accommodate us diurnal hominids), they have an exceptionally small attention span (café patrons looking for affection will be sorely disappointed), and they are stubborn by nature. That goes double for the Great Horned Owl, on offer at many of the coffee shops.

“Great Horned Owls are independent thinkers, which is a nice way of saying they're the most bloody independent, uncooperative critters on the face of the earth,” Knowles says. He routinely travels around with owls that are unable to be returned to the wild, and says even the owls that know and trust him are obstinate and difficult.

And forget about petting them, one of the major draws of the cafés: It causes the birds extreme stress.

So they’re off-limits as pets; what about as working animals? “I've seen several very able, experience falconers say 'ooh, look at those weapons,'” says Knowles. “Uniformly, after two, three, four weeks, they said, ‘Uh uh. Ain't gonna work.’”

Worst of all, Knowles says, is the mentality that all wild animals, if cute enough, can be transformed into a pet. “It’s sending an entirely wrong message as to how to deal with wildlife,” he says. In the U.S., it’s illegal to keep owls as pets, and even licensed handlers like Knowles have strict regulations about what they can and can’t do with the birds. So you won’t be seeing an owl café in a city near you anytime soon—but maybe that’s a good thing.