By Monica Engebretson
What if you went over to your neighbor’s house and noticed that they had a cat sitting in a cage in their living room?
You’d probably ask if the cat was sick or recovering from an injury.
What if they told you that they keep her in there most of the time because the house stays cleaner that way?
Now imagine that they open the cage door and bring the cat out, but before setting her down they wrap some yarn around her front legs tying them together in a hobble.
This, they say, keeps her from running outside where she might get hurt, plus it keeps her from jumping up on the counter.
If you’re like most humane-minded people you’d be appalled and would consider this treatment cruel. Your state’s anti-cruelty laws would likely agree.
A parrot is just as active and inquisitive as a cat. In fact, parrots have greater cognitive abilities than cats — parrots have been compared to human toddlers in terms of their intelligence and emotional needs.
Anyone who has ever had, or taken care of, a bird can attest that it is extremely difficult to care for a bird without using a cage or controlling their flight.
However, whether or not cages or flight control are necessary for caring for captive birds may be irrelevant to the question of whether the birds make suitable pets. Perhaps a more relevant question is whether or not it is acceptable to keep a particular animal as a companion if ensuring his or her safety or compatibility in the home requires that he or she be constantly caged and/or physically disabled.
Birds are routinely denied two of their most fundamental natural behaviors — flying and socialization. Denial of these activities can cause physical and behavioral abnormalities including incessant screaming, pacing, head-bobbing, feather-plucking, and self-mutilation. Captive birds may also exhibit extremely low behavior, appearing to be catatonic. This is not the sign of a well-adjusted bird, it’s a sign of a bird who has given up.
Denial of natural behavior isn’t the only factor that calls to question the suitability of birds as companion animals. The vast majority of birds kept as pets are also fed inadequate seed-only diets and most are never taken to a veterinarian — only 11.7% of bird-owning households currently seek veterinary advice for their birds. It has been estimated that malnutrition is responsible for up to 90% of all clinical conditions seen by avian practitioners.
While changes in the captive environment (cage size, enrichment, socialization) can improve the welfare of captive parrots, such changes require that the owner has sufficient knowledge, resources, and motivation to fulfill these requisites, and that the motivation to provide such complex care regimes is sustained throughout the life of the parrot — which may be 20 to 50 years or more depending on species. Indeed, many parrots outlive their caretakers and even more outlive their caretakers’ interest in them.
In addition, evidence suggests that as long as the private ownership of parrots remains socially acceptable and commercial profits persist, the smuggling of parrots for the pet trade will likely continue despite trade restrictions and availability of captive-bred birds. In fact, because captive-bred birds are physically identical to their wild-caught counterparts, the presence of captive-bred birds in the trade actually helps facilitate the wild trade by providing cover for smuggled birds.
When one considers the considerable restrictions captive birds endure, the inadequate diets most are fed, and impact the trade in birds as pets has had on species in the wild, it is easy to conclude that, like other non-domesticated animals, birds are not suitable companion animals.
Disclaimer: As expressed in this article birds are non-domesticated animals that belong in the wild where they can fly freely and express their natural behaviors. However, due to the large number of birds living in captivity which cannot be returned to the wild and the limited space available in avian sanctuaries, optimizing care of birds held in private hands can go far in reducing suffering and improving the welfare of captive birds. Tips for optimizing care can be found at www.nationalbirdday.org.
Monica Engebretson is senior program associate at Born Free USA