On the morning of August 17, nearly 12,000 animal rights activists arrived at the Achilles Statue for the Official Animal Rights March of London.
Chants bellowed through the streets of London as activists took over Trafalgar Square early Saturday morning. The atmosphere was electric, according to Animal Rebellion co-founder Dan Kimble, whose newly formed volunteer network will carry momentum from the march into a series of similar nonviolent demonstrations for two weeks this October. He is determined to create a world where compassion towards all non-human animals is the norm, and so are we.
The event was organized by Surge, a grassroots animal rights organization “determined to create a world where compassion towards all non-human animals is the norm.” Surge is coordinating more than 40 other Official Animal Rights Marches around the globe. Present at the March were speakers such as Earthling Ed, Mythical Mia, and Nelufar Hedayat, to name a few. Chants bellowed through the streets and through the entire London community as activists took over the square.
This year, Surge welcomed Animal Rebellion, the newly-formed mass volunteer movement, to the Official Animal Rights March of London. The purpose of this alliance is to provide an introduction to the two-week nonviolent demonstrations led by Animal Rebellion beginning on October 7.
“The atmosphere was electric today as we officially launched Animal Rebellion,” Dan Kimble, co-founder of Animal Rebellion, told Sentient Media. “I’m really, really excited about what this momentum will bring.”
This Rebellion will take place at the Smithfield Meat Market in London, mobilizing 10,000 animal advocates for two weeks with demands for the government to cease animal oppression and shift to a plant-based food system.
“If you eat meat, you probably buy products made by one Brazilian company. A company with such influence it can impact climate change, openly admit to having bribed more than 1,000 politicians, and continue to grow despite scandal after scandal. And you’ve probably never heard of it.
“Welcome to a world where meat is the new hot commodity, controlled by just a handful of gigantic firms which together wield unprecedented control over global food production. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has been investigating the biggest of all: JBS, a Brazilian company which slaughters a staggering 13 million animals every single day and has annual revenue of $50bn.”
A cloud of scandals hangs over JBS and its shadowy network of subsidiaries, yet the company continues to expand. In the last decade it became the world’s biggest producer and exporter of meat with facilities in Australia and across the Americas, swallowing up among others the big US company Pilgrim’s Pride and Northern Ireland’s poultry firm Moy Park. Since the takeover, JBS’s investment in its Moy Park arm of the business enabled construction of hundreds more chicken farms in the UK which now supply nearly a third of all chicken eaten here in Britain.
JBS in numbers
13.6 million poultry birds slaughtered per day
116,000 pigs slaughtered per day
77,000 cattle slaughtered per day
$50 billion – amount of annual revenues
900,000 – number of employees across the world
150 – number of countries it supplies with meat
$250 million – amount company paid out in bribes in 2017
1,829 – number of candidates across Brazil’s political spectrum the company admits to having bribed
$3.2 billion – amount JBS was fined for bribery, one of the biggest fines in global corporate history
Scandal after JBS scandal. Take your pick –
Wholesale bribery and corruption – among many other scandals over the years, revelations from a 2014 investigation actually toppled the Brazilian government. Right now the company is under investigation for colluding with politicians and public servants to divert resources from a government-owned bank
Dirty meat – rotting beef, falsified export documents, failure to inspect meat plants, chickens contaminated with salmonella (a million of them in the UK)
Slave labour – workers forced to live in degrading conditions without adequate shelter, toilets or clean water
Animal cruelty – chickens punched and beaten with iron rods, piglets beaten and their testicles ripped off without anaesthetic
Illegal Amazonian deforestation – fined $7.7 million in 2017
Being part of a price-fixing cartel – now driving down prices paid to farmers for their meat, and now driving up their own wholesale prices by colluding with other major poultry producers to reduce the supply of chicken
And don’t imagine it couldn’t happen here in the UK. The Moy Park arm of JBS doesn’t bear close scrutiny either.
Moy Park UK in numbers
More than £1 million – total of fines paid since 2015 for subjecting chickens to “unnecessary pain and distress”, failure to pay workers the minimum wage, and unsafe work practices
8 million in 2 years – number of birds that never reach the market, wasted, thrown away as diseased, emaciated, injured with fractures and dislocations, dead before reaching the slaughterhouse, or contaminated
6 million – number of birds slaughtered per week
£1.6 billion – company turnover in 2017
In June this year three Moy Park farms in Lincolnshire were secretly filmed uncovering “horrifying conditions”, chickens lame, struggling to breath and surrounded by dead birds. Moy Park supplies most major UK supermarkets, as well as McDonald’s and KFC.
It took a team of seven dedicated investigative journalists to lift the lid on the unsavoury modus operandi of the JBS matrix. They deserve our thanks for all the hard (and possibly dangerous) work they put into producing this exposé of meat production’s dark and dirty underbelly. Do take a few minutes to read it in full.
“JBS began as a local butcher’s shop; now its beef travels thousands of miles from Brazil toUK supermarkets. That journey clouds the link between farm and plate and makes it almost impossible for the average consumer to understand where their food comes from — and how big a price the planet is paying the price for their cheap meat.”
Let’s not allow their hard work to be in vain. The only way we can be certain we’re not funding the shady JBS brothers’ luxury yachts and lamborghinis, lavish parties and sumptuous mansions – and much much more importantly that we’re not complicit in deforestation, animal cruelty, human rights abuse, wholesale corruption, and the supply of contaminated products – is to take the meat off our plates. The cause of justice, the animals and the planet will thank us.
JBS: Brazilian butchers take over the world A special investigation from Andrew Wasley, Alexandra Heal and Lucy Michaels in London, Dominic Phillips, André Campos and Diego Junqueira in Sao Paulo and Claire Smyth in Belfast
If you visit the Port of Rotterdam you will now be able to see a world first of its kind – a floating dairy farm. Riding one wave ahead of the right-on-trend urban farming movement, property company Beladon have created a “cow garden”, a three-level futuristic vision of glass, steel and concrete. And its first residents have just arrived on board.
But a farm floating on water? Why have such a thing? Minke and Peter van Wingerden, husband and wife business partners happened to be in New York in 2012, and witnessed firsthand the difficulties bringng fresh food into the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.. A floating farm, they decided, could produce food close to point of consumption, while at the same time neatly resolving the challenge posed by the scarcity of land within cities.
Beladon proudly call it “Transfarmation” and the company website sets out their priorities:-
Producing healthy food in cities, close to the consumer
Sustainability and circularity
Putting to one side the question of animal welfare and healthy food for a moment, in terms of sustainability, the floating farm is indeed a thing of beauty. At least on the surface. The cows are fed with grass from local football fields, potato peel waste from the french fry industry, and chaff (bran) sifted from the flour in local windmills. This fodder which would otherwise go to waste is collected and delivered to the farm by electric cars. Water purified from the cow’s urine, will be used to grow red clover, alfalfa and grass under artificial light. A robot tops up the cows’ food stations and another scoops up the dry dung. The dung will be used on site, or sent to a nearby farm. On the floor below, the 1,000 litres of milk the cows produce daily will be processed into yogurt which will reach Rotterdam’s supermarket shelves with negligible transport costs, either financial or environmental. All good so far.
But with their neat cow poo disposal plan, Beladon seems not to have noticed the massive mountain of the stuff under which the Netherlands is already practically sinking. “The nation’s 1.8 million cows are producing so much manure that there isn’t enough space to get rid of it safely. As a result, farmers are dumping cow poo illegally, the country is breaking EU regulations on phosphates designed to prevent groundwater contamination, and the high levels of ammonia emissions are affecting air quality.” The Guardian
Any excess dung from the floating facility will just add to the pile. What Dutch farm near or far is going to want it?
The WWF is not a fan of all the cow poop either. It’s doing so much damage to the Dutch environment, last year the charity called for a 40% reduction of dairy herds. The Netherlands has the lowest level of biodiversity in Europe after Malta. The Guardian. Fewer dairy farms are needed, not more, floating or otherwise.
We’re not told if Beladon has a plan for what comes out the dairy cow’s other end. Cow burps are an even bigger emitter of methane than the poop. Emissions from either end of dairy cows across the planet together make up 4% of the world’s GHGs.
Milk, a healthy food?
It’s certainly promoted that way. But PETA gives the white stuff a big thumbs down. Check out their list of 12 reasonswhy they think cow’s milk is bad for you.
The NHS takes a different view. Its website says, “Milk and dairy products, such as cheese and yoghurt, are great sources of protein and calcium. They can form part of a healthy, balanced diet.” But adds, “Unsweetened calcium-fortified dairy alternatives like soya milks, soya yoghurts and soya cheeses also count as part of this food group and can make good alternatives to dairy products.”
Good or bad, is it essential for human health? The Conversationexamines the science, and concludes, “Milk and dairy foods are convenient and good value and provide lots of essential nutrients which are trickier to source from other foods.” But that “when it comes to health, the bottom line is we probably don’t need dairy in our diets.”
The Harvard Medical School blog agrees: “Keep in mind that eating a well-balanced diet that includes plenty of green leafy vegetables and nuts can better help you get the calcium and protein you need rather than relying too much on dairy.”
Nature intended mums’ milk for human babies, and a cow’s milk for hers, not for humans, young, old or in between.
Does Europe need more milk anyway?
In 2018, European Commissioner Phil Hogan warned of oversupply in the European milk market. He said that supplies of milk had “unsustainably increased” in certain EU countries and singled out the Netherlands and Poland as the main culprits. Europe already has 350,000 tonnes of skimmed milk powder in storage – “the EU’s method to remove excess milk supplies from the market and help keep a floor on milk prices.”
The answer to our question then is an emphatic “No”. Europe needs less milk, not more. So why would Beladon enter a market already saturated? Is it too cynical to see the floating farm as something of a gimmick, and the cows as unwilling players in an – admittedly spectacular – publicity stunt?
Beladon’s floating milk factory (let’s call a spade a spade here) is anchored near “the heavily industrialised mouth of the New Meuse River”, hardly a cow’s natural environment. But then you’re never going to get that in the heart of a big city.
While just about all cow- and milk-related activities take place on the floating facility, the cows can, if the whim takes them, “potter over a ramp to real-life pasture on the land.” It sounds delightful until you remember that heavily-industrialised river mouth. If I did drink milk, I doubt I’d want to be drinking that milk. And what exactly the logistics are of this pleasant little amble landward is unclear. Cows are herd animals. One can only imagine the chaos created by 30 + cows trying to negotiate a ramp to reach “real-life pasture”, or “pottering” back in the other direction. It sounds suspiciously like a bit of welfarist window-dressing, doesn’t it?
If you’re worried about the cows getting seasick, don’t be. The water-borne building is apparently as stable as a cruise liner. Besides, the Floating Farm website assures us, “millions of heads of commercial cattle spend weeks at sea each year while being shipped around the globe without issue.”Without issue? Really? Read what Animals Australia has to say about that here, and if you can stomach it, click through their gallery of photos.
Of course the cows in residence on the floating farm will not be subjected to those kind of conditions, we would hope. But if Beladon, which is first and foremost a property company, can confidently publish such a fallacious statement, it surely puts a huge question mark over their ideas on what makes for good animal welfare.
The Floating Farm may well be the Ritz Hotel for cows, but still…
This new cow palace in Rotterdam is a very far cry from the traditional picture of your typical dairy farm, that oft reproduced picture of cows munching contentedly in flower-strewn meadows before a rustic barn. But that traditional picture – the one the dairy industry has always projected and does all it can to keep us believing – is even further from the unsavoury reality of the dairy cow’s life than it is from the cow palace. Take a minute to check out the truth hidden behind the cosy illusion.
Just like all other mammals including us, a cow will only produce milk when she has given birth. If you can bear it, look what happens when her babe is born. Whatever else it is, dairy farming can never be humane.
So, do we need Rotterdam’s new floating farm?
Innovation, glass, steel, alfalfa, robots, “real-life pasture”, closed-loop systems or not, sorry Beladon, we do not need your floating farm. For so many reasons, it’s time for humans to ween themselves off dairy, and end the cruel practice of stealing babies from their mums.
How did we get here?
Right next to Beladon’s floating farm, bobs on the water a park made from recycled plastic garbage. How apt that these two facilities float there side by side, together creating a perfect symbol of the madness the human race has led itself into. Of how very far we have allowed a misguided sense of our own ‘superior’ faculties, a mechanistic world view, and blind pursuit of technological advance to distance us from our true place in the natural world – and other animals too.
Beladon’s next exciting venture? A floating farm for egg-laying chickens. The hen, one of the most abused animals on the planet.
Could you believe it – a brown bear escapes his enclosure by scaling a 4-metre high fence, electrified with 7 cables carrying 7,000 volts?
This is the jailbreak 3 year old M49 – so named by scientists with their inimitable imaginative flair – pulled off on Tuesday in northern Italy. The call of the wild, a daring bid for freedom, the stuff of legends. So now our bear-Houdini is on the run. And now his life is in danger.
How did this extraordinary story come about?
Illegal hunting in northern Italy decimated the brown bear population to such an extent that by the 1990s, only 4 of the animals were left. The last bear died in 2000. For the best part of the last 30 years the ‘Life Ursus’ reintroduction project has been working to bring the animals back to the Trentino region, radio-collared M49 among them.
But just recently our poor M49 got too close to human habitation for human comfort. So he was taken captive and placed in a holding pen – the one with the scaringly well-electrified fence. What they planned to do with him next is unclear, but whatever it was, it never happened because this gutsy guy is still very much at large.
Whose side are you on?
There are now between 50 and 60 brown bears in northern Italy, and as is invariably the case with reintroductions of large predators, opinion is split right down the middle. Farmers fall heavily on the frown side of the argument. Farmers’ Association spokesman Sig. Coldiretti claims Orsino has already killed 13 farm animals.
Governor of the Trentino region Marizio Fugatti announced, “If M49 approaches inhabited areas, the forestry service is authorised to kill it.”
On the other side is, among others, zoology professor Luigi Boitani: if livestock are taken, it’s the farmers’ fault for failing to use electric fencing to deter the bears. WWF Italy agrees, blaming the farmers’ “failure to adopt appropriate prevention tools. Adding, M49’s “danger to people is still to be demonstrated.”
And happily for our bear, Environment Minister Sergio Costa quickly countermanded Fugatti’s order to kill. “M49’s escape from the enclosure cannot justify an action that would cause its death,” he said.
“We are on the side of the bear, and of freedom
Michela Vittoria Brambilla, president of the Italian Defence League for Animals
Brown bear or superhero?
We all love a renegade on the run, but this is where our bear’s heroic tale takes a darker turn, because WWF Italy smells a rat. “A solid electrified fence with adequate power is an insurmountable barrier even for the most astute bears,” it says. “Obviously the structure was not working properly, since bears do not fly.”
The League for the Abolition of Hunting (LAC) goes further. They detect conspiracy:- “M49 is, of course, an escape genius… endowed with superpowers like a Marvel Comics hero. He just happened to climb over the fence, unharmed by electric shocks, by chance without his radio collar—and, what do you know, he can be declared public enemy number one and the escape sparks a maximum security alert.” It’s their belief M49 has been allowed to escape so he can be declared a danger and his killing justified.
So Run Bear, Run
If our bear does get caught, let’s hope and pray Minister Costa’s plea for humanity will prevail. But take no chances M49. I’m sure Michela Vittoria speaks for us all: “We are on the side of the bear, and of freedom – run and save yourself.”
For your life bear, run for your life.
CLICK HERE TO SAY NO TO THE CAPTURE OF BEAR M49 IN TRENTINO
“Otters are… cute, romantic, loyal and intelligent. They hold hands to ensure they don’t float away from each other, live in close family units, use tools to access food, and pat stones in the air and then roll them around their bodies. These unique behaviors and human-like characteristics have made them hugely popular animals, globally. “
Adam Gekowski, photographer and filmmaker
(And that, sadly is their undoing.)
“Aw, adorable!”, we find ourselves murmuring. It’s an instinctive human response when we encounter other animals – especially the cute furry ones – in photos, videos, nature films, or if we’re really lucky, in the flesh.
Our desire for face to face encounters in particular is all down, it seems, to “our natural affinity for life… the very essence of our humanity [that] binds us to all other living species.” So says the blurb on the book ‘Biophilia’, authored by renowned naturalist E. O. Wilson. He believes we are born with this urge to connect with other life forms. It’s innate, he says, hardwired into our biology. “Our existence depends on [it], our spirit woven from it.” Biophilia– love of what lives.
But nowadays we have a problem giving expression to this instinct. Our increasingly urbanised life offers fewer and fewer chances for animal encounters. Right now 3 million of usare moving to cities every week. By roughly 2040, it’s expected 66% of the world’s population will be living in cities.
Nonetheless, “even in urban environments,the animal connectionis real and strong. We need to live with animals because they offer us so much, not the least of which is someone to love.” – paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman. I think she’s nailed it right there, don’t you?
So, given we have that innate need for animal connection, where can we find ways to satisfy it in the city, especially in the busiest, most crowded city of all with 38 million humans squeezed into it, Tokyo, Japan?
The answer for many lies in caring for a cat or a dog, hopefully rescued ones. That may not be so easy for the residents of Tokyo. Housing here is at a premium – often there is just no room for companion animals, and many landlords forbid them. On top of that, few people would have time to take care of them since Japanese culture dictates notoriously long working hours. (Shockingly, the Japanese have a specific wordfor death attributed to overwork – “karoshi“.)
Now stir the following disparate ingredients into the Tokyo mix:
Japan’s birth rate last year was the lowest in history. Many 20 -30 year olds remain single and/or childless – no-one to love and care for
Otters do look undeniably cute
Social media is hugely influential (Instagram’s Japanese otter celebrity Takechiyo, for instance, has 300,000 followers)
And what does it all add up to?
The latest craze, Tokyo’s otter cafes
Which for a price, offer the promise of half an hour’s cuddle time to city dwellers and visitors in need of their animal ‘fix’.
Several of these places appear on TripAdvisor. In some cafes, visitors are let into a small room containing the otters, and are allowed “to run riot” with them. In others, the otters remain caged and visitors can feed them through small holes.
But however the individual cafes are organised, and however much the visitors enjoy their encounters (and most really do. Only 11% of visitors to one cafe left reviews on TripAdvisor expressing real concern for the animals), one thing is guaranteed:
No good whatever is to be had for the otters themselves. It’s quite tragic that the very love people have for, and want to give the furry creatures, “translates into behaviour that is incredibly harmful to the animal,” says World Animal Protection’s global head of the Wildlife. Not Petscampaign.
“The otters are heard whimpering, shrieking and making distress calls while customers are interacting with them. Some are kept in solitary conditions with no natural light, others are seen biting their claws and exhibiting traumatized behavior – some of the worst housing conditions included small cages with no access to water.”
One otter seen by the WAP team was so stressed it had bitten the end of its tail off.
Otters are semiaquatic animals, and Asian otters typically live in streams, rice paddies, and marshes, in large family groups. A far cry from a Tokyo cafe full of excited noisy people.
Even apart from the suffering of a wild animal kept in captivity, otters do not make for good petting, or for good pets, even though well-edited video clips might lead you to think so. When WAP visited Instagram star Takechiyo in his home for example, they saw him looking very cute and placid for a few minutes, picking up small pieces of cat food and popping them into his mouth.
“However, the illusion was quickly shattered as he then went on a tour of destruction around the house; climbing on all the furniture, chewing, shrieking, and even biting and scratching our translator. It was a lightbulb moment – otters may look cute, but they make terrible pets. Otters are best observed at arm’s length and in the wild.”
Orphans stolen from the wild
The otter craze is not confined to Tokyo. It’s sweeping across Southeast Asia. In Thailand for example, there are at least 10 large Facebook groups devoted to keeping pet otters. Otter-mania is hiking sky-high the price on the animal’s head. Just one can fetch several thousand dollars. And where there is money to be made, there is no shortage of people with few scruples wanting a piece of the action. To supply the booming market, farmers, hunters and traffickers are shooting or electrocuting adult otters and stealing their babies. Even law enforcement agencies and government officials are involved, and it’s thought likely there are links to organised crime.
As a result, three out of four otter species found in this part of the world are now at risk of extinction, according to the IUCN.
What can we do?
The good news is, there are a number of positive steps we can all take to help captive otters in Asia, and indeed other wild animals.
It’s all too easy to click on some cute animal video, to comment or follow. Let’s pause for a moment. Is it a wild animal taken from its natural habitat? Then it’s certain to be suffering for our entertainment. World Animal Protection suggests instead of the automatic click, we change the conversation online about keeping wild animals, like otters, as pets. “Every ‘Like‘ ” they say, “leads to a lifetime of cruelty.”
3 Download the Wildlife Witness app
If you’re planning a trip abroad, you can actually play a part in the detection of illegal wildlife trade. You may spot wild animals being sold in a local market for example. “The Wildlife Witness smartphone app allows tourists and locals to easily report wildlife trade by taking a photo, pinning the exact location of an incident and sending these important details to TRAFFIC“ – says their website.
4 Never visit cruel wildlife attractions when you’re on holiday – Take the pledge
9 Watch and share Aaron Gekoski’s film ‘Pet otters: the truth behind the latest wildlife craze’
This is not a case of Westerners pointing the finger eastwards. We have exactly the same problem on our doorstep, only the ‘cute cuddly’ animal in question here is the ring-tailed lemur, taken from tropical Madagascar to the Lake District, northwest England. Armathwaite Hall, a hotel and spa resort near Keswick, offers ‘lemoga’ – outdoor yoga in the company of the primates. Carolyn Graves, owner of the hotel, says: “Lemoga offers our guests the chance to feel at one with nature, at the same time joining in with the lemurs’ playtime.”
Teaming up with adjoining Lake District Wildlife Park (now doesn’t that sound nice – for a zoo), the hotel also offers walks with alpacas and meet-the-meerkat sessions. Manager of the ‘wildlife park’ Richard Robinson, waxes lyrical:
“I don’t think you ever see an unhappy zookeeper. We spend all our time with animals. We know how it makes us feel and if we can give a little piece of that to people then great.” Interestingly, he omits to say how the animals feel about it.
It’s just a crying shame that we so often give expression to our natural desire for animal connection in a way that is a thoughtlessly one-sided affair.
Yoga Studio Set to Exploit Monkeys, Reptiles, and Others – Take Action Now here
“It’s a big victory for animal welfare in Norway. It’s a realisation that the consideration for animals can actually weigh heavier than just money and business interests.”
Siri Martinsen, head of Noah, animal rights organisation.
Later this month, the ban on fur farming passes into Norwegian law. It means new fur farms prohibited with immediate effect, and all existing fur farms dismantled by 2025.
Noah has been lobbying for the ban for three decades – that is stickability! “It’s totally unnatural and against these animals’ needs to keep them in very tiny metal cages.”
The babies are born in spring, smooth and furless. But by autumn they will have grown their thick glossy winter coats, brown, black or grey. Then the youngsters pay dearly for their gorgeous beauty, by being gassed and skinned.
So thank you Noah for never giving up on the animals.
It was a quirk of the contemporary political scene that finally tipped the scales in the animals’ favour. In echoes of 2010 in the UK, Norway’s Conservative party found themselves in a position where they were forced to invite the Liberals into a government of coalition. The Liberals said yes, but there was a condition. And the condition was – the fur farm ban.
Norway now joins the UK, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Croatia on the right side of fur farming history. In addition, regulations surrounding the cruel practice in Germany and Switzerland are so strict as to be effective as a ban.
Of course, not everyone is happy. The 200-strong Norwegian fur farmers’ association says the ban is “unjustified, illegal and undemocratic.” Fur farmer Kristian Aasen is enraged: “It’s unbelievable that a microscopic party that is today polling around two percent could impose its views on spineless politicians.”
Aasen farms 20 cows, and as a very lucrative sideline, 6,000 caged mink. He says he can’t make a living without them.
The government is offering financial assistance to dismantle the farms and help find other income strings. (One MP suggested the cultivation of medical cannabis.) But the fur farmers are pessimistic about finding alternatives. One thing is certain, animal farming will not be an option. Everyone knows what one of their number openly admits:
“There is already an overproduction of meat. We produce too much lamb, pork, chicken, milk.”
Pictured above, the quirky, cute and clever monk parrot, native of Chicago.
Did I say native of Chicago? Chicago the Windy City where winter temperatures can plummet to -26°C, and annual average snowfall is 91cm? No way.
Ok, I hold up my hands. That was a lie, or anyway a half lie. The monk is commonly found in South America, and like most parrot species is native to the tropics. On the other hand, several decent-size colonies of monk parrots have called Chicago home for the last 50 plus years, so it’s fair to say they are well and truly naturalised.
But what are they doing right up there on the 42nd parallel, nearly 5,000 km north of their ancestral homelands around the Equator?
According to American legend, as cargo was being unloaded at JFK airport one day in 1968, or maybe 1969, two thousand of the colourful creatures, or was it two dozen (details of the legend are a little hazy) burst forth from their damaged crate and took to the air. And who could blame them? Far better flying the skies of a strange land than looking out on the world through the bars of a pet shop cage – their intended destination.
But that was New York. So Chicago? These lively mischievous birds are a handful, as folk who’ve acquired them as pets will testify. They are “notoriously loud and noisy birds, the rock star of the bird scene, little Houdinis who like to find their way out of a cage and chase your rottweiler around the house …. They are fearless, intelligent and vociferous.”
Some likely escaped from captivity into the city. Or were released by freaked-out owners who got a bit more than they bargained for!
Whatever, this exotic creature of the tropics, which just happens to be themost adaptable of all parrot species, is thriving in the Windy City, snow or no snow. Most of the year they forage in parks and open grassy areas, but bird-lovers’ garden feeders are their salvation in the winter months.
Wouldn’t you think yourself immensely lucky to find some of these little treasures in your neighbourhood? Chicago’s first ever African American mayor, Harold Washington certainly did. Living just across the street from one of the city’s best-known monk parrot colonies, he called them his “good luck talisman”. He was clearly good luck for them too, because once he was no longer around to protect them (he died in 1987),the USDA tried to remove the birds. But the locals, who loved them as much as Harold did, threatened the USDA with a lawsuit. People power at its best!
The monk parrot’s behaviour, it has to be said, is not exactly serious and quiet, as you’d expect from its name. It has another name that’s a much better fit with its lively personality – ‘the quaker parrot’. And this little guy quaking and shaking to ‘Happy’ will show you why –
What do you think of those moves!
Friends & family
As well as being the most adaptable parrot, the monk/quaker is unique in another respect. It’s the only one of all the parrot species that makes a nest.The nest is a fairly messy affair as you can see, and can get quite a lot bigger than you might expect: “In the wild, the colonies can become large, with pairs occupying separate “apartments” in nests that can reach the size of a small automobile.” And even in cities you will find the monks hunkering down with their siblings, cousins, mum, dad, aunts and uncles – they’re all there. Doesn’t that sound a good way to live?
Unfortunately, not everyone agrees. The nests can get so cumbersome that it’s said they can bring down power lines, and damage other infrastructure. Hence the USDA’s attempt to remove them.
Monk/quaker parrots in the UK
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, unlike the USDA in Chicago, were deaf to protests about their own program to eradicate this country’s wild monk parrot population, tiny in comparison with those in the US city. “Monk parakeets can pose a threat to national infrastructure, such as pylons and substations, crops and native British wildlife. That is why work is being carried out to remove them in the most humane method appropriate,” they pronounced.
Over 4 years and at a cost of £259K, 62 birds were trapped, of which roughly 40 were safely re-homed. The remainder “could not be re-homed”, whatever that means, and were put down. 212 eggs were taken and disposed of, and 21 nests were destroyed.
62 birds. A “threat to national infrastructure”. Really?
The monk parrot at home
Sadly the monk is not much favoured in South America, its original home range either. If not deterred in some way, large flocks can munch their way right through a farmer’s precious crop. They are, after all, not to know the humans have different intentions for that food.
And now, ‘charismatic, beautiful, exotic’, the parrot we love
If the monk parrots here in the UK are few, what we do have in abundance are these green-feathered beauties –
There are even more mysteries surrounding the Afro/Asian ring-necks’ appearance here, than there are about the monk parrots’ arrival in the US. Take your pick from these wild theories:
An unknown number escaped in 1951 from Shepperton Studios while they were filming The African Queen with stars Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart
Jimi Hendrix released a pair he named Adam and Eve in trendy Carnaby Street, London in the 60s
Something fell off a plane and landed on an aviary. All the birds broke free through the hole it made
A furious wife released her husband’s aviary birds in revenge for his errant ways
But whether all or none of the stories is true (for me, the Adam and Eve one most appeals) this colourful bird has spread all over Britain, and has become “the most northerly, wild breeding parrot species on Earth”. (Further north than Chicago, but of course, much more temperate.) Now numbering at best guesstimate 50,000, over the many decades since they first made their home with us, they’ve become “as British as curry”.
Not welcome at home
These little creatures are no more welcome in their homes of origin (west Africa stretching over India to the Himalayas) than their South American cousins the monk parrots are in theirs. “In its native areas, the parakeet has been a severe agricultural pest for decades. In India, [it is] one of the most destructive birds. They have been known to reduce yields of sorghum and maize in India by 80 per cent.”
Research already shows the ring-necked parrot adversely affecting our native birds, by frightening them from food, commandeering the best nesting spots, and even on occasion attacking them. In December 2017, the bird found itself at no. 67 on the list of Europe’s top 100 most invasive species.
Stricter legislation on the possession, transportation and commercial trafficking of invasive parakeets, which has already happened in Spain
A new system for relinquishing unwanted pet parakeets
Removal of legal and financial constraints on rapid-response eradication of new populations, especially in areas where they are currently not present
Raising public awareness of the parakeet population and potential problems
They have to raise our awareness, because apparently, we the uninformed masses, all love them. “Many people say they bring an enormous sense of wellbeing. They say they are charismatic, beautiful, exotic. They absolutely love having them around.” The authorities know better, naturally.
Champions for the parakeets
These birds we so love have one expert champion in York University’s professor of ecology, Chris D Thomas. He favours leaving the parakeets free to move about and breed. And in his book, Inheritors of the Earth, argues against “irrational persecution” of non-native species. Thomas says, “We do not try to control species because they moved in the past, so why should we now try to police the distributions of species that are thriving in the human epoch? It makes no sense.” Rabbits and hares were invasive species here once.
And Thomas is not entirely alone. Biologist Roelant Jonker is the self-appointed protector of the ring-necked parakeet in the Netherlands. “The next generation [of people] will see the parakeets as ordinary birds… and they will be as ordinary as all the different colours of people and birds in Europe,” he says.
Back to the parrots of the USA
When ecologist Stephen Pruett-Jones left Australia for Chicago University in 1988, it was the presence of “a unique piece of the city’s history”, the monk parakeets in Hyde Park, right there on the university campus where he was taking up his new post, that ignited his quest to discover whether other colonies of parrots might be thriving in equally unlikely settings across the USA.
Teaming up with Jennifer Uehling, Cornell University, and Jason Tallant, University of Michigan, he researched all available parrot data in the States from 2002 to 2016. He found:
56 different non-native parrot species spotted in the wild, in 43 states
25 of the species fully naturalised and breeding, in 23 different states
Monk parakeets, the Red-crowned Amazon, and the Nanday Parakeet the most common species
More Red-crowned Amazons living in California than in their original habitats in Mexico
“Because of human activity, transporting these birds for our own pleasure, we have inadvertently created populations elsewhere. Many of these species are perfectly happy living here and they’ve established populations. Wild parrots are here to stay.”
As of now, the colonies of ex-pat parrots are a welcome exotic addition to America’s native fauna. But as is our experience with wild parrot populations in the UK, it’s a fine line between being ‘welcome and exotic’ and becoming ‘an invasive pest‘.
It’s entirely fortuitous, by luck, by chance, that the dark cloud of animals originally snatched from the wild and taken to places where they don’t belong, may just have one silver lining. Stephen Pruett-Jones believes, for parrots endangered in their native habitat, the colonies dotted across the States may become important, even “critical”, species reservoirs for the survival of species being decimated in their home range.
In an ideal world of course, species reservoirs in alien lands would never have to be the fall-back.
The exotic pet trade causing extinctions
The trade in animals taken from the wild to sell as pets is causing extinctions. “92%of the 500,000 live animal shipments between 2000-2006 to the United States (1,480,000,000 animals) were for the pet trade.”
“Many bird species are under severe extinction threat because of the pet trade. They include thousands of birds in South America, and an estimated 3.33 million annually from Southeast Asia.
Captivating as they are, and delighted as we are to have them living wild and free among us, we should never buy these gorgeous birds as pets. The exotic pet trade is lining the pockets of criminals while driving animals in their natural habitats to extinction.
Last summer, a story appeared in the New York Times that could have come straight from an episode of “Only Fools and Horses”. Just swap Peckham for Shanghai and cast two Chinese guys in the roles of Del Boy and Rodders.
Before the story begins, and in case we didn’t know, we need to understand that to start a pigeon race, the pigeons are transported hundreds of miles away from their lofts. When they are released, their instinct is to fly back home, and it’s the first to reach its loft again that wins the prize.
Right, the stage is set, and the action begins summer 2018, when these two guys decide to enter four birds into the annual Shanghai Grand Prix Race. They come up with the ingenious idea of giving their birds two home lofts, one in Shanghai, the race’s end, and one in Shangqiu, the race’s starting point.
The plan is, when all the pigeons are released by race officials in Shangqiu, their four birds won’t (and don’t) like the rest of the birds in the race, fly the hundreds of miles back to Shanghai. Instead they head straight back to their second and nearest home loft, the one in Shangqiu. Our two geniuses simply collect their birds, hide them inside milk cartons, and smuggle them on to the bullet train that connects the two cities.
Disembarking from the train in Shanghai, the birds are re-released and flap their way back to the Shanghai loft they call home. Needless to say, the four birds beat all the opposition by a long mile, and are declared outright and extraordinary winners of the prestigious race with its $160,000 prize.
The Trotters would have been in their element. You can just hear Del Boy saying to Rodders, “This time next year we’ll be millionaires!” But in this Chinese version, the jubilant smiles are soon to fade.
Even over a long race such as this, pigeons can fly at a phenomenal 80 mph. At that speed, the average race time between the two cities is about 8 hours. But the fastest of avian flyers can’t come close to the bullet train’s top speed of 200 mph. And the train only takes 3 hours 15 minutes to make the same journey.
Mmm. It’s not going to take a genius to work out pdq that in the birds’ record-shattering win the maths doesn’t quite add up. And the other competitors were no slouches working out the sums. If only our guys had thought to stop off somewhere for a leisurely lunch on the way back to Shanghai!
But this story, amusing as it is on the surface, leaves a bad taste. Because in truth…
There is nothing funny about pigeon-racing
After the Grand Prix race, to hide the evidence of their fraud, the two men destroyed their four innocent birds.
Here’s another “extraordinary story” passed on to a reporter for the BBC by one of his colleagues: “She [the colleague] used to live next door to a pigeon fancier. One day his winged competitors returned from a race, but one refused to re-enter the loft; it perched on the house roof, out of reach of its owner who wanted to register its ID from the tag on its leg.
“A simple solution was at hand, in the shape of an air rifle. He shot the bird and collected its corpse to complete his race record.
“‘You made that up,’ I accused. ‘No I didn’t,’ she replied.”
The reporter was wrong about one thing – the story is not “extraordinary” at all. On the contrary, it is all too familiar.
In Belgium, the historic home of pigeon racing and still the epicentre of the pigeon fancier’s world, competition birds can be worth thousands of euros, especially as certified winners. And over the last decade or so, the hobby’s popularity has spread like a contagion across the Far East, particularly in China, the Philippines and Taiwan. Last month a Chinese buyer “spent a record 1.25 million euros ($1.4 million) at an auction for Belgium’s best long-distance racing pigeon of all time.”
Put those facts together, and this is what you get –
Crime and Cruelty, Cruelty and Crime
In one incident, a Belgian national noticed two men who looked ‘Asian’ dumping black bin sacks in some woods. The sacks turned out to be full of pigeon corpses, each with one foot cut off – the foot with the identity tag.
“The Royal Belgian Federation of Pigeon Fanciers has suggested that Chinese criminal gangs are behind a growing number of robberies. Rather than attempting to smuggle their prey abroad, criminals will kill the pigeons and cut off their identifying rings to be used on much less valuable birds bred in Asia.”
“It is really an epidemic, a true plague,” said Pierre De Rijst, president of Fédération Royale de Colombophiles Belges. “All they have to do is fit the stolen identification rings in China onto a bird worth a fraction of the value, which they then pass off as an ace racer.”
When a race is on, people like to shoot the pigeons out of the sky, just for fun. Others string fishing nets across the mountains to catch the birds – then sell them on to would-be pigeon fanciers for a fraction of their monetary worth. (In the world of pigeon racing, a bird with no monetary worth has no worth at all.)
2 million pigeons are bred and raised by the UK’s 43,000 pigeon fanciers every year. Thousands of the birds are killed as ‘unsuitable’ before they even get to race. PETA filmed pigeon-fanciers weeding out “slow-flying birds and snapping their necks before tossing them into the bin.”
“Money—not just entry fees, but vast illegal wagers—fuels the multibillion-dollar pigeon-racing industry. Wealthy racers pay upwards of $100,000 for imported breeder birds, and top flyers admitted to making millions on a single race. The chance to win staggering sums leads to extortion, drugging of birds, and kidnapping birds for ransom.”
As if all that weren’t enough, after a race pigeons may be killed by their owners if they fail to make the time needed to qualify for the next race in the series.
And then there are the races themselves – even worse than the deadly Iditarod
The Alaskan Iditarod dogsled race calls itself “The Last Great Race on Earth”. Since it began in 1973, 150 participating dogs have died. Deaths are so routine that officials consider them “unpreventable”. Many others are injured, or end the race with permanent lung damage. Many many more are bred and then killed if they don’t reach racing standard. (Read more here)
But the stats for losses in major pigeon races are off the scale. Take the prestigious MacArthur Race in the Philippines: “It is a brutal 600-kilometre gauntlet during which competitors face searing heat, wild seas, vicious predators, and the threat of kidnapping.” Only 1 in 10 pigeons that start the race makes it back.
In Taiwan, “the birds, who are released over treacherous open oceans and have to fly hundreds of miles to reach land, are often swept underwater by waves and drown, or fall victim to extreme weather, raptors, electric lines, foul play, disorientation, or exhaustion—or, if they return but finish out of the money, their necks are typically broken.” In Taiwanese pigeon races, only 1 in 50 of the birds survive, 98 out of 100 die.
A Taiwanese fisherman describes the scene of horror he witnessed: “It was raining pigeons – literally. I’ve never seen such a scene. Every one of them crashed. Some crashed on to the boat, some crashed into the ocean… About one hour after the pigeon rain, you could see the whole surface of the ocean filled with dead pigeons.”
Here in the UK it is no better. Pigeons pair for life. They ‘kiss’ affectionately, and both care for their offspring. The fanciers exploit this fidelity by deliberately “widowing” a pair. They use the stronger male, who will fly back fast to his mate, in sprint races. Not in longer races. In longer races, the male is inclined to forget his mate back home and seek new love elsewhere.
The females on the other hand, never stray from their one soulmate, and even over long distance races faithfully fix their sights on home. This steadfast devotion is rewarded by making them the natural choice for the longest, cruellest races, such as the Barcelona International, in which they are forced to fly up to 900 miles to reach home. The final deadly barrier is the English Channel, referred to by those in the pigeon racing world as “the graveyard”, because it swallows up such huge numbers of exhausted birds. Only 1 in 10 make it back. Then, if they’re not going to be of use for future races, their owners drown them or break their necks.
“Millions of dollars fly in this business, but the pigeons are always the losers” – PETA
A pigeon’s worth?
Cock-fighting, badger-baiting and hunting foxes with hounds are rightly banned in the UK as barbaric activities having no place in the modern world. Every life is precious and every animal death for human ‘sport’ an unnecessary tragedy. But it seems we care much more about badgers, foxes and cocks (and the Iditarod dogs) than we do about the racing pigeons, whom “many people consider to be no better than flying rats.”
Who gets to decide what the life of this gentle, intelligent creature is worth?
“My promise to the animals is this: You have all of me. The lioness in the circus—I see you. The pig in the sow stall—I see you. The mouse in the medical experimentation facility—I see you. The fish crushed at the bottom of a trawler net—I see you. I know your suffering, and I will never be silent. I will push forward no matter what life throws my way because the cruelties inflicted on you must end, and I’ll do all I can to see that happen. You have all of me.”
The stirring words of outspoken vegan activist Emma Hurst, representative of the Animal Justice Party(AJP), at her swearing in to Australia’s New South Wales State Parliament. She is now the third vegan activist elected to state office.
My last post “Isn’t it Time to Stop the Killing in the Name of Conservation“, cast the spotlight on the horrific scale of Australia’s ongoing slaughter of wild and feral animals. Still more blood is shed to ‘protect’ farmers’ and ranchers’ interests – without mentioning the unhappy fate of the farmed animals themselves. So it’s good to know Arian Wallach and the Centre for Compassionate Conservation are not alone in their campaign for kinder ways. Here is an introduction to the Animal Justice Party –
Last month vegan activists stopped the traffic in central Melbourne, while others demonstrated outside abattoirs. The Prime Minister Scott Morrison no less, said their activism was “un-Australian”, and bad-mouthed them as “green-collar criminals”. 40 of them were arrested. He declared his determination not to let them “pull the rug from under our Aussie farmers,” at present an industry worth $30 billion.
May 18th’s pivotal election
“Australians will return to the polls this Saturday in what’s becoming a pivotal election for animals and the environment. The big question: Will Australia’s next prime minister be friend or foe to the nation’s animal agriculture industry?”
Veganism in Australia
The country has more than 2 million vegans
Veganism is especially popular among younger voters
44 percent of young people (aged 18–24) think that veganism is “cooler than smoking.” (Certainly much healthier!)
The plant-based food industry there is forecasted to grow 58%by 2020
Why things have to change
1.8 billion animals have been killed for food in Australia so far this year and counting
70% of the $30 billion Australian agriculture is ‘worth’ comes from slaughtered animals
30% comes from milk, wool and eggs (which of course all also mean animal slaughter)
Last year the country exported 2.85 million living animals which suffered cruelly over long journeys in cramped shipping containers
2,400 sheep died of heat stress en route from Perth to the Middle East
Australia’s animal agriculture accounts for 11% of national emissions of GHGs
Over 20 year timescale that actually means 50% because methane has a stronger climate forcing effect
“Nearly 85 percent of the population that lives along the coast will be impacted by rising seas, storm surges, flooding, heatwaves, and damage to public infrastructure”
And climate change is already a big problem
Last year Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology issued four Special Climate Statements relating to “extreme” and “abnormal” heat, and reported broken climate records
With temperatures around 40°C in December last year, firefighters struggled to contain the 115 bush firesraging across Queensland
Piles of dead fox bats, whose brains literally fried in the heat, covered Sydney
For the last two years the country’s rainfall has been 11% below average
With the severe shortage of grazing on the parched land for their cattle, farmers in Western Australia have been struggling to find the money for the cost of feed, at $10,000 dollars per truckload
Farmers have also had to drive round with tankers of water to keep their thirsty cattle alive
In spite of all this, “as far as Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Parliament’s pro-farming majority are concerned, animals are no more than the means to a very profitable end for this Parliament.” (This attitude is what we are all up against.)
The Animal Justice Party, which doesn’t“prioritize a cattle and BBQ culture ahead of a livable climate,” but does, like Emma Hurst, prioritise animal rights, certainly has its work cut out.
If you live in Australia please vote this Saturday for the AJP.
“My promise to the animals is this: You have all of me.”
For the sake of the animals, please share this post widely. Thank you.
Sign Animals Australia’s petition against live exports here and take more actions for the animals here