TOKYO - Owls fluff up their feathers and preen beneath the stroking fingers of customers at Owl Village, one of many cafes dedicated to the birds, seen as a symbol of good luck in Japan, that have sprung up amid a boom in animal cafes.
But behind the squeals of delighted children in a cafe that is fully booked most days lurks a darker story of careless treatment that may endanger the nocturnal birds, activists say.
Just disrupting their natural sleep cycles, and tying their feet to perches, as many cafes do, can constitute animal abuse, said Chihiro Okada, of the Animal Rights Centre in the Japanese capital.
"When they think of animal abuse, people think of kicking or hitting animals, but it isn't limited to that," Okada added.
"Confining an animal to a small space is certainly a form of abuse. Showing them off like products is also a stressful situation. They can't move and drink freely."
Cafes in Japan that spotlight animals from cats and goats to hawks and hedgehogs have become a tourist draw. But many have also been criticised over the animals' treatment, prompting curbs on working hours for cat cafes, for example.
For owls, as birds of prey accustomed to ranging far and wide in their nightly hunts, conditions are especially difficult. Their keen hearing and vision make it difficult to adjust to the brightness and noise of crowded cafes.
As a result, many can develop neurotic behaviour, such as pulling at their feathers, pacing and rocking back and forth, activists say.
But the problem seems unlikely to be resolved soon, as cafes with lax attitudes have surged in recent years.
"We were particularly shocked to learn that seven owls died in one year at an owl cafe," Okada said.
Owl Village manager Aya Matsuda said she tried to keep the birds free of stress with frequent breaks and by ensuring staff helped guide their interactions with customers.
"In our cafe staff are able to enter the owl room with customers and explain how to play with them, and when the owls look tired, they can rest," she said.
A properly managed shop that puts the birds first should pose no problems, said veterinarian Nobumoto Izawa.
"Most importantly, we need to make sure the birds are happy and not stressed," the avian specialist added.