TOKYO (NYTIMES) - We smelled them before we saw them. Amid an overwhelming reek of urine and scat, we descended a tight staircase into a cramped basement, where tattered ottomans faced a small wire cage.
Within the cage stood the star attractions and source of the odor: four Asian small-clawed otters. Spotting us, the animals burst into chirps, whimpers, shrieks and screams.
After passing around a laminated sheet with warnings printed in Japanese, Mandarin and English ("Otters sometimes become violent"), a handler opened the cage. The animals bolted out and flew about the room, racing over laps and gobbling down kibbles.
Their tubular brown bodies felt like slick, furry throw pillows, and their animated, whisker-framed faces were like those of puppies. Selfies proved difficult: Throughout our 30-minute session, the otters never stopped moving.
Otters are smelly, loud and extremely active; they have sharp teeth and jaws strong enough to crack open shellfish. But in Japan, where more than a dozen animal cafes now feature otters, they have become sought-after exotic pets, displacing owls, slow lorises, sugar gliders and star tortoises.
Many cafes and pet shops sell otters to anyone interested in taking one home. "We're seeing a rapid increase in demand as the popularity of keeping otters as pets keeps growing," a cafe attendant told our group. "But the supply isn't catching up." Pet otters aren't just big in Japan. They also are increasingly common in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia. The internet has largely driven the "logarithmic increase" in their popularity and trade as pets, said Nicole Duplaix, a conservation biologist at Oregon State University and co-chairwoman of the otter committee of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
"Sellers advertise online, and pet owners post endless cute pictures of their little otter, which spreads the news that otters make wonderful pets, which they don't," Duplaix said.
Where are all of these pets coming from? Otters are difficult to breed in captivity without proper techniques. Many conservationists believe that the majority of animals sold as pets are captured in the wild.
In Thailand, a number of Japanese citizens have been arrested after they were caught trying to smuggle otters through airport security. In Vietnam, Save Vietnam's Wildlife, a nonprofit organization that rehabilitates animals confiscated from traffickers, has begun receiving otters for the first time in the group's 14-year history. The police delivered 10 otters to the group in November alone.
Threatened smooth-coated otters and endangered hairy-nosed otters, both found in Southeast Asia, are sometimes caught up in the pet trade. But Asian small-clawed otters, a "terminally cute" threatened species, tend to be the primary targets for poachers, Duplaix said.
All three species were in trouble long before the pet trade began. Pollution and development have destroyed their habitats, and fishermen and aquaculture farmers kill the animals to remove competition. Poachers also target otters for their skins, which are usually sent to China.
No one knows exactly where or when the otter pet craze began, but a number of experts believe it originated in Indonesia about five years ago, according to Vincent Nijman, an anthropologist at Oxford Brookes University in Britain.
Asian small-clawed otters are not domestically protected in Indonesia, but all trade in unprotected wildlife is subject to a harvest quota, and there is no quota for otters. This makes their commercial trade illegal without a special permit, Nijman said.
"We now see hundreds on offer on Facebook and Instagram, and none have permits," he added.
Otter owners in Indonesia often join "civet lover" groups, online communities for fans of small carnivores. Members get together to show off their animals, Nijman said, parading them down the street on leashes on Sundays in Jakarta, for example.
"On national news and online in Indonesia, this has been presented as something acceptable, fun, novel and exciting," Nijman said. "It's for people who want something different than your normal cat or dog." In Thailand, trapping, selling or exporting otters is illegal, but the animals are freely traded online there, too. Penthai Siriwat, a doctoral candidate at Oxford Brookes University, monitored seven Thai-language Facebook pages from 2017 to early 2019, and found 572 individual animals for sale.
"It's just been increasing," she said. Over half the otters for sale in Thailand are litters of newborns that have not yet opened their eyes, Siriwat reported in the Journal of Asia-Pacific Biodiversity.
The rest are mostly juveniles weaned on cat food, which sellers claim are guaranteed to live and thus are more expensive.
"Young otters are often taken from the wild while their mother is killed trying to defend her litter," said Paul Yoxon, head of operations at the International Otter Survival Fund, a nonprofit group based in Scotland. "The fact that there are so many newborns available also suggests that traders have no concern as to whether the animals survive or not." The otter trade has spread from Thailand, most notably to Japan. According to Traffic Japan, a group monitoring the illegal wildlife trade, a popular television series helped kick off the trend by featuring a pet otter. Social media stars followed up with videos of visits to otter cafes, some of which have gotten millions of views.
"The problem with otters is that just normal people, even my friends, are now interested in keeping them as pets," said Yui Naruse, a researcher at Traffic Japan. "We have this cuteness culture that is really deeply rooted in Japan, and that plays a strong role in this trend." In 2018, Naruse and her colleagues conducted an online survey and found 85 otters for sale around Japan. Nearly half the retailers claimed that their animals were captive-bred in Japan.
But Naruse and her colleagues found no evidence of captive breeding in the country, strengthening their suspicion that otters are being smuggled in from abroad. (Japan's native otter subspecies was declared extinct in 2012.)
According to Traffic's research, 70 percent of otters seized in Southeast Asia in 2017 were destined for Japan; authorities seized at least 39 otters coming into Japan or bound for the country from 2016 to 2017. In a widely publicised case in October last year, a Tokyo district court prosecuted two men for smuggling five baby otters into Tokyo from Thailand.
Police were tipped off to the case by Yoshiaki Nagayasu, owner of Kotsumate, a popular otter cafe with branches in Tokyo, Nagoya and Fukuoka. One of the smugglers had called Nagayasu, offering to sell him baby otters. Suspecting foul play, Nagayasu called the police.
Speaking at his Tokyo cafe location, where walls are lined with autographed photos of Japanese YouTube and television celebrities, Nagayasu said that his otters come from a breeding facility he founded in Malang, Indonesia, which he claimed received otters rescued from the illegal trade and bred them.
The strongest offspring are released into the wild, he said, and the rest are sent to Japan, where Nagayasu sells them for more than $10,000 each. All profits go back to Indonesia for facility maintenance and conservation of wild otters, he said.
"If we didn't do this business, all the otters you see here right now would probably be dead," Nagayasu said.
But on the ground at Kebun Alam Jaya, Nagayasu's facility in Indonesia, there is little evidence of conservation, according to the Scorpion Wildlife Trade Monitoring Group, a nonprofit organization based in Medan, Indonesia, and the International Otter Survival Fund.
"One of the workers at the facility told me they got otters from around the area, from the wild," said Gunung Gea, executive director of Scorpion.
Photographs taken by Gea show adult otters in tiny wire cages and cement pits lacking adequate nest boxes in which to have cubs. All the animals appeared to have been caught in the wild, according to Jason Palmer, curator of collections at New Forest Wildlife Park in Britain and an adviser to the IUCN.
"This place looks very suspicious, like nothing more than a holding facility for animals for sale," Palmer said. "Nothing indicates a rescue and rerelease or breeding center, and even if it did, the otters do not have the care or the environment to ensure they would survive in the wild."
Nagayasu said he has paperwork proving that all the adult otters in his facility are rescues that the Indonesian government seized from the illegal wildlife trade. He declined to share the paperwork with a reporter for The Times, referring her instead to the Indonesian government.
Indonesian government officials did not respond to requests for comment. According to Traffic's Southeast Asia office, Indonesia seized just eight otters from 2015 to 2017. Gea counted 16 adult animals during his visit to Kebun Alam Jaya.
Nagayasu added that he legally imported his otters into Japan. Soon that may no longer be possible.
In May, international representatives will vote on whether to give short-clawed and smooth-coated otters the highest level of protection at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
If the proposals pass, international commercial trade of wild otters would be banned.
While increased protection under CITES would be a boon for otters, it would not end the illegal trade, said Daniel Willcox, science adviser to Save Vietnam's Wildlife. Corruption and enforcement challenges create obstacles, enabling many species fully protected by CITES to still be sold illegally.
"There's no way we can completely get rid of pet trade," Willcox said.
Given that, Willcox believes that conservationists should try to work directly with otter owners.
"In a county like Vietnam, it's much better that people are keeping otters rather than eating them," Willcox said. "Some of these people really care about their animals, and if we can find a way to engage with them to show them why keeping otters is wrong, they can become advocates for wildlife conservation."
Given a chance, otters and people still can coexist, even in crowded Southeast Asia, said Sivasothi N , a biologist at the National University of Singapore.
By the mid-1980s, Singapore's otters had disappeared because of pollution and development. After the nation began a cleanup campaign, the animals slowly returned.
Now, 11 otter families live on the island. Their 80-odd members benefit from strictly enforced anti-poaching laws, Sivasothi said, and from widespread public support.
"There's something about otters moving together as a family - squeaking, diving and catching fish - that really excites people," Sivasothi said. "Singaporeans are beginning to look at the water again."