Welfare concerns for wild birds, from confiscation to relinquishment

Illicit parrot trafficking is an estimated $45-50 billion annual industry, and it causes harm at every step to the people and birds involved.

Drs. Patricia Latas and Anthony Pilny discussed the consequences of wildlife trafficking in two sessions about welfare concerns for smuggled wild birds and unwanted pet birds on July 15 at AVMA Convention 2023 in Denver.

Bird welfare
There's much demand for fledgling parrots, and smuggled birds are cheaper than those bred in captivity, says Drs. Patricia Latas, a consultant for avian health, welfare, and wellbeing.

Black market birds

Standards governing the humane handling, care, treatment, and transportation of certain bird species were recently added to the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), representing a win for birds that had previously been excluded federal protections. Yet, wild birds remain threatened by the avian smuggling trade, and unwanted birds have limited safe places that can take them in.

Dr. Latas led the session, "Avian Victims: Confiscations and Their Welfare Implications." She discussed how the illegal trafficking of wild birds causes them to suffer in many ways, and rehabilitation and placement of confiscated birds is difficult.

Demand for fledgling parrots is high, and smuggled birds are cheaper than those bred in captivity, she said. Welfare issues associated with bird smuggling are extensive. Wild birds are typically captured with cruel techniques such as mist nets and birdlime, a glue spread on branches. Young birds may be poached from their nests and injured by inexpert handling.

"Terror and stress impact their health and welfare," Dr. Latas said, adding that traffickers are rarely prosecuted for animal cruelty crimes.

There are a few different paths for confiscated birds. This could mean captivity for life, such as in a zoo or sanctuary; private ownership or entrance into the pet trade; or euthanasia.

"The ultimate goal is to return the birds and their valuable genetics back to the population from which they originated, to ensure that wild parrots remain free and healthy, and to achieve true justice for victims of a terrible crime," Dr. Latas said.

Repatriation, or the translocation of small populations of birds back to their native range, is a complicated and lengthy process, but possible.

Nowhere to go

Dr. Pilny, an exotic animal veterinarian and director of education at Arizona Exotic Animal Hospital in Phoenix, presented the session, "Bird Sanctuaries: Nowhere To Go."

He addressed the serious issue that animal rescues and sanctuaries are facing with the number of unwanted pet birds. Relinquishment rates are high, and most pet birds are kept for less than three years before the owner tries to surrender them.

"We are looking at a number of different aspects that affect the ability to successfully keep birds," Dr. Pilny said. "When we cannot successfully keep them as pets, they need to go somewhere, and we are running out of places to send them."

Of the 76 million baby boomers alive today, 3% live with one or more exotic birds, Dr. Pilny explained. This leaves an aging human population in major need of rehoming their birds, which is why the problem of unwanted or homeless birds is projected to dramatically increase over the next 10-15 years.

Rescues are already overcrowded and underfunded and, with shelters having to take in unwanted birds, Dr. Pilny said, and there is often nowhere for these birds to safely go. With more than half of unwanted parrots going to welfare organizations, the financial and logistical burden of providing care is difficult and "almost feels impossible for these groups."

Bird welfare
It can be challenging to create a captive environment that effectively serves the needs of a bird.

Behavioral needs

Dr. Pilny said the situation is especially challenging because when birds are prevented from engaging in their natural behaviors, health and behavior problems arise, making it even more difficult to properly assess and rehome them. Problems such as chronic disease, self-injury, aggression, biting, and screaming or vocalization behaviors are common.

Birds have unique captive care requirements. Often pet stores and breeders do not prepare people for the considerable financial, physical, and emotional commitment these species need. Because of this, animal abuse and neglect regularly occur in private homes and in retail establishments, according to Dr. Pilny.

"These animals are suffering in ways that don't get recognized, and mistreatment often is a component of that," he said, adding that it can be challenging to create a captive environment that effectively serves the needs of a bird.

Birds are flock animals and wired for connection to a partner or a group. Social isolation is psychologically damaging to them. To thrive, birds need the freedom to carry out their normal behaviors. In the wild, birds spend 90% of the day foraging. Activities such as preening with partners, flying miles each day, nesting, breeding, and raising chicks are all integral to the health of birds.

Enrichment in captivity is particularly important as an opportunity for exercise, exploration, and learning.

"What can we inspire owners to do to create these environments?" Dr. Pilny asked. "How do we get people to keep birds as part of their families?"

The Avian Welfare Coalition offers resources for veterinarians, shelters, and bird owners.