Any legal trade in exotic species, whether wild-caught or captive-bred, usually leads to an increase in popularity and demand for the animals as "pets," a demand for which there are always people eager to supply the pet market to make a fast buck, usually at the animal's expense.
Thousands of parrots are taken from the wild each year to be sold as "pets" in Asia, Europe, and even the United States. The initial shock of losing their freedom and being confined to a cage can kill 10-20% of wild-caught birds. Of those who survive capture, half will die of starvation, dehydration, suffocation, or disease before reaching their final destination. Researchers in Nicaragua estimate that, to compensate for mortalities, up to four times as many parrots are captured than make it to market. In fact, recognition of the unacceptably high rate of mortality among imported birds helped prompt the U.S. Congress to pass the Wild Bird Conservation Act in 1992. Though the Act effectively reduced the United States from the largest importer of wild-caught birds to one of the smallest, up to 150,000 parrots are illegally smuggled into the U.S. across the Mexican border each year.
Any legal trade in exotic species, whether wild-caught or captive-bred, usually leads to an increase in popularity and demand for the animals as "pets," a demand for which there are always people eager to supply the pet market to make a fast buck, usually at the animal's expense. As evidence of this, American Federation of Aviculture, a group representing the interests of exotic bird breeders, opposed the 1992 Wild Bird Conservation Act (WBCA) and most recently opposed a bill that would have added birds to the list of animals covered under Animal Welfare Act for research purposes. These actions demonstrate the pet industry's history of putting its personal interests above the welfare of animals.
Many breeders of exotic species claim that breeding species in captivity protects species in the wild, a claim unsupported by fact. The role of private breeders has largely been one of a willingness to collect rare specimens, breed them outside official conservation plans, and then trade, sell, or display the offspring for self aggrandizement and/or profit. Experts say that import restrictions are perhaps the single most effective measure for improving the plight of endangered parrots, and a recent study revealed that the WBCA cut poaching rates from almost 50% to 20%, refuting the claims of the pet industry and exporting countries that limiting legal trade intensifies illegal trade and poaching.
Although U.S. laws protect native birds such as blue jays, cardinals, and robins from commercial exploitation, such protections are glaringly inconsistent with how we allow the pet industry to exploit the birds of other countries. According to Dr. Steven R. Beissinger, of the University of California at Berkeley, "To be ethically consistent, the trade in live exotic birds should be regulated by nations in the same manner that they regulate commercial uses of native wildlife. For example, the USA has prohibited most commercial use of native wildlife species ... although it is illegal to market and hold native bird species, except under permit; it is quite legal to practice these same activities with most non-native birds without a permit. This poses unfortunate ethical inconsistencies in the treatment of wildlife species."
In the United States, the overproduction and promotion of parrots as "pets" has resulted in serious animal welfare issues. Whether wild-caught or captive-bred, captive parrots frequently suffer from captivity-related stress, which leads to behavioral and physical problems. Birds sold as "pets" very commonly suffer from nutritional diseases through the ignorance of many purchasers of exotic birds. The problems associated with captivity and the pet trade, have resulted in an influx of unwanted, abused, and abandoned birds entering shelters and avian rescue facilities.
Of the more than 100 self-described bird rescues or sanctuaries in the United States, several have come into existence within the last few years and are already filled to capacity, though the total numbers of birds kept in captivity and the number entering rescue facilities remains a subject of debate. A 1998 article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association cited "the most extensive demographic study of pet birds" in stating that the U.S. "pet" bird population was estimated to be 35-40 million; in 1996 the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council reported there were 40 million "pet" birds.
But this emphasis on numbers distracts from the real issue -- the welfare of captive birds. Whether we are dealing with 10 million or 40 million, each bird's quality of life matters. In 1998, the World Parrot Trust estimated that as many as 50% of all "pet" parrots were kept in inadequate conditions. Due of lack of space or funds, bird sanctuaries across the country are forced to turn away hundreds of birds a year whose possessors cannot provide them with the care they need. Clearly this is a problem that must be addressed.
The exotic birds currently held in captivity cannot be returned to the wild. We have a responsibility to provide them the best care, but better if we extended the same respect we have for our own birds to those of other countries. We shouldn't trade exotic birds like commodities.