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Exotic pet trade and parrot suffering

Expert Question

Jamie,  I have been studying the Parrot Action Plan, trying to find a way to help the WPT with the small amount that I have to donate.  I have a few questions for you:

I have 18 parrots who are rescued birds.  Only one was purchased at a pet shop for a pet, and he was my first parrot.  Because of him I’ve learned about the plight of parrots in the USA and other countries who are in great need of love and attention because people buy them on a whim, then toss them away like yesterday’s bath water because they don’t want to bother with them.  Although I adore each and every one of my birds, I would like to see exotic animals staying in their natural habitats, living as God intended.  I don’t want to deny responsible people the opportunity to love their birds, but I see so much abuse, neglect, and plain meanness when it comes to these wonderful animals that I’d rather see them flying free.  The reason I have so many is because I’ve taken them out of bad situations and am trying to give them a better life.  It’s not like they can be returned to the wild.  And shelters are overflowing, refusing more birds, and even closing down due to lack of funds.  The shelter I adopted most of my birds from had to close down because they couldn’t afford to stay open any longer. The lady who ran it even took a second job, struggling to maintain her shelter, but couldn’t keep it going.

My birds all get the best care I can give them.  In fact, I have not left my home for an overnight trip except twice (once a hospitalization) since I started adopting them.  This is mainly because it’s too darn hard to get someone to care properly for them while I’m gone.  While I would absolutely love to go to a parrot symposium, to Rio del Negro to see the Patagonians in the wild, etc., I can’t trust anyone enough to care for my feathered children the way I do.  So, needless to say, I would rather that pet shops and breeders did NOT sell birds.  Period.  They end up as victims, not pets, on a large scale.  That doesn’t mean I am for the HR 669.  It just means that I wish there was NOT a pet trade.  The HR 669 has a lot of flaws in the way it’s written, i.e., wanting people to not cross state lines with their beloved birds, suggesting shelters or euthanization when a birdowner dies instead of allowing them to choose the new home for their birds, and so forth.  I enjoyed reading your response to the Bill, by the way.

My question is this: Is it possible for the WPT to gracefully advocate ending the pet trade in exotic species in order to save all the future suffering, in particular, of parrots?  Would this help in improving their status in the wild in their indigenous habitats?

Thanks for ‘listening.’    Cindi

Expert Answer

Dear Cindi,

We sympathize with your situation and applaud your impressive commitment to help so many of these birds in need of good homes. There are of course many factors which have contributed to the situation here in the USA; many of these birds are wild caught birds which were legally imported in the past, some have been illegally imported since, and certainly many people bred and bought birds which they never should have bred or bought in the first place.

Just as we all must make choices about our time and efforts as an individual, we must do the same at the Trust.  With regard to parrot welfare, we feel at this time that we are able to do the most for the largest number of parrots by focusing our expertise and resources on the wild parrot trade, both legal and illegal, around the world.  Although it is unrealistic to hope for successes on the scale of the EU import ban to come along every year -- changes which spare millions of wild birds -- there is still a great deal of trade involving tens of thousands of wild parrots annually.  Focusing our attention on the major exporter and importer nations is by far the most effective way we feel we can make a significant difference for parrots and their welfare.

Naturally, we do a lot of educational work as well, both in developed and developing countries, to raise awareness about parrots in captivity, their proper care, and the huge commitment involved in taking responsibility for one of these birds.  While there remains a lot of work to be done, I feel there is now a great deal more understanding about these issues than there was even five or ten years ago,

For the most part, in the USA, Europe, and Australia, the 'pet trade in exotic species' is effectively decoupled from the fate of wild parrots.  That is, buying or not buying, breeding or not breeding parrots here in the USA (etc) really has no direct bearing on the conservation status of wild parrots.  In the past, this was not the case, but import bans and other regulations have been quite effective in ensuring that such markets are, by-and-large, unrelated.  That cannot be said for domestic markets within parrot range states, where local demand and price is very much related to harvest of birds from the wild.  In these cases, however, one can easily argue (and many do) that widespread captive breeding is the best way to reduce demand for the wild birds.

Your question is really a series of questions packed into one, including:

a.  Can the Trust advocate for ending all exotic pet trade?
b.  Could we do this gracefully?
c.  Would ending this trade save all the future suffering of parrots?

The short answers are a. yes, b. probably not, and c. no; here's why:  In our focus on the conservation and welfare of all parrots, we could as an organization advocate for just about anything we feel would substantially further those aims.  Our expertise, however, is limited primarily to parrots and other birds, and we know little about trade in lizards, frogs, snakes, fish, anemones, shrimp, live rock, small mammals, etc..  So it is unlikely we would ever be in a position to advocate for the elimination of trade in exotic species in general - or for the promotion of it for that matter - simply because we know so little about it.

Although it never ceased to amaze me how complex and multi-faceted our campaign to end EU imports became over the years, that effort was a million times more straightforward than attempting to end all exotic pet keeping in the developed world.  So, could we do it gracefully? I really can't see how, even if we completely changed who we are as an organization, and redirected all our resources in this direction. 

Maybe more importantly, would we stand a chance of succeeding if we did decide this was our highest priority?  There are massive organizations and big money on both sides of this issue, so any one organization would have very little chance to make a meaningful difference.  When we have been able to make a difference on a policy like this as in the EU trade ban, it was because there were lots of big groups who were willing to join us and imports were very much against the interests of the EU ... so it was mostly a matter of helping them see that truth. 

Ending all future suffering of parrots?  That's certainly a laudable goal, but I think I'd be much more comfortable with language like "eliminating unnecessary" suffering, or "minimizing" suffering whenever possible.  There are a few of issues worth bearing in mind here: two about wild birds, one about captive birds.  First, there are millions of parrots in the wild.  Their lives generally end in ways that are very unpleasant and involve considerable suffering -- most often being eaten alive by predators, but also suffering debilitating diseases, sustaining life-threatening injury... and then in their weakened state, often being taken by a predator in the end.  Although it is nearly impossible to study, most available evidence suggest that very few of these birds thrive for decades and peacefully die in their sleep.

Second, wild parrots generally live in places where there are a number of serious predators; cats, snakes, primates, and other birds like hawks, eagles, and owls.  Their only protection from these threats is to be smart, alert, and to hope for the best.  It is fascinating to watch parrots go to roost in the wild for example, as their behaviors suggest that darkness brings with it a number of very substantial fears... every night of their lives.  And judging from the piles of parrot feathers one finds on the forest floor at frequent intervals, these fears are not imaginary, they are very real.  Of course, this fear at dusk is not suffering in the sense of feeling physical discomfort, but many would argue that experiencing intense fear is suffering on another level, particularly for highly intelligent species like parrots.  Note that while we wouldn’t for a moment suggest that these are reasons for taking birds from the wild - such experiences are entirely natural and parrots evolved in exactly such environments - that doesn’t for a second mean that life in the wild is one that lacks suffering.

Third, you are absolutely right that there is a lot of suffering among captive birds as well; sometimes this is due to ignorance, sometimes it's because people just don't care, and sometimes it's because they are simply unable to provide the bird with what it needs to thrive.  Some of our closest friends and colleagues feel there should be no parrots in captivity.  While we respect that view, we do not share it.  In our collective experience, there are many parrots which are very well cared for in captivity, they live stimulating, healthy, fear-free, and often very long lives, and they often enrich our lives in many and profound ways.  Perhaps more importantly, as a result of our being captivated by them, we have a deep appreciation for these creatures and we are powerfully motivated to save both the parrots and their habitats around the world.

So, no, I don't think ending the exotic pet trade would "save all future suffering" of parrots. Such a step may in fact severely curtail awareness, appreciation, and respect for these birds, as well as potentially undermining support for their conservation.  That said, we can do a lot to minimize this suffering by eliminating the trade in wild caught birds, and further educating people around the world about how to care for parrots, and about the many challenges of providing captive parrots with healthy and happy homes. 

All best wishes,


Jamie Gilardi, PhD
About Jamie Gilardi, PhD

James Gilardi has been the Executive Director of the World Parrot Trust since November 2000. His work includes developing and implementing field conservation initiatives. He is a conservation biologist specializing in behavioural and physiological ecology with special interest in tropical forest birds and marine vertebrates.

Following undergraduate studies at UC Santa Cruz, he earned a Ph.D. in Ecology from UC Davis studying parrot social behaviour, foraging ecology, and soil-eating in south-eastern Peru. James has also worked on parrot field conservation in Guatemala, St. Vincent, St. Lucia and Mexico.

In the fall of 2000, James Gilardi became the director of the World Parrot Trust, where he is inherently involved in carrying out parrot conservation and education programs around the world.