Welfare implications of use of non-domesticated birds (mainly parrot-like species) in photography and as performing animals in shows.
A range of mainly parrot-like species are commonly used in the above ways, generally to entertain a fee-paying public. This note discusses the methods used and the implications for the birds’ welfare of this use of them.
2.1 Training methods used
Training methods can be very variable but are likely to be similar to those used in many circus animals. Parrots are often trained using food deprivation, punishment or negative reinforcement (NR). NR is where a bird is subjected to aversive stimuli (which may include violence) which are only withdrawn once the bird performs the act being demanded of it. These methods tend to be aggressive and based on fear and threats forcing the animal to perform.
Birds may also be subjected to food deprivation during training and for many hours prior to public performance. So, during the performance the birds are forced to perform in order to receive food. Where food deprivation extends to beyond 4 hours during the daytime, the birds’ condition may suffer. Birds are known to be forced to go without food for up to 12 hours in order to guarantee a performance. Unlike raptors (commonly used in falconry displays) which are behaviorally adapted to whole days without food, herbivorous parrots have no adaptation to cope with such deprivation. Food stress can sometime be seen in poor feather growth of such birds.
Most of those who use birds in performing acts and for photography, have had no formal training themselves in animal handling and have no scientific understanding of animal behavior or benign behavior modification methods.
The birds are used as inanimate objects; ‘props’ to generate an income for their owner. The birds displayed are often desperately hungry and therefore have no alternative but to perform in order to eat.
2.2. Disabling of birds
With only one exception all parrots are fundamentally flying creatures. They use flight to escape any threat (real or ‘false’) to their safety. Where birds are not required to fly at public performances, they may be disabled in two ways. Either permanently by pinioning, or ‘temporarily’ by repeated wing clipping:
Pinioning involves amputation of part of the wing at the wrist joint (the ‘hand’ is removed).
Wing-clipping involves cutting short some flight feathers on one or both wings. Clipped birds can recover flying abilities if allowed to re-grow their feathers. However, this often needs veterinary intervention as re-growth on clipped birds is problematic; it often results in significant blood loss due to repeated breaking of new ‘blood’ feathers.
The behavioral effects of enforced flightlessness are severely detrimental to any species of bird which normally flies. Adverse reactions include grossly submissive behaviors, including fearful behaviors, which renders the birds ‘easier’ to tame and train. Also, disabled birds cannot ‘escape’ their trainer or whatever actions or people they are confronted with. Birds used in photographic sessions are commonly clipped, some are pinioned.
2.3. Duration of working day
As tropical species, parrots are adapted to 12 hours of daylight followed by 12 hours of darkness every day. Typically, they spend about 6 hours a day finding and eating their food. Other periods are spent preening, socializing and resting (digesting food). Most wild parrots fly at 35 to 45 mph and cover hundreds of miles every week of their lives; they do so in the company of their flock peers and flock mates. Captive birds are prevented from performing these natural behaviors and suffer behavioral frustrations as a result.
Where parrots are forced to perform in excess of 6 hours a day, their welfare is likely to be compromised by the sheer duration alone, let alone the other effects forced upon them during the performance. Birds may also be forced to work in the evenings in poor light conditions; this induces fearful behaviors, especially in flight-deprived birds.
Parrots used for photography are likely to suffer most where itinerant parrot photographers walk the streets, tempting casual by-passers to have their picture taken with the bird. Despite being tropical birds, parrots are at risk of suffering heat stress, since their normal body temperature is significantly higher them most mammals being 40 – 42 degrees C. Wild birds avoid heat stress by spending long periods below the tree canopy in the shade and by flying.
2.4. Health implications associated with public access to parrots
Psittacosis is a bacterial infection in commonly seen in parrots and many birds harbor this microbe without showing symptoms. Some birds do die of it, particularly if they become injured or stressed. Psittacosis can be acquired by humans directly from the birds or their airborne faecal material. It can be treated, but if untreated it can be fatal.
Salmonellosis is also a common infection in parrots and can be transmitted to humans with direct or indirect contact with the birds or items the birds have touched (Including their trainer's hands).
The medium-sized and larger parrots are able to inflict serious injuries on people when or if they should bite. Unlike most other birds, parrots have a strong crushing strength in their beak; strong enough to crush Brazil nuts in one bite. The most common injuries seen in humans are biting to the hands and face where the skin is torn and the wound bleeds.
2.5. Accommodation for the birds
When not on view, performing and photography birds may be kept in cages which are so restrictive that the birds suffer a range of behavioral frustrations. These typically include feather damage and neurotic behaviors including self-plucking, self-mutilation, and stereotypical ‘route-tracing’ of the cage.
The cages are way too small, lacking environmental enrichment and the birds are deprived to socialize with those of their own kind. Sometimes they do not even have cage but are forced to remain on one perch (a "parrot stand") when not performing. The birds’ accommodation should also be provided with a range of environmental enrichment which allows it to forage for food and provides many choices of perching and exercise opportunities for the birds.
The use of birds as performing animals or as ‘props’ for photographers has a range of severe welfare implications for the birds. According to studies carried out by Professor Irene Pepperberg of MIT in the USA, parrots show a learning ability similar to a 3 year old human. Pepperberg has shown that gray parrots can use human speech in context, with some concept of numbers (can count up to 6) and use of abstract concepts such as shape, color, size and nature of material when describing objects. Indeed they show a degree of intelligence similar to or in advance of many higher primates. Parrots are also highly attuned to everything going on around them. Many are by nature fearful of new situations (new people, new objects, unfamiliar sounds). This neophobia is an adaptation to warn of threats to their safety. The environment of a performing bird forces them to be in contact with people and objects unknown to the birds and this can be a severe stress factor each day that they are used in this way.
Unlike most mammals, the large parrots have a similar lifespan to humans; typically 40 to 65 years. Consequently their suffering may be endured for decades.
Report by Greg Glendell for the Born Free Foundation. www.greg-parrots.co.uk