How They Play the Game

How They Play the Game

by Sue Beaulieu
compilation of various articles originally published in On Wings

Who are "they" - - these non-profit organizations and their legions of followers?

How do they influence our politicians and legislators? What is their strategy? For starters, they repeat something over and over and over until people accept it as truth. That doesn't mean it is though. They often back up these fabled arguments with documents and testimony that they create! They cite each other's misrepresentations in an attempt to smother the opposition under a mountain of propaganda.

For instance, the 1996 World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) Parrot Smuggling Across the Texas-Mexico Border, contains the following disclaimer: "Despite the lack of reliable data on exact numbers of parrots smuggled across the US-Mexican border, ongoing bird seizures demonstrate that the southern border is a common and probably the most widely used route for illegal importation of parrots into the United States.

They admit they had no actual data to back up their claims, yet they made those claims anyway. Such tactics continue to be highly effective. Furthermore, they used a "sleight of hand" trick by deliberately confusing the term "illegal importation" with outright smuggling. Illegal importation can often be no more than a paperwork snafu and can be eventually remedied. Smuggling is not always done through border checkpoints.

A FOIA request, made by On Wings editor, Judy Franklin (click to read another article she wrote on this topic) revealed accurate information. In fact, only 573 parrots were confiscated at the Mexican border during the years 1991 through 1994. Many were pet birds that did not have the proper permit documentation.

But hey, they don't let facts get in the way of an outrageous claim! They learned to play the extrapolation game. FWS is quoted as stating that approximately 10% of all declared imports are inspected, so it is assumed that the figure is much lower for undeclared imports and smuggled items. If the LEMIS report for 1993 indicates 200 parrots from Mexico were seized, extrapolation would imply that at least 9 times that figure could have entered because at least 90% of the shipments were not inspected. Talk about a leap of logic!

Furthermore, FWS, Customs and USDA all kept separate records at these check points, and often the same bird was counted three times! Apply a little magic to the number of parrots that were once imported legally and presto! - you have figures to imply how many parrots must have been "smuggled".

This is one of their many tricks for conjuring up statistics from thin air. Their spell was intended to blacken the reputation of all aviculturists. Let us be diligent and continue to expose these people in their own web of lies.

A Little History of the Wild Bird Conservation Act
The animal rights/environmental movement spearheaded a campaign to terminate importation of wild caught birds into the United States. Their campaign was so successful that they even managed to ban the importation of birds into the U.S. that were and still are captive bred in other countries. As with all their other campaigns, they mixed a little truth with deliberate misconceptions. They are proud of their ability to twist the truth and never hesitate to do so.

The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) , HSUS, PETA, Action for Animal Rights, Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) , Animal Rights Information Service, Inc. (now called the True Nature Network), Defenders of Wildlife , Fund for Animals , ASPCA, American Humane Association, Animal Advocates of Iowa , PASPCA , API (now called Born Free USA) , CEASE - Citizens to End Animal Suffering , Earth Island Institute , Friends of the Earth , Friends of Animals , IFAW , PAWS - Progressive Animal Welfare Society , Rainforest Action Network , WSPA  were only a few of the organizations which submitted testimony in favor of the WBCA. A complete list can be found in Appendix I to the hearing. The bird business was targeted with a vengeance.

They pitched their basic four-pronged argument on the following points:
(Each of these arguments can be debunked and deserve an entire paper)

(1) Birds are being taken out of their native habitat for the pet trade at such an alarming rate that there will be no wild birds left in the very near future
(2) The mortality rates during the inhumane shipment of imported birds was 50% or more.
(3) Imported, wild-caught birds brought in all types of disease, some life-threatening, which could spread to people, other caged birds, and poultry farms.
     [Birds were subject to strict quarantine regulations before being released to buyers and importers.]
(4) Wild-caught birds would escape and establish feral colonies in the U.S. and like the previously introduced sparrows and starlings, would wreak havoc on agricultural crops, indigenous plants and native bird populations.
     [This has not happened though feral colonies of parrots do exist. See my article on feral Quaker parakeets for some of the reasons this will not happen]

Pre-WBCA Hocus Pocus
Early records of bird importation into the U.S., kept by the Bureau of Biological Survey, revealed that of the 14,409,140 birds imported into the U.S. between 1901 and 1942, 71% were canaries. Up until the advent of CITES in the early 1970's, most imported birds were smaller cagebirds like budgerigars, cockatiels and finches. This figure also included gamebirds and birds for zoological exhibits.

In the 1980's and 1990's, we read their primary mantra over and over again : "The United States is one of the world's largest importers of wild parrots, or psittacines . .." followed by the second invocation, "Bird species will become extinct due to the pet trade."

Certain source documents were quoted and used as references time and time again. Most were available for sale from HSUS though they were often published by the WWF, the AWI and the EIA. Among those publications were pamphlets and reports distributed by TRAFFIC ; A paper entitled Flight to Extinction: The Wild-Caught Bird Trade published by both the AWI and the EIA and the book entitled International Wildlife Trade: Whose Business Is It?  published by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Animals in Peril written by John Hoyt, President of the Humane Society International, relied on such sources. . HSUS used the information to print up their own undated:pamphlets with titles such as Facts About the Wild Bird Trade, US. Bird Importation Facts, Please Help Us Stop This Cruelty and The Pet Trade in Wild-Caught Birds.

"Many species of birds have already become endangered, and several may become extinct as a result of the demands of the pet trade; others are suffering catastrophic declines.”  Animals and Their Legal Rights. Chapter VII. Birds. Greta Nilsson. p. 205. Animal Welfare Institute. Washington, D.C. 1990
     [When reading press releases put out by animal rights organizations, we must learn to read between the lines. We know that they distort statistics, twist the truth and publish lies that most readers will assume are facts. Look at the quote above. "Many species of birds have already become endangered." This is true and often it is due to deforestation, lack of habitat, severe weather, introduced predators and other such factors. However, they add that "several may become extinct as a result of the demands of the pet and aviculture trades." Always look for words like "may," "could," "probably," and their ambiguous cousins. That part of the sentence insinuated that the bird trade alone would be responsible for bird species going extinct. However, insinuations are like gossip and hearsay -- they can be and often are unreliable.]

Smoke and Mirrors
Watch the figures grow as if by magic.

"Every year, around 25,000 birds are smuggled into the United States. Most of them are brought in during the hatching season for wild birds, from the beginning of January through mid-May. The birds originate from Central America, South America, New Zealand, Australia, Africa and Mexico."  USDA/APHIS Fact Sheet. Smuggled Birds: A Threat to America's Caged Bird and Poultry Industries. December 1990.
     [My Notes and comments in brackets: This government fact sheet claims that only 25,000 birds are smuggled yearly and that is a nationwide figure, not just birds smuggled across the Mexican border.]

". . . millions of birds are taken from the wild yearly, and world trade in wild birds has recently amounted to a minimum of seven and one-half million birds annually, according to studies done by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. . . . The sale of these wild birds has become a multi-million, and perhaps a billion-dollar business." Greta Nilsson. The Bird Business: A Study of the Commercial Cage Bird Trade. First Edition 1977, Second Edition 1981. Animal Welfare Institute. Washington, D.C.

     [James Leape of the WWF used this figure in the WBCA Congressional hearings in 1992. "The U.S. is the world's largest importer of wild birds, with more than 7.4 million birds imported between 1980 and 1991." The 1979 IUCN-TRAFFIC Group reported that Japan imported over 3 million birds annually, more than any other country in the world. More than the United States? There is a strong push to ban bird imports in that country, too, which would account for the exaggerated figures.]

"No one knows exactly how large the international trade in wildlife is, though estimates place it in excess of $20 billion annually. The problem is," explains Gordon Shepherd, WWF's Director of Treaties and Advocacy Coordination, "that probably a quarter of it is illegal." WWF press release. Larger than the Drugs Trade. 1995.

"Today, nearly a third of the world's wildlife is in danger of extinction, and a major cause, second only to habitat loss, is the illegal smuggling trade."Denise Sewell. Illegal Entry: Endangered Animal Smuggling is Big Business at U.S. Ports. May-June 1997. WWF, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Earth Action Network.

 [No one knows, but they'll guestimate it anyway. ]

"It is difficult to prove, but often suggested that bird smuggling is as profitable pound-for-pound as drug smuggling. . . . A recent article on page one of the Wall Street Journal quoted a Fish and Wildlife Service agent's estimate of $10 million street value for the 50,000 birds most agents agree are smuggled yearly from Mexico into the United States."
Greta Nilsson. The Bird Business: A Study of the Commercial Cage Bird Trade. p. 79. Animal Welfare Institute Washington, D.C. First Edition 1977, Second Edition 1981.
     [Where did this 50,000 a year figure originate!? And the average price for a bird was $2,000!?!  No way!]

"The U.S. has imported about 250,000 parrots a year for the past decade (2.5 million) , nearly half of the documented world trade in parrots. The US trade imported parrots, though a small segment of the overall U.S. bird trade in volume, is valued at $300 million a year. . . "WBCA 1992 Congressional Hearings. Don Bruning. AZA.

     [Hey wait - I thought the trade dealt in billions of dollars. Only 250,000 parrots were legally imported? Many press releases stated that 150,000 parrots were smuggled over the Mexican border alone, each year. The documented trade in parrots indicated 500,000 birds were traded in the world market annually, yet many other quotes state that millions of birds were taken from the wild each year for the legal trade, let alone those numbers extrapolated for illegal and smuggled birds! ]

And then....
(1) ". . . the commercial pet trade's imports remain fairly stable, fluctuating between 600,000 and almost one million birds per year." Nilsson. Importation of Birds into the United States in 1985. p.23. AWI. 1989
(2) "Thus world trade amounts to at least one million parrots per year and if one computes mortality at about 50%, two million parrots are captured each year to supply the wild bird trade." Nilsson. Importation of Birds into the United States in 1985. P. 53

     [The same book was riddled throughout with inconsistent information. Yet, few people ever questioned these "facts" or why they didn't jive. Notice how the fishy story just gets bigger and bigger.  A mortality rate of 50% from the bird trade?  I don't think so.]

"Approximately 1.8 million parrots from Latin America, nearly all captured from the wild, were legally exported for trade from 1982 to 1988. The actual numbers taken from the wild for commercial activities were probably several times as large, when internal trade, illegal export and high mortality rates of birds harvested from the wild are considered. The actual numbers of wild Latin American parrots harvested for international trade between 1982 and 1988 may have been almost four million birds." Statement of Dr. Steven Beissinger, Committee on Bird Trade, American Ornithologists' Union. WBCA Congressional Hearings.

     [May have been? Probably was? Could have been? But was it? Highly unlikely.]

"For the beautiful and intelligent macaws and parrots of Central and South America, that demand could cause their extinction in the wild within the next decade. This possibility propelled the HSUS to the forefront of a legislative push to  immediately ban  importation of all wild-caught birds for sale as pets, regardless of their country of origin." "Millions of birds around the world are captured in the wild to satiate the appetite of the U.S. pet trade. It is believed that 50% of all wild-caught birds die before leaving the country of capture."Traffic in Misery. HSUS News. Fall 1991.

     [HSUS states that the pet trade will most likely be responsible for causing the extinction of all macaws and parrots in Central and South America! The U.S. pet trade is not only blamed for millions of birds being captured around the world, but also for their very high mortality rate.]

"The number of such cases [fraud, smuggling] prosecuted has increased since the Justice Department established by Executive Order to stem the increasing incidence of wildlife smuggling. . . Other government branches have been equally dedicated to uncovering smuggling -- the U.S. Customs Service in particular has employed several Special Agents to work undercover . . . The Fish and Wildlife Service has also "geared up" investigations and arrests. . . In fact, the Customs Service used bird smuggling cases to train Agents who would later handle really important issues such as drug smuggling. Nilsson. The Bird Trade. p. 76

Senator Chafee stated during the WBCA Congressional Hearings that ". . . as you know, it [the bird trade] is just like the drug trade . . . and if the United states drops out certainly . . . it [the drug trade] would decrease worldwide tremendously, and so it would, I presume, in the pet bird business."

    [The "war on drugs" forever established a new federal law enforcement mindset. The practices and power used by the federal agents, prosecutors and judiciary have been forever strengthened and broadened. Since absolute power corrupts absolutely, our freedoms and Constitutional rights are being weakened and taken away day by day.]

"If an exotic bird is turned into your shelter, you should assume that it is imported from the wild. If it is unbanded, you should assume that it is a smuggled bird that poses a health risk to any other birds you may have." Susan S. Lieberman. HSUS Associate Director, Wildlife and Environment. Shelter Sense. Vol. 12, No. 6. June/July 1989

    [You know what they say about assuming. It is quite a leap of logic to assume that every unbanded bird we see is a smuggled bird or that it carries contagious disease, yet Lieberman wrote just that.]

The Demon, Pet Trade
"Largely because of the demands of the pet trade, all wild psittacines are listed on the appendices of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. (CITES) Three domestically bred species (the budgerigar, cockatiel and ring-necked parakeet) are not on any CITES appendix. As of 1988, 37 species of psittacines were listed on Appendix I -- endangered due to trade." Susan S. Lieberman. The Wild Bird Trade: Ending Commercial Imports. p. 7 HSUS. 1989

"While there are a number of reasons for the decline or disappearance of individual species, one of the most persistent and pernicious is the taking of birds in the wild for the cagebird trade. A number of species, particularly parrots, are either extinct or severely endangered to the almost unrestricted market for them in the United States." The International Council for Bird Preservation (ICBP) as quoted in Lieberman's The Wild Bird Trade. Read on.

". . . the hyacinth macaw and military macaw . . . are virtually extinct in the wild . . . due in large part to the pet trade."

     [Though these birds may be endangered, threatened or nearly extinct, it was not due to the pet trade. The advent of CITES saw an increase in the bird trade and may have made trade in certain species more lucrative than ever before, but not to the point of driving species to extinction! Many factors contribute to the declining parrot populations around the world as mentioned earlier in this article. Habitat loss and natural disasters are still a threat even though importation for the pet trade has not been a factor since 1992. Many parrot species are killed as pests because they can destroy crops and orchards They also fall victims to natural predators those that have been introduced, such as feral cats Disease can also take its toll when populations become too large to be naturally sustainable.  And guess what!  The U.S. no longer imports wild birds, but the myriad of conservation organizations still fear for their extinction while soliciting for more money.]

"Even though the Australian government allows the killing of cockatoos, it has banned their export in order to protect the birds from something it considers even more destructive - the pet trade."

     [Keeping a rose-breasted, or any other cockatoo as a pet, or keeping them in a successful breeding program is more destructive than killing them? I don't think so.]

". . . In a short time the red-fronted macaw will be exterminated in the wild . . . not because of Indians living in the valley killing them for their tail feathers and meat, but rather it will have been caused by the greed of certain bird trappers." Lieberman, The Wild Bird Trade. p. 7-9

     [Was it really greed? No, it was survival. A chance for poor Indians to make a little money to help feed and support their families.]

"The enormous growth of the wild pet trade has produced many new millionaires among the wildlife wholesale importers and retailers . . ." Nilsson, The Bird Trade. p. 12

     [Who are they? Are there facts to back up this statement? I know that there are leaders within the animal rights and environmental organizations that have made a bundle of tax-free money.]

Habitat Destruction and Loss? Blame it on the Bird Trade
"The wild-bird trade contributes to habitat loss. The capture techniques contribute to habitat destruction. Bird traders hack into nesting trees .; . . the tree cannot be used by parents in subsequent years. Due to intense territoriality and pair-boding in these birds, they may never breed again." Susan S. Lieberman. The Wild Bird Trade HSUS position paper.1989

"The New York Zoological Society has stated, "Amazon parrots are vanishing because of large-scale destruction of forests and capture for pets." The scarlet macaw was once very common in Central America. Now it is nearly extinct in that area due to the removal of huge numbers of birds from the wild for the pet trade. Susan S. Lieberman. The Wild Bird Trade p. 7

     [They even blamed the real problem of decline of parrot species (habitat destruction) on the bird trade. Habitat destruction occurs when there is extensive deforestation or destructive storms such as hurricanes. How many of you raise parrots? How many of you know how many nest boxes they chew up in a year? In fact, most experienced aviculturists provide nestboxes with extra wood on and in them so that their birds can chew and thus stimulate reproductive and nesting behaviors. It is even good to allow them to "chew into" the box and make their own nesting material out of the wood chips. Where did the large nest holes in trees come from in the first place? Non-avicultural animal rights spokespeople would have you believe macaws are unable to excavate and make nest cavities and so they had to rely on nest sites that had been around for years. Parrots haven't existed in all parts of the world for millions of years because they are unable to adapt to their ecosystems. The drive for survival and perpetuating the species insures that if necessary, they would make new nest cavities for themselves in the forested areas still remaining.
     Susan Lieberman began her AR career with HSUS.  She then became Chief of the Scientific Authority at FWS and was responsible for writing the rules and regulations that would forever affect aviculture.  She went on to become the CITES Secretariat for the USA and is currently Director of the species program at WWF.]

Arguments Against Keeping Wild Birds are Used to Discourage Buying Those Born in the U.S.A.
Charles Pickett, curator of Birds at the National Zoo, discourages the buying of pet parrots: "My own feeling is that I don't approve of birds like parrots as pets." Greta Nilsson. The Bird Business: A Study of the Commercial Cage Bird Trade. Animal Welfare Institute. p.30 Washington, D.C. First Edition 1977, Second Edition 1981

"Wild-caught birds suffer tremendous stresses when in captivity and indeed, do not make good "pets." Many large parrots use their powerful bills, which are adapted for opening hard nuts and seeds, to bite people and chew furniture. Many new owners are quickly exasperated by loud screeching early in the morning. Many large U.S. zoos, such as the Bronx Zoo and the National Zoo, report calls from hundreds of people offering to donate their imported parrots. These uniformed, well-meaning individuals had been enticed to buy these expensive, beautiful animals, but were unaware of the tremendous requirements of time, space and money to care for them. There is no way that a wild bird's needs can fully be met in captivity by private individuals."

Lieberman then quotes Dr. Walt Rosskopf and Dr. Rick Woerpel (Avian and Exotic Animal Hospital, Hawthorne, CA) from their May 1987 article "Feather Picking" published in Bird World magazine: "Feather picking is generally a problem of birds in captivity. Wild birds do not feather pick." Susan Lieberman. The Wild Bird Trade: Ending Commercial Imports. p. 5 HSUS 1989.

     [In fact, wild caught birds behave very similarly to their captive bred counterparts! In other words, these very same arguments can be used when the time comes to campaign against owning pet birds. I also ran across an article where a wild caught military macaw killed a terrier while defending itself. The purpose of the story was to demonstrate that large birds can be very dangerous. Seems to me the terrier started it though.]

Nilsson's also writes in The Bird Business that in the past, parrots were often abused and punished if they did not speak when spoken to. The method used to teach a bird to talk was to "crack him over the skull while repeating the word to be learned" and the method persisted for a long period in history. Of course she added that this too, probably accounted for some of the high mortality rate.
  [Where on earth did she get that information????]

Here are some more of her ideas: "Teaching parrots and mynahs to talk assumes a great deal of arrogance."
     [So does forcing her opinion down other people's throats!]

"At present, stereo records and tapes are sold with instructions to let them play over and over during the day until the birds repeat the words they year." She likens this practice to a "brain washing prison."
     [After researching and reading these sources, I know what that feels like.]

"They are probably the only birds which can suffer from that state of mind, common to human prisoners, namely boredom."
     [They also can be spoiled rotten and have more fun than we ever dreamed about. Besides, I thought the idle rich were the only ones that ever had the luxury to be bored with life.]

Some of these same arguments have been revamped and recycled and are still being used. Nope, they were not content just to stop importation of wild birds - eventually they want to stop the breeding of birds altogether which will eventually end the ability to keep them as pets.

For instance, a HSUS flyer, entitled Facts About the Wild Bird Trade, provided its own questions and answers.
  "Q: Once forced into captivity, what does the future hold for a wild-caught bird?"
"A: A wild bird's prospects for surviving in captivity are bleak indeed. Many live just a few months; 90% of the delicate species are dead within two years and others live a mere fraction of their normal life spans. The unnatural conditions to which these birds are subjected bring out diseases and frustration of instincts."

     [Really? In fact, many wild caught parrots have lived long and happy lives with people. The July 1997 issue of Bird Talk contains an article entitled, A Guide to Senior Psittacines. Though the article doesn't specify, some probably were wild caught.

The oldest bird was a 75 year old Double yellowheaded Amazon, named Charlie. Many of the birds were in their 20's and 30s and Amazons were cited as being among some of the oldest pet birds, with ages ranging from 57 to 75.

King Tut, a Salmon crested cockatoo, was the official greeter at the San Diego Zoo. He was obtained in Singapore in 1925 and was an adult when he arrived in the states that same year. I have an article about Tut that was published in 1985. He was 60 years old at that time.

Parrots' normal life spans in the wild would usually not be this long. In the wild, they must contend with predators, rivals, disease, storms and droughts, food shortages, habitat destruction, hunters, and landowners that consider them pests to be destroyed.  Talk about stress!!!]

PeTA Factsheet on Captured or Captive-Bred Birds. Series, Companion Animals #16:
Birds are meant to fly and be with others of their own kind in a natural environment. Confinement causes birds to have temper tantrums and mood swings. Birds can also be mischievous and highly destructive. They sometimes chew carpet, electrical and phone wires and practically any other material in your home. It is not their fault that they do not make good house companions.

Just like puppy mills, there are bird factories, where breeders warehouse hundreds or thousands of birds so they can produce offspring.

No bird was born to be in a cage.

Stress is an everyday experience for captive birds.

Birds pine, grieve and can even die of heartbreak.

If you already have birds or know people who do, please consider the following:
     Find out if there is a bird sanctuary or large indoor-outdoor aviary to which you can release the bird. 2. Ideally, place birds with other members of their own species.
    Mating should be allowed, but not breeding -- eggs should be hollowed by draining them through a small hole, or there should be no nest boxes…it would be unfair to allow more birds to be born into a captive environment.
    If you cannot find a sanctuary, donate the bird to someone who has other birds of the same species, allows them to live in a free-flight situation and will never separate them once they have bonded.
    Let the birds fly free for long periods of time every day -- spending as much time out of the case as possible.
   Do not buy bird food and supplies from pet shops that sell birds; you will be supporting the bird trade. Fresh foods are available in supermarkets and health food stores.
   If you must keep the bird, find a companion bird of the same species. NEVER buy from a pet shop or breeder. Check shelters, humane societies, animal rights groups, newspapers and nursing homes -- birds often outlive their human companions.
     [I'm not going to spend time on these. PeTA wrote them. 'Nuff said.]


"Since many collectors and zoos buy birds from importers, rather than import directly, the exact destination or purpose of import is not known for the majority of these unusual birds. . . . Although these 3,670 birds are comparatively few in number compared to those imported for the pet trade, they are often delicate and ill-suited to captivity. . . Since the number of public zoos is not growing, one can assume that the vast majority of these birds must be replaced on a yearly or semi-yearly basis."  Greta Nilsson. Importation of Birds into the U.S. 1985. p. 22. Animal Welfare Institute. 1989

[In fact, that was a very good argument to support private aviculture. Why would zoos take the time to develop better avicultural practices and techniques when they could simply import more birds? Since zoos are now forced to improve the mortality rate of birds in their care, they are just now discovering techniques that have been used by aviculturists for many, many years.]

WBCA codified: 16 USC Chapter 69, Sections 4902 -4916.

Some aviculturists were willing to compromise and support the passage of the bill if captive breeding programs were implemented. Regulations were written to allow for these programs, but the monumental paperwork tied the hands of some of our most accomplished and experienced people.

Furthermore, Congress has not re-authorized the corresponding Exotic Bird Conservation Fund. Since its inception, the $5,000,000 for fiscal years 1993 through 1995 were never appropriated, nor has any money been appropriated thereafter, although unaccounted for fines have been collected for enforcement of the Act.

The WBCA, contrary to specific Congressional intent, amounted to nothing more than a bird ban.