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The Other News-Round Up: Cuddle like it’s your job

Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

Each week, Daily Maverick brings you some of the stranger happenings from South Africa and elsewhere in the world. This week: professional cuddling. With cats on top.

Professional cuddling, if you haven’t heard of it before, goes something like this. You book a session with your cuddlist, and if you’re in the US, for somewhere around the cost of a standard therapy session (up to $150 per slot), you get to lie on a nice, comfortable mat and cuddle. “It’s really neat,” offers professional cuddlist Saskia Larksen, who is also a massage therapist and actress.

Larksen, who describes the market for cuddling as a “basic, genetic human need for touch”, typically sees two massage clients and one cuddle client per day. Before her cuddle client arrives, she showers and changes into her “work” pyjamas, and once they arrive they, too, change into their cuddle clothes. They discuss rules and pet peeves: where or how they don’t like to be touched. Larksen asks the client to close their eyes and visualise the word “cuddle”.

Other providers, like Snuggle Buddies, offer a range of services, where you may have phone calls (platonic chats only) or sleepovers with your “snuggler”, which can come in at an eye-watering $400 for six hours of sleeping plus travel fees. Testimonials include one from client Jonathan, who says simply: “(The snuggler’s) touch was the most genuine I’ve felt in a very long time.”

Depending on the cuddles of strangers is not new. By 2014, when the app Cuddlr was gaining popularity, cuddle parties had been held around the US for some 10 years. But more recently, one-on-one cuddle sessions are becoming a widespread side business for a large percentage of therapists in the US, who say they don’t make adequate income from conventional talk therapy despite the steep price tag (ironically, affordability is an issue, reducing the number of clients or forcing subsidisation by the therapist). It’s taking off in the UK and is slowly finding its feet in South Africa, too, although cuddle parties are still more common than one-on-one cuddle therapy.

The vague outline belies what is, apparently, a genuine therapeutic benefit for some. The range of clients is broad: from those in loveless marriages who come for platonic physical contact to survivors of abuse or combat veterans. A sterile environment for those suffering from PTSD is one place the latter can experience the benefits of touch without feeling threatened by the triggers of intimacy, say therapists. Adam Lippin and Madelon Guinazzo, co-founders of Cuddlist, argue general health benefits: research shows touch can decrease heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol, and increase endorphin levels. Other forms of touch, like massage, decrease depression and boost immunity.

With all that being said, one can imagine it’s an area ripe for exploitation by charlatans and weirdos on both the provider and client side. Late in 2016, Raw Story critically examined the problematic race and gender dynamics within cuddle therapy, for example.

But this month, cuddle therapy reached a whole new level. A veterinary clinic in Dublin, Ireland, is instituting professional cuddling for cats and, encouraged by the health benefits of human snuggling, recently posted a job advert for a professional cat cuddler. Job requirements, they specified, included being a “crazy cat person” and “counting kittens before falling asleep”. The person should have natural “cattitude” and be able to decipher the meanings of different kinds of purring.

A veterinary council of Ireland recognised qualification is essential for this role,” the advert added. Subtext: they’re not mucking about.

The essence of the job is having a staff member that is responsible for ensuring that our patients and guests have a pleasant experience while receiving their healthcare,” explained veterinarian Aoife Caulfield.

Well look, you can’t say they don’t have standards.

Don’t shoot the messenger, but I’m seeing a fine opportunity to cut out the middleman here. I know for a fact that Japan has for years been trying to mellow out its stressed-out and isolated businesspeople with animal-petting facilities, where clients are charged a premium for the health benefits of touching an animal. There are currently over 60 “cat cafes” across Japan, which are not only popular with locals but also with tourists, who seek out the calming effect of petting animals. Just this week, Japan Times reported that an increasing number of successful Japanese firms were turning to therapy animals in offices to reduce stress in offices. Pasona Group has two goats and two alpacas; Oracle Japan keeps a sheepdog; Tokyo IT Firm Ferray, meanwhile, actually pays employees a bonus to rescue cats and bring them into the office. A Ferray employee described the presence of the cats in the office as “healing”.

But mark my words: it’s not going to be long before someone smart catches on and starts charging animal owners through the neck for repairing those bonds, too.

I’m not saying there’s no place for touch therapy; there clearly is. But I’m also picturing a farcical household of busy, stressed and disconnected people and pets, too isolated to pay attention to each other. Everyone’s got a designated cuddler. The kid’s got a robot teaching them about human emotion. The parents get a pet to reduce their stress levels. But they’re too busy and stressed to pay attention to it, so they end up hiring someone to stroke both them and the cat. I’m just saying: maybe it’s more efficient to stroke the damn cat.

Or maybe to ask why we’d need all this in the first place. DM


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