Wild at Heart: Birds in Captivity
“A forest bird never wants a cage.” — Henrik Ibsen, 1828–1906
Even when bred in captivity, exotic birds cannot properly be considered domesticated animals. They are the native species of other countries whose inherent behavioral and physical needs remain intact, even when they lose their freedom.
Sadly, when it comes to birds, deprivation of natural behaviors (to fly and flock, for example) is an inescapable component of captivity. Confinement in a cage often leads to neurotic behavior, excessive screaming, feather plucking, self-mutilation, and other destructive habits.
Very few people are capable of adequately meeting the special needs of captive exotic birds. As a result, sanctuaries that care for relinquished exotic birds are typically filled to capacity, overwhelmed by hundreds of unwanted, neglected, or abused birds in need of rescue and lifelong homes. Thousands of other birds suffer from deprivation and isolation, languishing in their cages because their “owners” have lost interest in them. Still others are simply released to fend for themselves; most of these birds will perish.
Meanwhile, pet stores across the United States continue to treat birds like merchandise, fueling the lucrative exotic pet trade. The sale of live animals in a retail environment encourages impulse buying, particularly when special promotions and discounts create a sense of urgency for shoppers. Pet stores rarely, however, inform customers about the potential problems that are often part of keeping a bird (noise, biting, aggression, self-mutilation, mess, etc.). As a result, thousands of birds are purchased each year by people who soon learn that a bird is not their ideal companion. Thus, live animal retailers contribute to the cycle of abuse, neglect, and abandonment that too many birds experience.
In addition, breeding facilities that supply birds to pet stores often resemble little more than warehouses in which birds are held in barren cages for mass production. To make matters worse, no legal standards exist that govern bird production facilities.
Moreover, pet stores that sell live animals are routinely faced with conflicting responsibilities: caring for the health and well-being of the animals while also protecting the store’s bottom line. Too often, it’s the bottom line that prevails.
Wilderness Lost: The Wild Bird Trade
Each year, thousands of parrots are taken from the wild to be sold as pets in Asia, Europe, and the United States. The initial shock of losing their freedom and being confined to a cage kills many wild-caught birds. In fact, experts have estimated that 60 percent of wild-caught birds die before reaching international markets. Nicaraguan researchers estimate that to compensate for mortalities, up to four times as many parrots are captured than make it to market.1
In fact, recognition of the unacceptably high rate of mortality of imported birds helped prompt the U.S. Congress to pass the Wild Bird Conservation Act in 1992. This Act, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, protects birds traditionally brought into the country as companion animals by placing limitations on the importation of birds and requiring that importers submit documentation on the source of birds and the reasons for importation. Although the Act effectively transformed the U.S. from the largest importer of wild-caught birds to one of the smallest, many parrots are still illegally smuggled into the U.S. each year.
The demand for birds as “pets” or as breeding stock is the driving force behind the cruel trade in wild-caught birds. Because of lax enforcement, inconsequential penalties, and the great potential for financial gain, exotic animal traffickers and breeders frequently break the law. In fact, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in the U.S. the illegal trade in wildlife is second in size only to the illicit drug trade.
The popularity of birds as “pets” — whether captive-bred or wild-caught — in the U.S. influences international trends, thereby increasing the global trade in wildlife species. A recent paper by the Worldwatch Institute, Winged Messengers: The Decline of Birds, revealed that “almost a third of the world’s 330 parrot species are threatened with extinction due to pressures from collecting for the pet trade, combined with habitat loss.” And a 2001 study in the journal Conservation Biology entitled “Nest Poaching in Neotropical Parrots” concluded that, “Poaching of parrots from the wild is an economic activity driven by a combination of the market demand for parrots as pets, the large profits to the pet industry, and the rural poverty in many countries with wild-parrot populations.”
Replacing the demand for birds as “pets” with a demand for preserving the species in the wild will reduce the inherent welfare problems associated with keeping birds in captivity, while increasing the support of conservation efforts, including habitat preservation.
Walk on the Wild Side: Ecotourism
Another wild bird conservation strategy that holds great promise is ecotourism. Ecotourism is a “win-win” option for many nations, as it simultaneously helps local economies and protects wildlife by allowing people to see that birds are more beautiful in the wild.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism is projected to remain one of the world’s largest and most robust industries, generating more than $3.5 trillion in economic activity annually. Within this industry, ecotourism is one of the most rapidly growing and dynamic sectors of the market.
The Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people.” By creating economic incentives for impoverished villages and communities, ecotourism can encourage local stewardship of rural resources, habitats, and wildlife.
When conducted properly, ecotourism can be less destructive to the environment than many other activities and uses. Further, its impacts can be managed to realize a balance between preservation and development. Such balance can be achieved by limiting both the size and number of tours in a particular area and by incorporating into the tours environmentally-friendly meals, lodging, waste management, and wildlife viewing principles.
Ecotourism holds great promise as a tool of conservation and advocacy for animals. For example, wild parrots — much loved by ecotourism patrons — could well become the “environmental heavyweights” whose populations help save large tracts of tropical forests. It has been estimated that each free-flying, wild macaw in the Amazon could be worth between $750 and $4700 per year as a tourist “attraction,” and that properly-implemented ecotourism projects could help save 85 to 90 percent of the biodiversity in the neotropic (South America) and Indonesian realms.
Considering planning an ecotour in the future? Be sure to visit www.MoreBeautifulWild.com to discover more about this unique, and uniquely beneficial, industry. While you’re browsing the site, you can learn more not only about environmentally-responsible and animal-friendly travel, but about all of API’s work on behalf of exotic animals.
Remember, these animals were born to be wild. Together, you and API can make sure that they stay that way.
- Michels, A. “Parrot smuggling still a problem.” Animal Welfare Institute Quarterly (51)4, Fall 2002. Available online at www.awionline.org/pubs/quarterly/fall02/parrot.htm.
Common Myths about Captive Birds
While many exotic animal breeders and collectors claim that keeping or breeding species in captivity protects them in the wild, this claim is unsupported by fact. Far from aiding conservation efforts, many breeders and collectors display a willingness to collect rare specimens, breed them outside official conservation plans, and then trade, sell, or display the offspring for self-aggrandizement and/or profit.
The fact is, breeding birds in captivity contributes little or nothing to conservation efforts, because most captive breeding is done outside official species survival plans or other directed conservation efforts.
Official captive propagation and reintroduction programs are usually undertaken as a last resort, at a cost of millions of dollars spread over many decades of effort. To be successful, most serious captive breeding of endangered wildlife species must be done away from any direct human contact. The vast majority of parrots bred in captivity, including those bred in zoos, are not involved in these types of programs.
According to the book New World Parrots in Crisis: Solutions from Conservation Biology, “captive breeding has often become a substitute for implementing more effective and long-term solutions, and its promotion as a conservation solution has sometimes been a thinly veiled rationalization for keeping captive birds.”
It has also been suggested that captive birds support conservation efforts by serving as “ambassadors” to the public, thus generating funds for conservation efforts. No behavioral research, however, demonstrates an association between viewing animals in a captive setting and either knowledge about the animal or intention to take action to conserve the animal in the wild. In addition, according to Karen McGovern, curator of the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation, zoos around the world receive close toward ten billion dollars annually in revenue, but less than one-tenth of 1 percent of this money goes to conservation efforts.
We don’t currently know precisely what factors inspire the public to support conservation efforts or what impact such support has on the conservation of species in the wild. For example, despite a long history of public display in zoos and traveling shows, tiger populations in the wild continue to dwindle, while animals such as blue, right, and humpbacked whales have received a high level of public support for conservation efforts despite the fact that these species have never been held in captivity for public display.
In short, when you hear it said that captivity aids conservation, don’t believe the hype!
What You Can Do for the Birds
- Take a trip to see parrots in their natural habitat. Visit www.MoreBeautifulWild.com for information on conservation ecotourism.
- Never purchase products made with bird parts or feathers of any kind. While it is possible to make products out of naturally-molted feathers collected from free-living or rescued birds, in a retail setting it is nearly impossible to determine with certainty that the feathers did not come from trapped, ranched, or hunted birds.
- Refuse to patronize any store that sells birds or uses them for display. Let such stores know why you are taking your business elsewhere. Putting birds on display promotes the idea that it is acceptable to cage and confine an active, intelligent, flight-adapted animal for the sake of decoration, amusement, or profit.
- Only support pet supply stores that do not sell birds and other live animals. Let API know which pet supply stores in your area don’t sell live animals — we’ll send them a “Thank You” note and let other advocates know where they can shop for companion animal supplies without compromising their conscience. Send store information to email@example.com.
- Never buy a bird from a pet store or breeder. If you feel that you are qualified and prepared to provide lifetime care for a bird or birds, adopt from a bird rescue group or contact a local bird club or humane society to find a bird in need.
- Work for legislative change. API offers assistance to advocates who want to pursue legislation to improve the laws governing the care and treatment of birds and other animals sold in pet shops.
- Celebrate National Bird Day. Each year on January 5, plan a special event or activity to educate others about the plight of exotic birds. Visit www.NationalBirdDay.com for ideas.
- Support the More Beautiful Wild Campaign by making a donation to the Animal Protection Institute.
- Visit www.MoreBeautifulWild.com for updates and information on actions you can take on behalf of wild animals.