The Guardian recently aired an article on a boutique hedgehog petting zoo-café that opened in Tokyo. For $9 per person, visitors can drink coffee and cuddle these animals. Popular with kids and adults alike, this café, named Harry to pun on the Japanese pronunciation of “Hari” meaning spiky, aims to soothe the souls of nonhuman nature deprived urbanites.
While the Guardian sells the phenomena of animal voyerism cafés as a cute part of Japanese culture, I read this situation of one of perversity. These animals, 30 different species of hedgehog, are for sale, and their raison d’etat is to be handled, petted, and inadvertently abused by children and well-meaning connection-deprived adult humans.
Capturing animals in the wild and breeding them for commercial purpose is like putting an ape on display to be laughed at and anthropomorphized. The authentic hedgehog encounter happens conveniently enough in a city, where these animals would not last 5 minutes outside the café before being run-over by a car or otherwise killed. These animals are given what Agamben has called “bare life.” Yes, they are living. But they are stripped of their Umwelt. They have been deprived of their prey and predators and are kept in glass cages; looking happy enough to the projecting human. But their lives remain ones of involuntary slavery, and at-will arbitrary torture.
Certainly, the humans paying their blood-money for an hour of handling these creatures don’t think of their actions as morally or physically abhorrent. They are simply buying a service, a product, that happens to be free and unrestrained access to another living body without consent. But the pervasiveness of such shops in Tokyo, and with much of pet ownership in general, is that these creatures end up becoming the dumpsters for unresolved human emotions and energies, positive and negative. They are infected with our moods and attitudes, on what invariably end up being what Karen Barad calls “marks on bodies.” When you put hedgehogs in a commercial setting, you don’t get hedgehogs “as a representative of a species” or as a token of a type. Instead, what you get is an onto-ethical-epistemological nexus of performances which can only be true as every aspect of the encounter.
While such encounters might assuage some of the Naturverlassenheit of zombie robot consumers, it does little to establish anchor of learning from these hedgehogs as autonomous agents with geographic and environmental histories and desires of their own.