Korea is on the verge of becoming a cat-loving country

Monday, July 27, 2009

If you haven't talked to Koreans all that much before you may not know this, but a large number of Koreans are actually afraid of cats. Not just cats on the street, but fluffy sleepy cats that hang around and yawn and play with string and come up to you to smell your hand. I even remember meeting a guy in his late 20s in Vancouver once who told me with a straight face that he would be less afraid of a spider of the same size. Part of the reason for that is that cats are often portrayed as being supernatural creatures of the night, and even on mainstream news you can see portrayals of cats being edited in ways to make them look scary. One piece of news for example on an island with a lot of cats edited the image of a yawning cat with the sound of a cat being noisy at night in order to make it look like they were animals that howled at the Moon or some nonsense. If you can read Korean then you can read about it here. It's especially unfortunate because the cats they featured on the news there are on an island called Geomundo (거문도) where there are quite a few stray cats, which the residents of the island generally fear, after which they often try to wipe out the cats, but they always come back. As the blogger writes, what is needed there is a capture-neuter-release program, as when cats are killed it simply results in easier hunting of mice and the rest for those that escape the killing, and then they live well and have more kittens, and eventually the population goes back up again.

He also does a nice comparison of that island to a small island in Japan where the cats are very happy.

In the cities, however, Korea is rapidly becoming used to the idea of cats as pets. The temple I visit every day has a number of cats, and most of them aren't too afraid of humans, while a few simply aren't afraid at all. One of the cats I know there isn't afraid of anything and due to that has become quite the popular cat at the temple as hundreds of people that pass by him every day marvel at how the cat just doesn't care about all the people around him (that's still a pretty rare thing to see in Korea), and he was even on TV last month due to this. Plus because he doesn't eat any meat, just dry cat food. Here he is playing with an empty binocular case.

Owning cats has become quite popular in Korea mostly among the young and the well-off, and especially among women. Most independent women in their 20s and 30s here will like cats, and may have one or two of their own. As cat popularity begins to spread you can see it more and more among people of other ages too, and IMO sites like YouTube have been a big part of this. The Korean internet is remarkably isolated from the rest of the online world since not only is the language different but you need either a Korean resident number (주민등록번호) or a scan of your passport to register for sites, but videos have helped to bridge that gap and you can now see tons of cute cats online when searching for them in Korean too. Here's one.

And thanks to the success of YouTube, now you can see cat videos hosted by similar services in Korea too. Here's a family of cats in a Korean home.

Another documentary on cats from EBS is coming out in September, and will apparently be a two-hour special taking place over two days. I talked to some of the people making the documentary when they visited the temple last month. According to the director, it's often said that countries often begin to see dogs as pets when the GDP per capita reaches around $10,000 a year, and cats when it reaches $20,000, since you do need a certain amount of wealth of your own before you can start to think about sharing it with an animal in your own house, and dogs are admittedly more useful than cats (unless they're really small), such as in this example. Plus, with higher GDP you have more access to the internet and that means more lolcats. Cultural norms make a big difference though, which is probably why Korea has taken so long to reach this point, whereas a country like Japan has liked cats for a long time, even way back when:

That's the author Natsume Sōseki, who died in 1916 and whose most famous book (吾輩は猫である) has a cat as the main character.

I predict that it shouldn't take more than ten years for Korea to become a more or less cat-loving country, as there is a certain momentum that can't be stopped when enough humans begin to like cats, as the more humans there are that like cats the more street and other cats will be fed and petted by people passing them by on the street, and the more good experiences cats have with humans the cuter and more friendly they will be. Also, when enough people begin to like something it begins to place pressure on those that don't like it, and there will be a kind of societal pressure to like cats where those that still dislike or fear them are seen as boorish and uncultured. It's this compounding effect that makes me so optimistic.


DSW said...

I hope you're right. I've found that a lot of 'cat lovers' in Korea are actually shallow young women who end up killing them after a while. Dog lovers, on the other hand, seem pretty set for life.

I have two rescued cats and I'll be watching the documentary tonight. Thanks for posting.

Anonymous said...

thx for posting ill watch too.

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