Hedgehog Cafe Isn't As Cute As It Looks

"I can guarantee you that they're stressed."

In a video that went viral this week, people cuddle hedgehogs at a cafe in Tokyo, Japan. People cup the animals in their hands, take photos and feed the hedgehogs mealworms. At first glance, this cafe might seem like a great way to get up close with these delightful animals, but there's a dark reality behind the video, and behind the cafe itself.

The cafe is called Harry, and it promotes itself as both a hedgehog cafe and a pet store that sells the very hedgehogs you interact with.

"'Harry' is a place where you can get in touch with cute little hedgehogs," the cafe's website reads. "Firstly, please feel free to come to just play with them. Adorable hedgehogs are waiting for you."

Hedgehogs are certainly adorable, and it's understandably tempting to want to play with them. But what many people may fail to realize is that hedgehogs are nocturnal, which means they sleep during the day, so being handled and exposed to light during the daytime would be incredibly stressful.

"It's inhumane to subject those animals to that kind of treatment," DJ Schubert, a wildlife biologist at the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), told The Dodo. "Hedgehogs are nocturnal, but even if they weren't, the fact that they just allow people to handle and touch and harass these animals is completely inappropriate. Some hedgehogs might acclimate to being handled, but they are, by nature and instinct, wild animals. While the animals may or may not demonstrate outward signs of stress, I can guarantee you that they're stressed."

There are 15 types of hedgehogs in the world, but there's one thing all of them have in common - when they're stressed, they roll into a tight, spiny ball, which is the hedgehog's defensive position.

At one point in the video, a hedgehog does exactly this while being cupped in a woman's hands. Yet the woman seems unaware of the animal's possible distress, and the text caption on the video says, "Have a cuddle buddy."

"When people go into this cafe, and find hedgehogs curled up in a ball, that should be the first indication that that animal is highly stressed," Schubert said. "And handling that animal, and uncurling it, probably just causes massive stress that we can't comprehend."

Schubert also worries this kind of cafe fuels the pet trade for hedgehogs, which, in turn, fuels the illegal wildlife trade.

"These types of operations have so many negative consequences that may not be readily available or readily observable," Schubert said. "But they're very real, and they cause suffering and cruelty to the animals involved. I think people think they can buy a cute little hedgehog at a pet store, and that there's no consequences attached to that, but the consequences are huge, not only attached to that animal, but for other animals of that species and other species that have become popular in the pet trade."

If you like hedgehogs, Schubert suggests not supporting this cafe or any cafe that's similar to it, and to avoid buying a pet hedgehog from a store.

If you want to go to an animal cafe, Schubert says dog and cat cafes are much better alternatives.

"If it's a domestic cat or a puppy cafe where the owners are trying their best to help find homes for animals that might otherwise be euthanized, I'm all for that," Schubert said. "That's a wonderful enterprise that should be promoted."