ON A WING AND A PRAYER - Colleen Russell

Colleen Russell is the secretary of Native Bird Liberation Alliance (NBLA). She spoke to Claudette Vaughan about the industry of hunting, trapping, transporting and caging Australia's beautiful native birds for "pets" and for export. First published in Vegan Voice.

Q. How long has NBLA been in operation?

A. Seven years. It was especially set up as a political lobbying tool. Although there are a lot of animal welfare and conservation groups around, nobody is addressing or really focusing on the native bird issue.

Q. I believe you feel deeply that the caged bird situation is at crisis level and that not enough is being done about it. Correct?

A. Yes, I would say that. Many people think that native animals shouldn't be caged or kept for domestic pets other than captive bred birds, and this includes the RSPCA who have this in their policy. This attitude is simplistic and naive. In 1986 the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) released a Review of Aviary Registration and Bird Trading Systems, the Brinsley Report, which said, "The analysis showed, as expected, that much more 'endangered' fauna was being moved through fauna dealers (pet shops) than could have been available from legal sources. The surprising result was that there were also many thousands of common species … being trapped annually, and being laundered through the legal market."

The bird breeder mentality is that it is cheaper to trap birds than to breed them. Wild birds are usually healthier as well, compared to the insipid, weakened birds that are bred over and over in aviaries.

Q. Is trapping birds prevalent in Australia?

A. Yes, as the Brinsley Report confirmed. If you live on the outskirts of town it is not difficult to trap birds. The caged birds call down their wild cousins flying above them, allowing them to be easily caught.

Q. What about the cruelty factor involved?

A. The cruelty aspect is also stated in the Brinsley report. The then-director general, Mr Whitehouse, says "trapping puts enormous stress on populations of rare species where they are already threatened by clearing of the bush". He goes on to say, "Illegal bird trapping is a most cruel trade; not only do many wild birds die but they suffer severe stress and injury as a result of being confined in cages". In 1999 when the NPWS placed another 30 birds onto what they call their "Exempt Species List", their proponent, Jeff Hardy, admitted to the Sun-Herald "the NPWS believed that there was still likely to be a strong black market for a number of native species, particularly the popular and attractive native birds like rainbow lorikeets".

It is very obvious that the "Exempt Species" list is of considerable concern. They started with about eight on this list. These were the sulphur-crested cockatoos, the corellas, the galahs and a couple of pigeon and quail species. The farmers out west consider these "pest" species so they were made "exempt" from licensing, which meant that they were no longer protected by law. Many are shot, gassed and trapped for the pet market. The attitude prevails that you can do what you like with them—that these species are unimportant. Farmers are supposed to apply for a licence to shoot them but most don't bother to do so. A few years later more birds were declared "exempt". These birds were labelled as "traditionally kept species". Even with the knowledge of all the illegal activities published in the Brinsley Report, there are now 42 species that have been taken off the protected list. These extra 30 species have been protected for over 25 years, and suddenly they are garbage! Anybody can "own" them; a licence to hold is no longer required and there will be no inspections of holding facilities or the health, hygiene and welfare of these birds.

Q. Where does this directive come from?

A. It's from the NPWS to please the agricultural industry, the so-called back yard "hobbyist", and for commercial profit.

Q. What are your views on Michael Archer and his push to get native wildlife into suburban households as "pets"?

A. It must be understood that currently native mammals are basically protected under law from exploitation in NSW. However, the Australian Museum has been losing money for a number of years, so Michael Archer is looking at schemes and "innovative" ideas to bring in the bucks. One of these ideas is to try to clone the Tasmanian tiger, which is believed to have been extinct for 70 years. Michael Archer has actually received quite a bit of money from various places to assist in this scheme, but many scientists berate the idea. The truth is we have enough living species that are in danger of dying out and with which we could be concerned, without trying to bring back a dead one. Another Archer scheme, supported in particular by the pet industry, is to put native mammals into back yards as pets. Did you know that this is already being done in SA and Victoria and really needs to be challenged? For the right price one can buy a sugar glider or a ring-tailed possum. I've raised hundreds of ring-tailed possums and let me tell you they are very, very stressed-out little beasties, totally unsuitable as so-called "pocket pets".

Q. On the subject of Michael Archer and the "hobbyists" and their fads, who is doing the pushing?

A. The push comes from the pet industry, for obvious profit reasons. A few years ago I attended one of their forums as the NSW representative for WIRES, a wildlife rehabilitation group. It was a real high-tech affair— sell, sell, sell. They have realised over the years that for various reasons people are not really keeping as many cats and dogs as they used to. This is mainly because people are living under different conditions, in units for example, and there is not as much room for pet animals. Also food for these animals is getting expensive. It was at the above forum that, to my knowledge, the push for native animals as pets was first brought up. During the discussion I asked, "How are you going to assure people that these animals are going to be properly kept?" The speaker said, "We will just allay people's fears." I said, "So that's it, is it?" and she said "Yep, that's it."

You see the pet industry is made up of many commercial bodies. Firstly, the large vet industry and the pharmaceutical companies that sell products for pets; then there are cages and aviaries, leads and collars, bedding and all the rest of it. The big industry, though, is the food industry. It's worth 2 billion dollars annually to them, so of course they look to keep the golden wheels of commerce rolling. Because they know from statistics that they are regularly losing pet owners, they have decided to go for native mammals, too.

Animals Australia did a comprehensive survey last year of native animals going through pet shops in Victoria and they found that it was a considerably worrying situation. They have called for a moratorium from the state government on this animal exploitation. In 1996 the RSPCA Victoria asked the government "to reverse this unacceptable animal welfare situation". The RSPCA alone received 34,000 animals into its Victorian shelters in 1994-95; while over 22,000 dogs and cats are included in these figures, so too are over 10,000 native animals, many of them ex-pets.

Q. What does NBLA do?

A. We are against the exploitation and commercialisation of native fauna--especially those species known to be endangered in NSW. Although we try to focus on birds we do take on other important animal welfare issues as well.

Q. In your 15 years of rehabilitation experience, Colleen, can one rehabilitate a cockatoo who has been in a cage for 30 years?

A. The Oxford dictionary describes the word "rehabilitation" to mean, "to restore to proper condition", that is, to release back into the wild a healthy active animal. However, if any animal has been confined for 30 years, it is almost impossible to return it to its natural environment.

Usually a bird who has been caged for that long is like a human being confined for the same length of time in a wheelchair. The muscles will be atrophied so that it's not possible to walk or, in a bird's case, to fly. That's the main problem. Also these birds often become, over time, so imprinted that they believe the only way to get food is from a human. After 30 years it would be cruel to release a totally humanised animal; a large aviary containing the same species would be the alternative. There have been cases where a bird could be released but this is only where the holding aviary has been very large and the human care giver has for the most part left the bird alone and has been dedicated to finding the correct native food suitable for the bird--not just some commercial seed and an apple.

Every ex-pet bird that comes in for rehabilitation has to be individually assessed as to their age, how timid or wild they are, how humanised and, of course, their health. Some people mutilate their pet bird by clipping their wings or tail so they can't escape. That's a temporary disability, however, the bird can sometimes be in rehab for many months. Not so long ago a vet might have recommended "pinioning". This is where small bones in the wings are surgically severed to permanently prevent the bird from flying. NBLA was actively involved in having this practice banned in the 1996 review of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. Also banned were leg rings, a device where a metal ring is locked to a bird's leg with a chain attached at the other end to a T-pole to prevent escape. This could cause severe injury to a bird.

An aviary can be very costly, so a person who buys a cockatoo, for example, will usually end up with a cheaper cage. Some of these cages are built tall and round so they can fit into a unit balcony. People forget that these birds are not helicopters. They need room to fly, but they can only climb up and down on the wire.

Q. Any final words to readers who may want to know more about the caged bird crisis?

A. Yes, two things. Education is the key. Secondly, the main thing to remember is the cruelty aspect involved with native birds. Ideally, we repeat, they should be left in the wild. The greatest danger to all animals around the world is habitat clearing and habitat disturbance. To a certain extent we can do something about that, but the mortality rate and the cruelty involved in trapping, transportation and trading, particularly of birds, is enormous. In 1991 the UK RSPCA and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) ran a double-page spread in The Times to draw attention to the inequities of the European trade in native birds. They named 10 facts to keep you awake at night, and, I quote, "One final nightmare statistic: The sum total of all this cruelty is that three wild birds die for every one bird that makes it to a pet shop."

So every customer who pays for a live bird is paying for three corpses, too. That sums it up completely. Contact: NBLA, PO Box 69, Newport NSW 2106