Free Cat Hugs With a Side of Fleas

Free Cat Hugs With a Side of Fleas

The trainee clerk at 7/11 gives me a nervous smile as she fumbles my items through the scanner. I wait for her to see the last item on the bench.

She pauses. She says something to me in Japanese which I don’t understand, but I recognise the word I was expecting to hear – “Neko.”

Hai,” ‘ I say, and give her a stupid thumbs up as if she’s the one who doesn’t understand Japanese.

I’m buying a ¥78 sachet of cat food and she’s concerned enough to ask whether I know it’s for cats.

This isn’t going to be some misguided story about tasting Asian pet food. A friend and I were in the midst of a cat-hunt, spurned by my desire to find an ethical cat café. Several minutes of Google searching highlighted Higashi-Ikebukuro Chuo Park, which the stray cats of Ikebukuro have made their home.

In my travels, I’ve often visited cat cafés to get a quick fix of feline affection, but my recent research has me concerned that my money has gone to support their exploitation.

At first glance, Higashi-Ikebukuro Chuo Park is an expanse of concrete in the middle of an entertainment district surrounded by garden beds and sparse trees. Japanese people fill the benches, most of them men, most of them smoking. Traffic is visible from two sides of the park, and an impressive but bone-dry water fountain provides a backdrop.

A cat sits on a post beside the fountain.

We give her a stroke. A split in her ear marks her as a stray, though she wears a collar. Nearby, a young tabby relaxes on the concrete but skulks away from our cooing affection. Red marks pepper its nose. My legs start to itch. Can fleas spread rabies?

Along a hidden path, an old man sits on a foldout chair. He gazes at me while a privileged cat sleeps on the only other chair beside him. Several others nibble at bowls nearby or nestle in the scrub, and their caretaker looks just as disheveled. Multiple tents are set up in the clearing, each big enough to fit a couple of people. Maybe another species of homeless spirits shelter here, too.

Some of the cats have collars. Two sport camo-print bandanas. None seem interested in going near the road, though most have minor battle scars. One chubby boy seems surprisingly healthy, and perks up when we dispense the cat food around the park. Most are happy for the pale, gelatinous goop we give them, apart from the small tabby, who seems to hate everything and everyone.

Visitors have donated water bottles, which passers-by use to fill up scattered bowls.

The thought is comforting, but their quality of life concerns me. Here, human interaction is completely on the cats’ terms, but I’ve been in this park for less than an hour and my legs are covered in fleabites. This is the life of a stray, anywhere. It’s hard to imagine a cat café to be worse.

Yet in 2016, Neko no Te, a cat café in Tokyo, was forced to shut down after they neglected to segregate their cats, leading to disease and unchecked breeding. Over 60 cats were found on the premises, some hidden in a nearby apartment. The blatant lack of concern for these cats’ wellbeing alludes to an industry of making a quick tourist buck off the faces of cute animals.

The cats are often chosen for their breed instead of temperament, and forced co-habitation can cause unnecessary stress. They also need places to escape, and while most cafés have high perches and hidden rooms, the cats can’t always avoid the flash of a camera. Just because a cat café has rules for customers doesn’t mean those customers abide by them. While you may have a pleasant visit, the next human those cats encounter could be someone’s riotous four-year-old, or someone who gives them a nibble of their café fare.

The most ethical cat cafés seem to be those who have rescue cats as the starring attraction. These cats have been saved from situations like those in Higashi-Ikebukuro Chuo Park, though it’s unrealistic to expect such vagabonds to prosper in a routine-regulated version of their previous existence. Presenting these cats for adoption tackles over-population issues in Japan, but the cats are exposed to frequent changes in dynamic as others come and go. A rescue cat café is not necessarily a charity.

Animal cafés are prominent in the biggest tourist spots in Tokyo – from Akihabara to Ikebukuro, Shinjuku to Harajuku. They are the newest trend in using animals to manipulate tourists for their money, and now advertise dogs, rabbits, pigmy hedgehogs and even owls. Ironically, it’s our love of animals that often draws us to these places, and with the addition of language barriers, it’s not always ‘don’t-ask, don’t-tell’ but ‘can’t-ask, can’t-tell’ that allows us to remain ignorant.

It was the complaints of people who visited Neko no Te that caused authorities to investigate. As animal lovers, we may get sucked in occasionally, and I’m sure some venues genuinely care for their feline co-workers. Yet the onus is on us to take responsibility in choosing which businesses to give our money to – if any.

Two weeks later, the old man is in the park again, sitting in the same chair. The cats shelter from the ‪midday sun, one nestled underneath a bench, between a used cigarette and an empty can of alcohol.

There are no hidden cages or closing hours here. The lives of these cats are public but ultimately their own. Nothing is lost in translation.

Images by the author

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