BANGKOK — The acrid smell is the first thing that registers at Siam Square’s Kitties and Bears Cafe. Animal funk is hard to hide at Bangkok’s exploding number of unregulated animal cafes, but there’s an unsettling coppery, astringent odor here.
A variety of domesticated and wild animals are kept for customers to pet and pose with on two floors that are spacious and bright. Staff hover nearby and intercede when animals end up where they shouldn’t be, such as when dogs squeeze into a cat run to ascend from the lower level (dogs and exotics) to the upper (cats and rabbits).
But on a Thursday visit, one day after police were drawn by a former manager’s complaint that more than a dozen animals died of neglect, it didn’t take long to notice things were amiss. Water bottles and food dishes sit empty. Cats have runny noses and signs of illness, and traces of feces in dog tails indicate diarrhea. Ten stressed-out looking Guinea pigs huddle atop their own feces and scratch themselves raw in an overcrowded case with no bedding, hay or food.
To Amy Baron of the Pet Animal Welfare Society, or PAWS, the condition of the exotic animals was most troubling.
“This is horrifying,” she said. “This is far worse than I expected.”
Two very distressed-looking meerkats huddle in a barren cage without any bedding, shelter, enrichment items, toys or anything other than a food bowl and water bottle.
One of two surly raccoons in an undersized cage tumbles out and falls to the floor after a customer opens the door to take a photo. Soon, it’s trying to get away from barking dogs. Later one raccoon is seen biting and scratching an employee who seems untrained in handling it; another employee picks one up by the end of its tail to return to the cage.
The owner acknowledges making what he describes as “mistakes” and regrets “lapses” that resulted in animal deaths.
“Did I do everything step-by-step, 100 percent?” Jonathan Tan said in a Friday interview. “Did I do my best? I did my best, I can honestly say … at least to a 90 percent standard. Is 90 percent enough to be prosecuted, for the public to condemn you? [There were] fatalities in some dogs, and I’m very sorry for it. It’s my mistake for the lapse of 10 percent.”
Tan, who was briefly jailed in Singapore for reportedly falsifying health records at a similar venue there, said animal welfare is important to him.
“It is the utmost priority,” Tan said. “Nonetheless, sometimes 90 percent isn’t good enough. Whenever a business opens, there will always be lapses here and there. We are constantly improving, and we will be improving. We have stepped up in every aspect.”
Tan is not new to running animal cafes, nor is this the first time he’s been accused of neglecting their care to fatal result. Three months before Kitties and Bears opened in mid-July, he was sentenced to two weeks in jail and fined in Singapore for “failing to comply with licensing conditions, giving false information to a public servant and attempting to cheat,” according to the Straits Times.
The paper noted that animal welfare authorities were first notified of “mismanagement of diseased cats” at his Cuddles Cat Cafe not long after it opened in 2014. Tan was accused of forging animal health documents to obtain a temporary license. The animal cafe closed.
“I’m a simple person versus the government,” Tan said Friday, asserting that he did not receive fair treatment by the Singaporean authorities.
On Wednesday, Pathum Wan police visited Kitties and Bears with members of animal welfare group Watchdog Thailand after the group filed a police complaint.
“They cleaned everything up,” said a lawyer for Watchdog Thailand who routinely speaks for the group but refuses to give her name. Police said they were still investigating and questioning Tan’s employees.
Conditions at Kitties and Bears came to public attention six days ago when former manager Itsarachai Niyomrad went public with allegations animals were sick and dying because Tan did not care provide adequate medical care, ignored warnings they were critically ill, and allowed disease to spread unchecked.
Itsarachai posted photos of animals urinating blood and what appeared to be positive test results for canine parvovirus, a viral disease easily avoidable with routine vaccination.
“While I was manager, the owner didn’t care if the animals were sick,” Itsarachai said Friday in an interview. He said most staff, none of whom including himself had any relevant training, quit in disgust at the time he did and have been replaced.
In one month alone, Itsarachai said at least 14 animals died: eight dogs, four Guinea pigs and two cats.
“I would say more, but I don’t have the evidence,” he said. Tan disputes the number.
And the untrained employees were “always getting bit, chewed on, etc., with no responsibility from Jonathan,” he added.
“When someone had to go to the hospital and get a vaccine and rabies shots, he just gave them 1,000 baht, but it definitely cost much more,” he said.
Tan denied Itsarachai’s allegations.
“Obviously, it’s grossly not true,” Tan said. “He created so much trouble here. “Straight-up destructive conduct.”
As pet-owning culture has taken root in the Thai capital, animal cafes have blossomed in recent years. Unlike Singapore, they are poorly regulated, and Kitties and Bears is not the first to be faulted for poor care.
Located across from Scala Theatre, the cafe itself is far from bleak. On the third floor, cats and bunnies flop around in a spacious area. There are many litter boxes, some of which afford kitty privacy. That money has been spent in the facility is clear by the wall-mounted cat treadmills and furnishings. To its credit, PAWS’ Baron said, the area affords a variety of surfaces for the cats and includes elevated perches for them to ascend.
But there were very few toys and insufficient places to get away from humans or other animals. Baron said she was not impressed by the staff, who frequently take measures to mask the odor, dispensing air spray by open food bowls.
The rabbits, like the Guinea pigs, had no bedding and no way to escape their urine and feces, apart from a box she said they were naturally unlikely to use. A number of the bunnies had sore feet and ears.
Some kittens and puppies looked too young. The cats were constantly exposed to sounds of barking dogs and at several points, smaller dogs ran up the cat run to the cat floor and yapped around.
“There’s no soft bedding, aside from the vinyl seats for human customers. … At least four puppies looked too young to be there,” Baron said.
She said the meerkats were displaying stereotypy, an abnormal, repetitive behavior commonly induced by stress. Over in a corner, two ferrets snoozed fitfully in a similar cage directly under an air-conditioning unit. One’s sleep was interrupted by protracted paroxysms of coughing.
Most of the Guinea pigs were scratching themselves raw, and many had sore feet and chewed-up, sore ears. They also had no food and a few absently chewed the few strands of soiled hay they could find.
On Thursday, a reporter asked to see one of about 50 cats listed by name on a sheet. A staff member said to wait a moment then never returned.
Tan insisted only six dogs have died, along with some other animals he could not specifically number or identify.
Most importantly, he said all of the animals remaining are in good health.
“All of them are pristine,” he said. “On Sunday, I am getting my veterinarian to come down and do a Facebook live of his examination of all the animals. Do supplementary, extra tests.”
Tan first said he had an “in-house vet” then said there were no staff veterinarians, but he had one visit from an animal hospital.
He said it was a regular vet who visits “four or five times a month.”
Asked for contact information and the name of the vet’s hospital, Tan said he wasn’t sure he could legally reveal the veterinarian’s identity.
Additional reporting Asaree Thaitrakulpanich