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Martha (and Skye, and Smile, and others) and We

01 May

by Maxine Buenaventura and Erin Alcala

SA21 – J

 

Barkin’ Blends Dog Café is exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a café that has long settled in Katipunan and has gained popularity in the recent years. What sets it from other cafés in the vicinity is the opportunity to interact with dogs while sipping on drinks and chatting with friends. This simple concept is enough to attract dog-lovers to the place.

We were coming from two very different perspectives here: one of us had two dogs, the other hadn’t had a pet for a long, long while. But either way, we went in with little expectations, save for the small warnings our key informants gave us beforehand.

It’s a five to ten minute walk from the Ateneo campus. Under the blistering heat, we made conversation with LA and Angel, two blockmates who served as our key informants for the visit. We originally recruited LA a week back; Angel had decided to hop in after finding out where we were going. It took her a minute to decide, however; before we had left campus, she told us in a hesitant tone: “I don’t want to support them.” We did our best to keep the preliminary bias out of our minds at that point, but we had to admit that her words were enough to make us feel a general sense of unease.

The café is situated on the second floor of a building behind Shakey’s. It doesn’t catch much attention on the outside; to the side of the building are signs with the names of the establishments present. Lay Bare was one; a restaurant amusingly-named Wok This Way was another. Barkin’ Blends’ sign was a bit harder to spot: with white and dark orange font set against a black background, it took us a couple of seconds to find it on our phone’s camera.

The ground floor contains various eating areas and stalls. An employee waited around her Potato Corner stall while fanning herself due to the heat. A few older men eyed the four of us as we made our way upstairs, them situated by a stall which sold cigarettes and lighters amongst other vices. A flight of stairs led us to the second floor where a few more establishments await; the first thing we saw was a strategically-placed area which sold necessities for dog owners such as cages, toys, food, and the like.

It took a few minutes for the place to open. Despite their service hours starting at 12 o’clock noon, they don’t open until around five minutes later. The waiting time passed quickly; but as the minutes drew on, we started to notice that more and more people lingered around the café’s entrance along with us.

Eventually, the sign on the door was flipped. The doors opened. We made our way inside. Upon going in, people immediately lined up at the counter; more females than males, more youngsters than people older than those in their mid or late-twenties. Females giggled to themselves and took selfies while the males waited. With such a line, the four of us decided to take up a table for four around the middle and absorb the decor and overall aesthetic. 

‘Quaint’ is the word that comes to mind. Six or so tables seem to fit inside, along with a counter table by the left side of the interior. Behind us was a glass sliding door that leads to another area; the reasons for this is unknown–perhaps it was reserved for groups who wanted to have a room to themselves. On the glass walls are different posters and graphics featuring particular items from the menu. One advertises coffees, another advertises burgers with the buns differing in color, and yet another featured rice meals and the like.

The goal was to buy a ticket that would grant them entrance to the dog area. The entrance fee: P219.00 for two hours’ worth of interacting with the dogs as well as a free drink. It was way more than the rough estimate LA had given us back in campus. At the sight of the price, he frowned. “Parang mas mura kasi siya the last time I was here.”

Eventually, we lined up, purchased our tickets, and chose a free drink that was to be delivered to the dog area itself. Before we headed to the dog area, Angel and LA glanced at each other without much words. Angel eyed us carefully before saying, “Experience it nalang for yourselves muna, and let’s talk about it when you come back.”

“Don’t you want to join us?”

LA gave a nervous laugh. “I don’t want to go in. Baka ma-upset lang ako.” 

Again came the same feeling from earlier; the feeling after Angel told us that she didn’t want to support the café. There was unease, more hesitance; without saying much, we proceeded to leave and made our way to the dog area.

The entire experience wasn’t quite like how we expected it to be.

The dog area is rustic and sunny; heavily reminiscent of how a home seemed to be. Warm tones everywhere, a picture of the dogs and their names are hung up on the wall. Behind the divider that separated the cashier are the dogs, roaming about in a space for them and their customers. 

We received a warm welcome from the staff, one of them instructing us immediately on what to do. We were to remove our shoes, slide on the slippers provided, and, upon going inside the official area, sanitize with the hand sanitizer provided. We agreed; those were standard rules, after all. 

The dog area has three parts all in all: one welcoming area where employees would brief customers about the rules and where your drink would be delivered, one short hallway of sorts that would lead to the bigger area, and the bigger area where a number of benches sat as well as drinking stations for the dogs. The place was well-ventilated; a mildly off-putting scent in the welcoming area faded once we got to the bigger area, most likely due to the number of air humidifiers underneath the large air conditioning.

We settled immediately after receiving our free drinks, and found comfort in the company of dogs of different sizes, some coming up to greet us with careful sniffs. Lying by the wall was a bronze-haired beauty named Martha. Her eyes seemed glassy, blank; something that seemed strange, a bit off given the homey feel of the place and the impression it gave off. Her eyes were ringed with red, highlighting exhaustion; we decided not to bother her, but kept stealing glances at her until the arrival of a small, energetic pug caught our attention.

The picture of something initially enchanting peeled away to a sense of tension and discomfort that only grew with three key observations:

One: it wasn’t just Martha who was the tired one out of the bunch. Upon switching to the bigger area, we discovered that almost all the dogs were in a state of exhaustion. Two Huskies caught our sight; while one would frequently get up and interact with the other dogs or customers, the other stayed asleep for the entire duration of our stay. Meanwhile, smaller dogs would find comfort underneath the black benches of the bigger area, as would a few of the Golden Retrievers who roamed the area. While this would be understandable if it were a couple of hours past the place’s opening time, only thirty minutes to an hour had passed and the dogs’ overall energy was at a low.

Two: as unfortunate as it was, the employees weren’t following their own rules. Before entering the dog area, we were asked to take note of a large sign which contained an extensive number of rules and regulations. Some of them were basic: while we could consume our free drink inside the area, eating food purchased from the café wasn’t allowed. Another was that children under thirteen years had to be accompanied by a legal adult. When it came to the rules concerning the dogs, customers were not allowed to pick them up or disturb them while they were asleep.

Despite three or so employees keeping an eye on everyone, no one was told off whenever a customer would pick up one of the smaller dogs to cuddle on their lap or to take a picture with while standing. If anything, they merely watched; even offered to take the picture for them without a single reminder that they couldn’t pick up the dogs. Another case was how the employees seemed to goad the dogs into a picture taking at the customer’s request; even while the energy of the dogs was at the lowest did the picture taking go on. One Golden Retriever that lay under our bench was pulled from sleep almost forcibly, just for the sake of a picture.

Three: perhaps the most alarming realization during the entire observation process was how people seemed to treat the dogs like a commodity. Every couple of minutes the employees would call for the dogs’ attention and guide them to a customer who wanted a picture; while the customer would pose behind the dogs and merely wait, the employee would call the dogs’ attention by either saying their names or bouncing a soft ball they had in their hand. Upon bouncing the said ball or calling their names, most, if not all the dogs would immediately snap to attention and ‘smile’ at the camera. This was something that occurred a lot during our stay.

We witnessed this first hand. While inside the bigger area, we were merely seated on the floor while watching everyone else. People were taking selfies or recording videos on Snapchat; others sipped at their drinks while trying to reach for a dog or two. The Pug–who was named Smile–came trotting in; after running around in circles and rolling over playfully, one of us called for her, not wanting to forcibly pick her up like anyone else. An employee saw us and offered to take a picture with Smile.

What followed was uncomfortable. Smile seemed like she refused to behave; after all, based on her behavior with the bigger dogs like Martha, she was extremely rowdy and aggressive. Despite this, the employee kept telling her to smile to which we finally spoke up and said that if she refused to smile, then it wasn’t a problem. “Kung ayaw niya, wag na lang po,

We expected nonchalance, a hesitant nod. However, the employee seemed to not pay attention to those words. Instead, he instructed: “Hawakan mo lang sa dibdib.” Hesitation followed, along with a brief glance at each other, but the photo was taken. A hoard of dogs come rushing in; Smile managed to escape while the employee handed us back the phone.

After this, we sat down and chose to observe, as it seemed the dogs were becoming less and less interactive, preferring instead to sleep (which was fine with us, of course). Martha and Smile, however, seemed especially playful. They ran around, giving each other playful bites and soft growls; but as time passed by, and the crowds grew bigger, they began to grow more and more aggressive. Soon they were chasing each other all around what little space they were giving, with some other dogs getting involved in their banter, accidentally hitting themselves against the walls and the glass. While they meant no harm, it was clear that they were getting agitated, and what was especially worrying was how little the staff seemed to intervene. Martha and Smile were stopped from time to time, but for the most part, they continued their play. It wasn’t entirely dangerous, but it was somewhat concerning;.

We eventually left after more than an hour of staying. We bid our goodbyes to Skye, one of the more active Huskies. Despite knowing that the Husky was unable to understand us, we gave our thanks, told her to rest, and petted her until we were sure that we wanted to leave. It was quick after that; we made our way out after  sanitizing our hands, putting our shoes back on. The staff thanked us as we left; we managed a small (albeit weak) smile before going. 

The cold was immediately replaced by the intense heat, though we felt a little grateful to be out of there. One of us could only muster: “That felt tense.”

Debriefing with Angel and LA back at the regular café was enough to tell us that our shared feelings of discomfort were also felt by them during their own individual visits. LA and Angel only confirmed that our general unease and uncertainty was not abnormal; they’d felt it too when they visited in the past. It had been worse back then; LA’s account told us of a staff member that dragged a sleeping dog out from under a bench just to get a picture. Angel shared the similar sentiment that the dogs seemed untrained as they didn’t know when and where to excrete; LA wondered out loud if there were shifts for the dogs after we brought up how tired they were despite it being open for only an hour so far.

Yung isang Husky, hindi nagising even when we left,” we explained. Angel remained unsurprised. As a frequent visitor, the sight of the dogs exhausted was nothing new to her.

Eventually, LA asked:  “Nandiyan ba yung owner?” We exchanged a confused look; he explained that during his visit, there was an older woman who had come during the afternoon hours. “Iba sila sa kanya,” he sighed, referring to the dogs we had seen much earlier. “Lumalapit sila eh. Yung staff talaga ata yung may problema.

We had no point of comparison, but we had no problem believing that.

The café seemed smaller than it had been upon our initial entry. More and more people came to line up, purchase tickets, and embark on the same experience that we had. Whether they would come to the realization was unknown; but we were certain that the sight of Martha’s tired, red eyes, and the weariness of the dogs that came across as little else but docile, friendly, and gentle would not leave our minds for a long time.


  1. What insights were gained from participation compared to just observing?
  • As stated in our write up, the dogs were not active; for the most part, they simply lay down to sleep or rest. Despite our participatory efforts, the dogs became less and less interactive as time passed by, opting instead to rest underneath the benches, or by the walls. However, most of them were docile and gentle; even the two dogs that were running around and engaging in borderline aggressive play never attacked us, or any of the other customers. Additionally, the customers and staff seemed to subtly mistreat the dogs, disobeying the rules and picking them up or rousing them from their sleep for the sake of a few pictures.
  1. What did having a key informant add to your understanding?
  • Our key informants, LA and Angel, were able to recount to us their own experiences in the dog café, confirming as well that our uncertainties and discomfort with the way the dogs were being treated was valid and not unusual in the slightest. As stated in the write up, LA’s experience saw a staff member drag a sleeping dog out from under a bench just for the sake of a customer getting a picture with it, while Angel didn’t seem surprised by how tired the dogs seemed. Additionally, both gave us insight into the fact that this treatment has been going on for a long time, rather, it was nothing new. If anything, our interactions and debriefing with our key informants only confirmed that the mistreatment is rather alarming, especially seeing as it had been over a year since their last visit.
  1. What was learned from participant observation at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss?
  • The participatory exercise gave us a chance to view the situation for ourselves, in a way that would not be possibly distorted or skewed by written reviews or secondhand stories of the place. It was personal, and we could account for all the things we saw as well as our opinions on these observations, given that most were immediate, and persisted even afterwards. We were able to see the situation up close, an experience which questionnaires, interviews, and the like cannot properly capture. Additionally, it gave us a chance to observe and interact with each element of the venue (ie. the place, the dogs, the staff members), which made for a more immersive experience.
  1. For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation?
  • We find that questionnaire or interviews might be better when it comes to asking different people about their own personal experiences. In participant observation, what may happen is that the observers may be limited to their own observations, which may end up biased due to not knowing the side of those who are being observed. This is where the concept of cultural relativism may come in; instead of merely sticking to one’s own beliefs and attitudes regarding a certain event, one must go beyond their own comfort zones and look towards those who have differing opinions from their own.
  1. Using our cafeteria observation exercise as reference, what insights did you gain about Philippine society and culture from the event that you observed and participated in?
  • For us, we were able to notice that groups of mixed ages enjoy these kinds of places; most likely because of the presence of common house pets such as dogs and cats. At the time, however, the usual ages for people who went to the cafe were students who seemed to be either in their late high school to college years. Another observation we made was that the animal-loving culture of Filipinos in a place like Barkin’ Blends was ironic; instead of focusing their attention on how the dogs were cared for, they treated the dogs like some sort of commodity. The overall feeling was that the dogs were simply reduced to subject matters that could be posted online and that they were merely for the enjoyment of the customers.

 

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