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Vacations, Yard Sales, and Other Thoughts

Karen McGovern | Jun 20, 2007


Vacations are wonderful.  A time to re-charge, refresh and "get away from it all".  I just returned from a short but delightful stay in Northern Michigan enjoying sunshine, good food, family, friends, and freshwater swimming.  Coming from Florida, where I have lived for the past 15 years, the feeling of freshwater on my skin was a liquid-cool reminder of a childhood spent lakeside. 

This vacation turned out to be an escape from more than just the pressures and challenges facing all of us in the conservation field.  Little did I know that when I planned my trip many months ago, I would be away the very weekend that a major private collection of rare parrots would be offered for public auction.

The reasons I want to bring this topic up for consideration are both personal and professional.  A well-known avian veterinarian and self-proclaimed parrot conservationist owns the aviary in question. Anyone working in the field of private aviculture in the U.S. (and abroad) probably knows this person, who is also my neighbor.  We live less than three miles from one another.  I worked with her at another privately owned parrot breeding facility-now long gone, birds also sold at auction years ago.  I respect her skills-she is a phenomenal bird vet.  She is a walking encyclopedia of avian medicine, and has always been kind and supportive of my interests.  I remember her allowing me to watch her work on birds in her clinic, marveling at her steady hand and magical intuition with parrots.  The organization I work for relies heavily on her veterinary skills, and I truly care for her as a person.  That being said, I HATE that these birds ended up at auction.  While I was sipping local wines in Michigan, animal rights activists were picketing along the road near our conservation facility in Loxahatchee.  While I was splashing in crystal-clear Grand Traverse Bay, a collection of exotic animals (a phrase I ABHORE-the idea that living things can be "collected" like trading cards is personally offensive to me) was being dismantled and sold to the highest bidder.  Sad?  Yes.  Tragic?  Absolutely.  Avoidable?  I believe so.

My point is not to attack the people responsible, or to cause them injury or pain-no doubt they agonized over their decision.  Rather, I write this as a parrot conservationist, examining this story as it illuminates a greater problem.  Without going into all the details, which have been broadcast ad nauseum in bird chat-rooms and lists all over the 'Net, the aviary owners were facing a crossroads in their personal lives which supposedly forced the decision to sell the collection (again-that horrible word) for cash.  While I empathize with others’ personal troubles, my first and only question is, "What does this have to do with anything?"  If a zoo were to announce that it had decided to close and was going to sell off all the animals to anyone with the cash to purchase them, the public outcry would be deafening.  Why should it be any different for anyone holding large groups of exotic animals in captivity? 

To say that the regulations concerning the exotic pet trade are flawed is a ridiculous understatement.  Offered at this auction were threatened and endangered parrots.  Hyacinths, galahs, and even blue-headed macaw babies were sold like once-upon-a-time treasures at a yard sale.  Once again, a group of exotic birds that were held and bred for personal profit (yet were also claimed to be part of conservation breeding efforts) were scattered to the wind as if they never existed in the first place.  Private aviculturists rally and protest that they are demonized in the press, that they are misunderstood stewards of parrot preservation and conservation.  Yet, here we have one of their well-known icons dumping birds for the highest dollar-just like all the rest.  Is any of the money raised going to support parrot conservation efforts in the field?  No.  Have any private aviculturists ever banded together to contribute portions of their sales to conservation programming?  Yes, but so few it's almost meaningless.  This is just another example of what's wrong with the regulatory system, and a fine example of why private individuals shouldn't be allowed to have personal ownership of large collections of exotic animals. 

In the years that I have worked as a wildlife conservationist, I have seen over and over the private accumulation and casual dismantling of exotic animal collections.  The Avicultural Breeding and Research Center (ABRC) was my first eye-opener.  This facility was a prototype parrot-breeding center-first class, state-of-the-art.  Richard Schubot amassed a collection of parrots that included the absolute crème-de-la-crème-palm cockatoos, red and white-tailed black cockatoos, gang-gangs, galahs, red-front macaws, hyacinths, buffons-you name it, he had it.  The veterinary facility was on-site, and most of the staff lived on-site as well.  24/7 we churned out 800-1000 babies a year, and sold them all into the pet trade.  Upon his death his son closed the place, fired the staff and sold the entire collection for cash.

The Peace River Refuge in Arcadia, FL is another example of a wealthy individual throwing around huge amounts of cash to get exotic, rare, and endangered animals for no other reason than ego and whim.  This facility amassed a mind-boggling collection of rare hoofstock-rhinos, pygmy hippos, bongo antelope, red river hogs, anoa, tapir, okapi-the list goes on and on.  The owner of this facility even fooled the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.  Zoo around the country sold, and even gifted, their surplus animals to Peace River-all on promises from a billionaire who could afford to throw around enough money to turn heads and get what he wanted.  Of course the facility is now gone to a housing development, the animals scattered.  All of this brings me back to my point-private individuals should not be allowed to personally own large collections of exotic animals.

WPT has been a strong voice for parrot conservation.  The campaign to stop the importation of wild parrots is a shining example of how to bring about change using science, fact, and common sense.  We must go further.  Saving parrots in the wild is directly linked to parrots in captivity.  The pet trade has a direct influence on conservation programming and fundraising.  As long as rare parrots in captivity are considered personal property, public opinion will reflect this.  As long as rare parrots can legally be bought and sold as commodities, with little or no regard to their conservation or welfare, wildlife will suffer.  As long as exotic animals of any kind are kept as pets the ethical link between these animals and those in the wild will be lost.  Regulations must change.  Tougher restrictions must be imposed, and soon.  Wildlife management and law enforcement agencies need to be better run and funded.  Most importantly, private aviculture must change-aviculturists must be held accountable for the animals they keep and dispose of.  Those within the private sector that have the experience and credentials to be termed "expert" should, at the very least, be held to a higher standard-be exemplary role models for the rest of the community, and have the courage to speak out, especially about events like this auction.  Where is the voice advocating change?  Why didn't this become a cause celeb within the private aviculture community?  Why was auction the only recourse for these birds?  In the end, this sad event did nothing but give the press, animal rights activists, and the science community further proof that private aviculture does nothing to support wildlife conservation or animal welfare, even within their own community.  These birds deserved better and everyone associated with the sale knows it.  To anyone out there breeding rare birds in captivity-please don't forget or choose to ignore this incident.  To do that would be equivalent to declaring that the lives of these birds have no meaning-that they are nothing more than objects for personal amusement.  I'd like to think that any of us, even on our worst day, would find the pain of that insufferable.  We have to do better.

Now, I need a vacation.

Note:  While I was away I received word of Mike Reynolds passing.  I never had the pleasure or privilege of meeting him, but I am, and will remain, a huge admirer of his courage, fortitude, and perseverance.  Mike's energy and dedication to parrot conservation will remain legendary and he will be greatly missed.  Fly free, Mike.