Can China’s Cat Cafés Build Awareness for Animal Rights?
Tucked away in a traditional shikumen building in Shanghai’s touristy Tianzifang neighborhood is a curious café. Like other cafés in the hyper-commercialized area, it offers patrons a wide range of entertainment options, including video game consoles and manga. But the main draw is the clowder of cats lazing atop the shop’s chairs.
Although the first cat café was founded in Taipei in 1998, the trend didn’t catch on in the Chinese mainland until roughly 2010. Their late emergence hasn’t hindered their growth, however. According to my research, there were as many as 4,000 cat cafés in China by 2020, including 200 in Shanghai alone. They have become a near-ubiquitous sight in malls and alleys across the country — and in countless videos posted on Chinese social networks that offer “healing” doses of cute kittens.
As China’s middle class grew over the last decade, it began to seek out novel forms of entertainment, with animal-themed cafés emerging as a popular choice. It’s not just cats and dogs either — cafés featuring guinea pigs, racoons, and even more exotic animals have popped up throughout China. But cats are still king: The cat café scene has become so competitive that operators have begun seeking additional niches, like board games.
At the core of this success is a growing demographic of young urban office workers looking for an outlet. With homeownership out of reach for many — and business travel increasingly common —a large number of young people are unwilling or unable to raise pets on their own. Nevertheless, they crave animal companionship. Cat cafés allow them to experience a close connection with animals without having to assume the responsibility of caring for them, helping them make up for a lack of intimacy in their lives.
More broadly, the phenomenal popularity of cat cafés reflects the close but complicated relationship between city dwellers and urban animals. We need look no further than abattoirs and farms to see that the dynamic between humans and animals is often one of sheer domination. The dynamics of cat cafés are not quite so clear-cut: On one hand, café owners commodify animals, with many patrons saying their money entitles them to an intimate connection with the café’s menagerie. On the other hand, as autonomous individuals, animals naturally have their own unique personalities and preferences, which humans must accommodate.
This contradiction has led many animal rights activists to criticize cat cafés as inhumane. But there are also culturally specific factors at play. I was curious, are China’s cat cafés an insidious form of control over animals, or might they inspire patrons to reflect on how they view and treat other species?
In China, the majority of cat cafés are profit-driven. For that reason, owners usually source the liveliest, tamest specimens of pricey breeds — such as ragdolls, British and American shorthairs, tabbies, Siamese cats and Maine coons — from professional catteries. If the cats have trouble adjusting, they’re sold off or adopted as private pets.
Their living conditions are determined entirely by the attitude of the café’s owners and employees. In some cafés, the cats have glossy fur and friendly dispositions; in others, they have tear stains under their eyes and mite-ridden ears. The busier cafés are often crowded, restricting cats’ room to roam. Exhausted by all the noise and movement, some try to get as far away as they can from patrons, taking refuge in the nooks and crannies of the cafés. At the above-mentioned café in Tianzifang, some interviewees stated that they could hardly see the cats for the crowd.
The commercial nature of these urban spaces renders the dynamic between patrons and animals fundamentally unequal; the cafés naturally prioritize their clients’ needs above the animals’ consent. As a result, though the life of a café cat may seem enviable, they are first and foremost workers. And like all workers, they can be exploited.
However, there are signs that cafés are openings patrons’ eyes to the plight of cats and building sympathy for animal rights movements.
For example, if a cat wants to play with a patron, it’ll scamper up and rub itself against them; but if it prefers to avoid human contact, it’ll climb up onto a platform out of reach, or else hide in its litterbox. If patrons want to enjoy a closer connection with the animals, they have to interact with them on their terms — for instance, by learning how they like to be held. Usually, employees are happy to offer guidance in this regard. One interviewee told me: “You can’t expect a strange cat to let you pet its head without its permission. They get scared if a stranger covers their eyes. You have to squat down, make a fist with your hand and let them smell it, first. That’s how they greet people.”
In urban commercial venues, animals are being made to adapt to human-created living environments and perform emotional labor for the benefit of consumers. But if total equality between humans and animals may be impossible, there is a certain reciprocity in these arrangements. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of asking ourselves the next time we want to pick up a cat if that’s what it wants, too.
This article was co-authored by Chen Pinyu, assistant professor at Soochow University, and Kong Xiang, professor at East China Normal University.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editor: Cai Yiwen; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: VCG)