Behind the Bird Trade
“I only wish I could so live and so serve the world that after me there should never again be birds in cages.” —Karen Blixen
Parrots are famous for their strong interpersonal bonds between their partners and their children. Parrots of the same species flock together, spending their time socializing, or flying many miles a day foraging for food. These interpersonal and group connections are threatened by the industry that sees them as playthings or decorations.
A few parrot species can be found living freely in cities: Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. At the same time, numerous parrot species are threatened with extinction in their native regions within Africa, Asia and Latin America. The appearance of parrots in one part of the world and their potential disappearance from another part are linked by the international trade in free-living animals.
Promoters of the exotic pet trade capture birds and market them in large numbers to various parts of the world. Only a fraction of the birds survive capture and transport and many more die once they reach their destination. These birds, after evolving to fly freely with members of their own species, are usually doomed to spend the remainder of their long lives imprisoned in cages. Many of the birds are abandoned when their behavior doesn’t meet the expectations of their owners. Far from their native food and climate, those birds who are set free are not likely to live very long. The exceptions—communities that have managed to thrive once released into a new environment—are often threatened with extermination because of their status as exotic birds and fugitives of the pet industry.
The trade in free-living animals is a multi-billion dollar industry, comparable in scale to the trade in drugs and arms. Much of the trade is illicit, especially with regard to endangered species, so exact figures are hard to pinpoint. Many parrot species are threatened with extinction and all but four species are listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which regulates international trade in endangered plants and animals. However, trafficking in contraband is not uncommon, and with the required permits many endangered species can still be legally traded. High death rates are common for both legally traded and smuggled parrots. The lives of free-living parrots are cheap and the profits generous.
Friends of Animals was instrumental in getting several airlines to prohibit the transport of free-living birds for the pet industry, and was a strong supporter of the Wild Birds Protection Act, legislation calling for the immediate ban on the import of all free-living birds for the pet industry. Competing legislation, supported by the pet industry and the World Wildlife Fund, proposed weak regulations on the trade in free-living birds and a five year phase-out period before enactment would take place. A compromise bill known as the Wild Birds Conservation Act (WBCA) was eventually passed and signed into law in 1992. Friends of Animals refused to endorse the WBCA because of its substantial concessions to the pet industry.
The WBCA regulates importing free-living birds into the United States, prohibiting the import of those listed under CITES. Parrots are listed under two CITES Appendixes. The first, Appendix I, prohibits international commercial trade in 56 endangered parrot species. The second, Appendix II, regulates commercial trade of all other parrot species (except the budgerigar, cockatiel, peach-faced lovebird, and rose-ringed parakeet) through a permit system. The WBCA still allows the importation of non-CITES birds and captive-bred birds not listed under Appendix I. The act does not restrict the breeding or commercial trade of exotic birds within the U.S. or their export to other countries.
Prior to the passage of the WBCA the United States was the largest importer of free-living parrots, but subsequently that distinction fell upon the European Union. On Oct. 24, 2005, the European Union authorized a moratorium on the importation of free-living birds. The purpose of moratorium is to inhibit the spread of the deadly avian influenza virus H5N1. The moratorium is due to expire in May, but bird advocacy groups, such as those supporting “European Union Wild Bird Declaration,” 1would like the ban made permanent.
Trading on Others’ Misfortune
Under the sub-header, “Wild Bird Imports are Inhumane” the EU Declaration notes harms caused to captive-held parrots, including being deprived of free flight, absence of a flock, lack of natural food, abased life in a cage, psychological distress and failure to meet cognitive and social needs. Tragically, however, the declaration stops short of condemning the commercial trade in captive birds.
Some of the supporters of the WBCA have actively promoted the breeding of captive-held parrots for the U.S. pet industry. In 1992, for example, Defenders of Wildlife ran a national ad campaign with the slogan: “Buy American.” The copy claimed “American captive-bred birds are healthier and better adapted to life as pets.” Yet, just like free-living parrots, those bred for captivity will have their natural needs systematically frustrated; neither group is adapted to life as pets.
Defenders of Wildlife played a key role in the WBCA and is now a key supporter of the EU Declaration, so perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that immediately after citing the harms caused by captivity the Declaration goes on to uphold the EU-based breeding and commerce in birds for the pet industry. The document then acknowledges that the U.S. pet industry benefited after the WBCA was passed.
During the years immediately following the passage of the WBCA, the number of pet birds rose substantially, from 11.6 million in 1990 to 40 million in 1996. There are now an estimated 50 to 60 million pet birds in the U.S., with an estimated 2 million young parrots bred each year.2 The WBCA is partially responsible for creating vastly augmented opportunities for the U.S.-based pet industry. A Defenders of Wildlife webpage on the WBCA labels the growth in the U.S. captive-held bird industry a “success of the act,” noting that the sale of captive birds and related products nearly doubled, from $277 million in 1991 to $543 million, in 1994.3 The WBCA may have nullified opposition to the pet-bird industry, and ads touting captive-bred birds may have fueled the demand.
The cruelty of catching free-living birds was replaced by the cruelty of parrot mills, where birds are bred in large numbers akin to the notorious puppy and kitten mills. Large retail pet stores like Petco and Petsmart prospered from the industry growth provided by captive-bred birds. The birds comprise a significant portion of sales for these chains, both of which work with humane societies to adopt out cats and dogs and trade on the goodwill generated by that community service. How many shoppers see the irony of a cat waiting to be adopted in one cage, a bird produced to be sold in another?
Many organizations endorsing the EU Declaration oppose the mass breeding of parrots for the pet industry. However, as argued in the Declaration, a ban on free-living birds in the EU is likely to produce the same negative consequences that followed the WBCA. Without public education about the interests of birds in living on their own terms, the legal exceptions that allow commercial trade in captive-bred birds will continue to undercut protections for free-living birds. Absent a change isn society’s thinking, just as with other forms of trafficking, if a demand is engendered then illicit trade will continue to take place. Moreover, the marketing of parrots bred in captivity helps maintain the same attitudes that fuel the demand behind the illegal trade in free-living parrots. Breeding parrots in captivity is a difficult, expensive and labor-intensive process. Acquiring free-living birds from a trapper is cheaper and more profitable than breeding them. It is no more difficult and less risky to smuggle birds into the U.S. than to smuggle drugs, while remaining just profitable. After the drug trade, trafficking free-living animals across U.S. borders is more lucrative than any other article of trade. A ban like the WBCA which only addresses the legal importation of birds, has little effect on contraband.
A Captive Life
Birds are the most popular pet after cats and dogs, with six percent of U.S. households having at least one pet bird.4 However, whether “wild-caught” or “captive-bred,” the life of a parrot bred in captivity is a constant frustration of the bird’s natural interests.
Free-living parrots raise their young in dark tree cavities where the babies receive constant support and comfort from their attentive parents. As the young birds mature into fledglings they often stay close to their parents. But when these fledglings mature into adults they become interested in finding a partner among the flock, or even seek out new flocks to join.
Birds bred in captivity may never know their parents, because they are normally taken in the egg from the nest to be incubated and hatched by humans. A human surrogate is a poor substitute for a bird’s natural parents. Some birds briefly know their parents, but are taken away before being weaned. Other birds may be allowed to stay with their parents until weaning, but this is avoided by many breeders because of the extra cost in caring for a birds, and it delays profiting from the sale of the baby birds. Whether before or after weaning, the separation causes intense emotional distress for the parents and babies. The parents will scream and search for their babies for days after they are taken, even attacking the breeder weeks afterwards.5
Eventually the birds will mature into adults with natural drives to be with others of their own kind. The frustration of captivity can cause birds to become emotionally distressed and physically aggressive. Captive birds are known to mutilate themselves, plucking out their own feathers and even biting off their toes. Many birds live alone, mainly caged, for their entire lives. Some are bought in groups; but that doesn’t satisfy the birds’ interests in freely choosing partners from the flock.
It’s scarcely important whether a bird was once free-living or bred from parents held in captivity; either way, life as a pet is abhorrent to the very nature of birds. Life as a pet is life as a possession.
- 1. “The European Union Wild Bird Declaration” has the support of 226 non-governmental organizations. Those featured prominently on the Declaration include the American Bird Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife, the Eurogroup for Animal Welfare, Friends of the Earth Europe, Greenpeace, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Jane Goodall Institute, the National Audubon Society, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Pro Wildlife and the World Parrot Trust.
- 2. Mira Tweti, “‘Factory Farming’ Approach Takes Toll”- The News Tribune (18 Dec. 2005).
- 3. Defenders of Wildlife, “Wild Bird Conservation Act,” (visited 30 Mar. 2006)
- 4. Kristi Arellano, “Pet-rified,” The Denver Post (3 Mar. 2006).
- 5. “‘Factory Farming’ Approach Takes Toll” (see note 2).