Including surrounding areas, Seoul has a population of around 20 million people. A great number of these Seoul citizens are packed into small high-rise apartments, one on top of the other. This is one of the reasons why so many residents of South Korea prefer to raise small animals. Approximately 6 months ago I acquired a male hedgehog in Seoul, South Korea. Later I returned and picked up a second hedgehog as a mate.
I had originally decided to browse the animal markets in Dongdaemun, Seoul, looking for a turtle. However, the turtle bowl was stationed right next to the hedgehog bowl, and the baby hedgehogs looked slightly more animated than the stationary turtles.
The pet market in Dongdaemun looks like a jungle that just exploded on an aquarium. Snakes, sugar gliders, salamanders, iguanas, crabs, spiders (tarantulas), giant snails, peacocks, otters, parrots, scorpions, giant geckos, foxes, frogs, toads, shrimp, lobsters, hamsters. Compact and “apartment-friendly” animals are available at insanely cheap prices.
Frankly, there is nothing vaguely gentle or ethical about these animal markets. Unfortunately, the dialogue about animal rights isn’t really taken seriously in Korea as yet, as human rights (for North Korean refugees and immigrants) is still very much in development. We talk about eating animals in Seoul, but we don’t talk enough about how to appropriately address abandoned pets and the street-animal epidemic. There are still a number of enclosures South of Seoul where endangered Korean bears are farmed for their liver bile. All of these issues seem far down on the list of priorities, with national security and threats from North Korea at the top of the political and social agenda.
The animals in many of the street animal markets live in horrid conditions. The animals are expected to die at some point, and those that are not sold are used to make babies, and are then killed. Korea has extreme weather conditions, with monsoons and excessive tropical heat in the summer, heavy snow in the winter, and rolling thick dust coming from China in the Spring. The animals are kept outside in open cages through the snow and through the humidity. I walk past the animal markets regularly, and I can see all of the animals panting and looking exhausted. They shiver during the winter and huddle to conserve warmth. I seriously pondered if any Koreans were interested in having the amphibians or reptiles as pets, but then I saw some 9 year old Korean kids enter the store and buy some baby yellow snakes (about 10cm long). In Korea you don’t even require a license to purchase any of these jungle creatures. The owners sealed the baby snakes up in a matchbox with some flimsy gift tape, and the kids were on their way. I feared for the fate of those baby matchbox snakes. I could imagine some angry Korean mothers finding them and flushing them down the toilet.
There are a few reasons why I chose a smaller exotic pet over traditional pets such as cats or dogs;
1. Travel: I spend about 9 months of the year in Korea, and 3 months in other parts of Asia/Europe, for work and travel. While dogs and cats are rather affectionate and personal pets, they can get very attached to their owners and they can develop depression when their owners are away. Hedgehogs can also be affectionate pets, and I know that they miss me, but they generally sleep most of the time I am abroad.
2. Apartment Living: Some Korean apartments have paper-thin walls. Dogs and cats are much more vocal than hedgehogs, and while residing in tightly packed Korean apartments, one must be mindful of waking Korean neighbours. Furthermore, most apartment contracts in Korea stipulate a firm no-cats-no-dogs rule (although quite a few Koreans admittedly may breach that rule). The daily life of a hedgehog involves sleeping under piles of blankets and they are almost invisible as pets go, and they also don’t smell as strongly as larger animals.
3. Price: I paid about $20 for each of my hedgehogs. Smaller pets are simply a much cheaper option than larger pets. Surgery and upkeep for a dog may cost in the thousands annually. Cultivating a rabbit or a hedgehog costs far less (hedgehogs are fairly low-maintenance creatures; they only require biscuits and water and a regular bath).
I’ll admit that I didn’t know that hedgehogs could be classified as an “exotic pet” when I bought them. Is it strange that I mentor and raise two miniature hedgehogs in a tiny apartment in Gangnam? Yes. It is. Hedgehogs are not generally the chic pet-of-choice in South Korea. Most Koreans prefer to raise small dogs in their apartments; Poodles, Chihuahuas, Papillon dogs etc. Cats are considered a bit evil in South Korea, as I have heard there is some kind of Korean folk story about cats eating babies.
Korean dogs are incredibly pampered. Korean dogs are pampered more than Korean children. While tiny Korean children are put in “study-sweatshops” to study Math and foreign languages under bright fluorescent lights late into the night in downtown Seoul, Korean dogs are sipping blueberry puppie-smoothies in Gangnam doggie day-spas while they get their tails dyed pink. Needless to say, the standard of living in Korea is much higher for a Gangnam poodle than a Gangnam child. The street behind my apartment is littered with Poodle manicure shops, Poodle shampoo parlours, Poodle social cafes, a Poodle disco, and Poodle seasonal fashion markets. Gangnam dogs live the life of pimps, but with more accessories and more plush tracksuits. Small dogs do wear sunglasses in Korea.
I just booked the hedgehogs into a “hedgehog hotel”, as I am heading to Italy for two weeks. The hedgehog hotel costs approximately $200 for two weeks. MADNESS. This seems a little steep, as my hedgehogs sleep 23 hours a day, and I cannot imagine what kind of high-end services a hedgehog hotel could possibly include. I imagine my hedgehogs swimming laps in a huge infinity pool, sipping cocktails next to the bar. My hedgehogs then receive massages before going up to their suite to order champagne in front of the TV. How could it possibly cost this much ?
I found the hedgehog hotel as there is a big online hedgehog community in Korea. High-speed internet and constant wifi means that Koreans can quickly upload small pet photos and advice from any coffee shop in Seoul. Korean hedgehog owners discuss everything from hedgehog pilates to how to pick the perfect wedding dress for your lady hedgehog’s special day. Koreans love online forums. I wish I had the patience to sort through all the Korean articles scattered with technical hedgehog jargon, but as usual, I take the shortcut and watch youtube videos on how to shampoo your hedgehog, how to deal with your hedgehog-dandruff problem, and how to complete a professional hedgehog manicure. I have learnt that the natural predators of hedgehogs are badgers, and owls. I have never seen a badger or an owl in Gangnam, so I felt confident that my hedgehogs will be healthy and safe.
Apparently, hedgehogs can reproduce every 6 weeks, and now that it is Spring, I am hoping that my hedgehogs do not start building a hedgehog army to overtake my small closet-sized Korean apartment. Owning small pets in South Korea is perhaps harder than it looks.