by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
Bad zoo activity caught on tape is not "hilarious" to me!
At my computer I have to deal with the usual spams, and with people sending around amusing little cartoons, photos and quotations that have been gleaned from many sources. Many contain a Youtube URL and I usually avoid those, as they take up too much time, but the other day I got a message, "for people who like owls..." followed by the URL :"http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFwgblszf6s" and the words, "it is hilarious." It was signed by a fellow member of the list where it was posted, an Ontario group dedicated to wildlife rehabilitation.
So, liking owls and always happy to see anything that is hilarious, I clicked on the URL. I was not amused by what I saw. Mind you, I usually let these things go as I have grown tired of the number of times I've been called a spoil-sport or grouch for taking the animal's side of things, but I repeat that I do like owls, and that is why I didn't find this video to be hilarious (although typical of zoo husbandry I have seen in Japan, where apparently it was filmed).
First, let us understand that large species of owls eat small species of owls. We are talking predator and prey. The "star" of the video is a White-faced Scops owl, a native to Africa slightly bigger than our Eastern Screech-Owl, or a European Scops Owl, thus rather small. He is tethered by straps, called "jesses", that are tied to the legs at one end and to a perch at the other.
If we measure intelligence as the ability to problem-solve, owls would rate pretty low compared to, say, parrots, crows and ravens, or gulls. Put another way, most of what they do is instinctive reaction that has evolved through vast spans of time. http://www.nationalbirdday.com/
In the video a handler brings a larger Barn Owl (a potential predator), also held by jesses, close to the smaller bird who then did what most (all?) owls are inclined to do, and made himself look bigger by facing the threat with wings fanned, head in the middle (and usually also clacking the beak sharply).
This is a classic defensive display in owls but not necessarily the first option, which is to stay motionless (not an option here, the predator is too close, escape impossible) or, often, fly away (also not an option). The scops owl in the video is trapped, thus does the next "best" thing, not as a considered action, but instinctively. This is part of what is supposed to be hilarious.
The Barn Owl is taken away and a still larger owl, a Malaysian Eagle-owl, is brought close and the smaller owl does what we often see screech-owls or Long-eared Owls do, and compresses his plumage, an act that makes him or her harder to detect against the bark of a tree, which is where he or she should be sitting. Of course it can't work here because the small bird is imprisoned on a t-perch surrounded by space beyond which are potential predator, the amused crowd. Owls normally roost quietly in hidden recesses and that is why you have seen so few in the wild even though they are common.
What we don't know and can't know is what does the smaller owl feel? Is the scops-owl terrified?
My concern is that he, in the interest of amusing people, is put under stress. Stress occurs when one is faced with a situation whereby a threat occurs in the absence of resolution of that threat, or when one is simply over-stimulated. Clearly this unfortunate animal is reacting to powerful stimuli.
That is why good zoo practice and husbandry guidelines normally dictate against allowing predator and prey to be in close proximity, or even in line of view, of each other. Not only is there stress to the zebra when the cage next door holds a lion, but stress to the lion because the zebra remains unobtainable.
It's not quite that simple, of course, and stress can break down, especially among more intelligent species, when the zebra realizes the lion can't get into the paddock, and when the lion realizes he's going to be well fed even if not on fresh zebra meat. However, good zoos will try to keep predator and prey away from each other, and their guidelines and protocols normally demand it.
Wildlife rehabbers do the same, or I sincerely hope they do, which is why I was particularly irritated to see this video called "hilarious" on a list dedicated to wildlife rehabilitation.
Does the White-faced Scops-owl feel fear or terror? I don't know, but I would much, much prefer to give the little bird the benefit of the doubt.
I know that to some I sound like a fun-hating grouch in these matters, and like I say, I often keep my mouth shut and let those who are amused by animals being stressed enjoy themselves.
But I do like owls. I am actually passionate about them, so yeah, I'm impelled to disagree. I'm sorry if it makes me a grouch and spoils the fun, but if we must imprison these wonderful animals, let's at least not torment them for our amusement.