Let’s cuddle an owl (and other things wrong with captive birds of prey in the UK)

One of the reasons Raptor Aid was created wasn’t just for wild bird of prey conservation but also for the good of birds of prey in captivity globally. It would be a little bit rich of us though to point fingers around the world at how other nations and cultures treat birds of prey in captivity without addressing the issues that arise on our own soil. You may have a keen interest in birds of prey (hence why you’re here reading this) so some of what we discuss below might not be new to you but to many the images and text that follow may shock you and surprise you. The British are supposed to be a nation of animal lovers and for the most towards our domesticated animals who we share our lives with we are, but often for animals we have little or no knowledge that are used in the public eye perhaps we should be asking a few more questions.

Raptor Aid is built on years of working with birds of prey in captivity, the mistakes the heartache and the wonder of sharing these incredible birds with a wider audience. We have seen a shift in people’s views on animals in captivity especially birds of prey, most noticeably topics like tethering birds of prey and birds in aviaries, but more recently mobile organisations using birds of prey. We should probably at this point state that we are not anti birds of prey in captivity BUT we are very much FOR a review and change in legislation towards obtaining birds of prey and their commercial use with the public. Those of you new to birds of prey in captivity in the UK might be surprised to hear that you don’t need any form of legislated/legal licence to own a bird of prey – anyone can go out and buy a captive bred bird of prey without any previous knowledge. What is even scarier is certain people with little or no knowledge can continue to go on a buy a selection of species and take the birds out as a commercial enterprise with very little legislation in place to control this and the standards. This is where Raptor Aid wants to make a difference and you can help!

Here in the UK currently the only legislation you should obtain for using a team of birds commercially are as follows:

  • Only captive bred birds must be used, and those that require it must have the relevant paperwork (Article 10/Closed ring or microchip)
  • Public Liability Insurance/Employers liability
  • Performing Animals Licence
  • Animal Transport Licence

*The Animal Welfare act does still apply to anyone displaying animals*

Sadly there are several organisations which pop up and are operating all over the UK without some or any of the basic legislation above. It must also be pointed out that the above legislation is not that difficult to obtain, insurance can be obtained from a variety of companies with no vetting, captive birds are easily obtained with little knowledge or vetting, Performing licences are granted with little more than a brief check from the local authority who often have little knowledge of this area and the transport licence which only requires one form and a payment to be obtained. Nevertheless each of these go some way to hopefully showing the commitment to the birds that are under the care of the organisation.

*An important point to make is that if the birds are not kept on public display in the same place for more than 7 days they do not require a zoo licence so do not fall under this legislation which will include most pop up displays*

With the birds in mind take a look at some of the issues we find that crop up with the poor public displays in the images on this page and lets discuss what Raptor Aid feels is very wrong with demonstrating birds in this way. This is a very subjective and emotive thing and to the organisations in these images stroking an owl or letting hundreds of passers by hold the birds in one day in the middle of a busy shopping centre may not be deemed an issue but let us explain our position based on experience and the best interests of the birds.

Location – Often the worst offenders for poor welfare and standards when demonstrating birds appear in similar locations, these include supermarkets, shopping centres, high streets and car boots. The reason for this is fairly clear to Raptor Aid it is all about getting maximum exposure with little consideration to the birds needs for financial gain. The named locations do tend to be busy and are often on hard standing ground which is recognised as unsafe flooring to tether a bird of prey. A bird jumping off a perch onto a hard floor can damage itself and its feathers, we are also seeing birds on perches sat up on tables which again has inherent risks. The proprietors of such venues are often more interested in the pull of an unusual exhibit to their venue and probably believe the organisations have the best interest of the birds at the forefront of their minds, sadly we find it is money that is at the forefront of their mind.

Motives – This can be a difficult one but as mentioned above the vast majority of organisations like this are using the birds to take money from the viewing public either via donations, direct handling, photographic opportunities and selling merchandise. Education, conservation and more frequently rescue sanctuaries are used as a plausible reason to encourage you to part with your hard earned cash but ask yourself what’s educational about meeting a team of birds of prey in a very unnatural environment like a shopping centre. Sadly in the world of selfies and instant social media a quick image with you or your child holding an owl is a lifetime of misery for that bird. The biggest question could be asked of those claiming to be a sanctuary or rescue centres, are they a registered company or charity or are you just handing over £10 to someone to help them pay for their hobby. Does this organisation declare all the money it is taking be it self employed or a not for profit organisation? There are lots of fantastic rescue centres around the UK saving wild and captive birds of prey every day that don’t put the birds in their care through this sort of use to make a bit more money.

Handling & Photographs – There is a time and a place to enjoy handling and experiencing these fantastic birds and the venues mentioned above are not really one of them. Owls are often the most widely used in these situations as when hand reared due to their naturally very docile nature can become very well conditioned to certain situations but that doesn’t make it acceptable. Without being too anthropomorphic (not that its a bad thing sometimes) imagine being passed around 50/60/80 children a day for your photo in the name of education and conservation. These birds are often portrayed as ambassadors for their wild cousins without a second thought to their own physical and mental well being. In some of the images here you will see owls perched on heads, shoulders and being cuddled by the handlers, this is neither sensible or beneficial for the birds nor is perching the birds on unsuitable objects for a photo opportunity. We have recently been informed of a monkey sanctuary allowing an owl organisation to come in on set weekends and allow customers to handle and have photographs with their owls ad lib. Imagine if an Owl sanctuary allowed someone to come in and do that with small primates, there would be outrage! What’s the difference? Raptor Aid believes if you wish to experience and handle birds of prey you should go and visit and book onto a professional bird of prey handling experience at a dedicated centre, but be warned do your homework because as shown in some of these pictures the birds sat on peoples heads including very young children are at a bird of prey centre which also operates as a sanctuary, needless to say this is an appalling practice.

Stroking – As humans one of our main senses is touch and feeling, we just can’t resist having a squeeze or a stroke to find out how it feels and owls again really feel the brunt of this. It is true that owls are incredibly soft but why do we feel the need to experience this, does it benefit us or the owl? It certainly isn’t the owl but despite this organisations will continuously allow people to handle and stroke their birds without any welfare considerations or health and safety concerns for humans. Raptor Aid have heard all the excuses under the sun regarding why some people feel it is OK to stroke a bird or owl including using the back your hand so your oily hands don’t affect the feathers or stroking the front of the breast or back of the head is OK because these are not flight feathers and because the owl gets enjoyment from being stroked. Lets firstly discuss feathers, easily the most important attribute to a bird for flight, Camouflage, protection from the elements including rain and cold. We spoke to a top avian vet about stroking birds and he explained it is not only the oils the birds put on their feathers we can remove but what we can’t see is the structure of the feather and how that has evolved to repel the elements so when we stroke them we damage this. You also cannot spot the dirt on your hands that we rub onto the birds or the potential zoonotic diseases the bird may be carrying that you could pick up from stroking them. Finally and the most difficult to explain is Raptor Aid feels they are not that sort of animal and by continued stroking and petting only gives the public the wrong idea about owls and other birds of prey. Please think twice! (We will explore this topic in an independent blog in a lot more detail)

Equipment & knowledge – This is a difficult one for the general public to police but most common sense when you stop and look at the situation will tell you whether it is a professional set up or not. Within the bird of prey world there are certain pieces of equipment used both on the birds including the leather anklets and jesses and the perches the birds sit on. Take a look at these closely, are they clean? Equipment that looks old or covered in faeces will be a good clue to how the birds are always kept. Leather being a natural material will deteriorate especially when not maintained, does it look dry or too big for the bird or frayed? The perches often used with birds of prey should either be purpose built wooden turned blocks with a suitable top like rubber or astroturf or metal framed bow perches. The cheap option is to just cut some log stumps to size and tether a bird to that. They are potentially neither safe or hygienicso it makes you think where the donations go doesn’t it? The knowledge of the handler is another difficult one but essentially avoid anyone who over sensationalises things or speaks negatively about the birds to get a laugh. People love to use elaborate facts to wow audiences so if it sounds far fetched it probably is, what is really scary is such organisations often go into schools with this same poor husbandry and knowledge. Images of owls being put in props including tinsel and hats do nothing for the image of the species or offer a true reflection of the birds themselves, once again it is for human enjoyment. Stand off barriers should be in place and the birds should be provided with shelter and clean drinking water.

Above are just some of the points that when thought about hopefully make perfect common sense. Birds of prey are incredible creatures but because of this and their ease of availability here in the UK they have become a target for some organisations to make money. It is also worth pointing out that some of these organisations start out life with all the best intentions for birds of prey but as we at Raptor Aid know first hand it is an expensive and time consuming business and you can’t cut corners when animals and welfare are involved. Raptor Aid are beginning to work with establishments and produce guidelines to help educate them if they are approached by a bird of prey organisation offering to carry out displays at their venue. If you come across a bird of prey organisation exhibiting near you that you are concerned about please take as many details as possible and try to speak directly to the owners of the bird with your concerns and the organisers. You are also more than welcome to forward details to Raptor Aid and we can make inquiries ourselves.

We will be blogging in the future more on individual topics raised in this blog but thank you for taking the time to read what has become a lengthy and very emotive blog.

Yours in birds!