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'Factory Farming' Approach Takes Toll
by Mira Tweti
When it comes to the money, breeding parrots is easy.
Macaws, African greys and Umbrella cockatoos retail at PETsMART, for example, for $1,300 to $1,500. Rose-breasted cockatoos sell for as high as $2,500.
When it comes to the work, breeding parrots is hard.
Caring for large birds and hand-feeding their babies is a full-time job. Baby birds need to be delicately fed many times a day for months. Breeders say the time invested soon outweighs the profit margin.
To compensate, they often sell unweaned birds at half the retail price to stores, where it falls to untrained staff members to feed them.
"It's never been about the birds," says Carla Freed, a Kansas breeder and researcher. "It's always been about the money."
Learning the hard way
It's a big business, though specifics are hard to come by because most breeding operations are backyard affairs with no regulation. That takes its toll on millions of exotic birds.
Few professional parrot breeders have formal education in avian science or animal husbandry. Most people start with a couple of pairs of birds and keep buying more, learning through trial and error.
"A lot of people start out as pet owners and see their pets go through a stage of reaching sexual maturity and being obviously unhappy," said Benny Gallaway, president of the American Federation of Aviculture. "Looking out for that bird, they said, 'Well, what you need is a mate.'
"And that leads to, 'I'll get another pet and pair them up so now Polly will be happy.' And then Polly has babies, and it just grows and all of a sudden you don't know how you got there, but all of a sudden you've got birds all around you."
The business of parrot breeding underwent a major change in 1992, when Congress passed the Wild Bird Conservation Act. With the legislation, the United States effectively closed its doors to imports of birds caught in the wild. That fueled a boom in domestically bred parrots.
With U.S. breeders controlling the population, the birds available for sale were plentiful and the species varied. They also were less expensive to consumers.
In 1990, there were an estimated 14 million pet birds in the United States. By 1996, there were 40 million. Now, experts put the number at 50 million to 60 million pets with an estimated 2 million young parrots added each year.
For birds, their lives are bleak.
Never allowed to flock, fly or freely roam trees, many of the millions of parrots live as "captive breeders" for the large pet bird industry, says Richard Farinato, director of Captive Wildlife Production for the Humane Society of the United States.
These workhorses of the pet bird trade are the parents of the birds that end up in homes.
Across the country in an estimated 5,000 parrot farms, parrots are paired off in empty wire mesh cages with food and a perch or two.
Rarely are large breeder birds given appropriate care — such as baths, toys, space to fly, the ability to socialize in a common area and the chance to raise their young.
"They are not treated like pets — they are treated like production birds," says Farinato. "They are kept in isolation, just to produce chicks."
According to Farinato, that's chiefly because of the cost and because many bird breeders believe the less birds have to distract them, the more time they will spend breeding.
"The bare-bones approach to production of parrots is essentially the same factory farming method used with laying hens, yet we are told by breeders that parrots sold as pets must have all the things their birds rarely receive," he says.
This approach also keeps birds living in the dark for months or years.
"Taking sunlight away from birds is idiotic," says avian veterinarian Tracy Bennett of Seattle. "Their whole breeding schedule is based on following the sun."
And even if not intentionally deprived of sunlight, nearly all breeding parrots in northern climates are kept in enclosures during winter months.
The many months the birds are not breeding become a depressing and psychologically debilitating existence. Many birds grow aggressive from frustration, mutilating themselves or fighting with their mates.
Breeders also induce birds to overbreed, producing up to 10 times the number of eggs a year they would produce in the wild. This results in malnutrition, broken bones and worn-out reproductive organs in females.
"I've seen cockatoo hens bred almost to death," Bennett said.
Bird breeders justify their methods saying they understand the needs and behaviors of their birds and should determine the best quality of care without outside interference.
Their ideas, though, often turn out to be wrong. For instance, some breeders complain they sometimes must wait years for a "proven pair" of birds to reproduce. Recent studies indicate the breeders' outdated practices might be the reason.
When Cheryl Meehan, an avian behavior consultant in Seattle, was getting her doctorate at the University of California at Davis, she did several studies with flocking parrots. One looked at older birds that hadn't bred over three or four cycles.
That changed when they were given baths, foraging enrichments, branches and the ability to fly and mingle with each other in a common space or retreat to their own cages, as well as, most important, choose their own mates.
In those conditions, she found, 75 percent of the birds laid eggs.
In most breeding facilities, even that good news can go bad.
Breeder birds are not allowed to raise their chicks, many of whom never see their parents. Baby birds are pulled from their nests prematurely, or eggs are taken to incubate and the offspring hand-fed.
"We'll pull the baby. We'll pull the eggs. It was all very cut and dry," says Freed, the Kansas breeder. "Aviculturists simplified it. That way it was very easy to justify."
Many of the parents continue to scream and search for their lost young for days afterward. It's not uncommon for breeders to be attacked by a mourning parent several weeks later.
'They hate me'
Lori Rutledge, who runs Cockatoo Rescue and Sanctuary in Stanwood, once complimented a local breeder who kept his birds in large outdoor cages.
"I said to him, 'Your birds must absolutely love you for giving them this much space, fresh air and sunshine,'" Rutledge recalled. "He said, 'They think I am the devil. They hate me. I take their babies. You should hear them scream.'"
Captivity compromises parrots' social structure and culture. Parrots, like humans, can learn, scientists have found. Those born in captivity often have problems breeding as adults because they have had no models of natural behavior.
After years of supplying babies, old breeding birds that are not pet quality and unable to produce either are sold or killed.
Only five states — Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Maryland and New York — regulate bird breeding for the pet trade, according to the Animal Protection Institute, a Sacramento-based animal advocacy organization that monitors local and national regulation of this kind.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is drafting an amendment to the Animal Welfare Act that would include minimum care standards for birds. The amended law is expected to be years off.
Mira Tweti is an investigative journalist who has written extensively on parrots, the pet bird trade, and animal welfare issues and legislation. Her articles have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, and numerous magazines. This article originally appeared in the December 18, 2005 issue of the Tacoma News Tribune.
In researching her upcoming book, Tweti has conducted more than 300 interviews with scientists, avian researchers, veterinarians, ecological economists, breeders, pet bird owners, bird clubs, pet-bird industry executives and employees, federal law enforcement officers, animal control officers, avian rescue, sanctuaries, and pet welfare organizations, legislators, environmentalists, conservationists, and other sources in the United States and around the world.