Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mira Tweti - "Of Parrots and People"

Of Parrots and People - The Sometimes Funny, Always Fascinating, and Often Catastrophic Collision of Two Intelligent Species
Mira Tweti

This is a wonderful book for anyone who is interested in parrots – their future as wild animals and pets.

Mira Tweti is a journalist and her straight-to-the-point style is very readable. “Of Parrots and People” is filled with testimonials from all sorts of people: ornithologists, conservationists, pet owners, people who run bird rescues, even people who (used to) trap parrots for a living, as well fact and figure research on the issues of conservation and the pet business.
There is much here to make the reader cringe and all the more so if you happen to keep birds. Make no mistake about it, Tweti’s final position is radical. As she urges in her conclusion:
“don’t buy wild animals as pets, whether they are caught from the wild or bred in captivity.”


“It is pitiful that our society still condones keeping millions of parrots and other wild birds as pets – wild animals that should be free to fly and instead are languishing in cages, with more being bred every day. It’s an issue of supply and demand and it’s also an issue of right and wrong. Animals suffer in confinement, and we have a moral obligation to spare them from needless suffering.”

But even bird owners must take pause reading these sentences in the last page of the book. Because by page 300 you will have been told countless tales of neglect, abandonment, parrot mills (as in puppy mills and just as inhumane), smuggling, illegal trapping, mega-pet store’s cruel policies regarding birds, and also of a few selfless individuals who have basically stopped having any semblance of a normal life and turned their homes into bird rescues.

The American bird breeding lobby is portrayed as little more than a ruthless crime syndicate. These are people who apparently have no qualms at physically threatening those (and their birds) who speak out against the cruel line breeding operations destined at churning baby birds out like hot cakes, while breeding parents languish in dark, filthy cages for decades, only to be put down when their good years are gone. If you even hint at pet bird overpopulation – these guys will descend upon you like a pack of vultures. Truly scary.

Still more incomprehensible is the fact that, despite the staggering numbers of birds being bred for the pet trade, despite the numbers of bird rescues filled to maximum capacity, parrots are still being hunted down in their native lands and smuggled across borders.

Surprisingly (or not) it was Mira Tweti's love for her pet parrot ( a lorikeet) that got her curious about the lives of these intelligent birds in our midst and the politics and money trail behind them. What she found, travelling around the USA to bird rescues, finding birds in appalling conditions in Mexican pet stores and being sold out of car trunks, and visiting the dwindling numbers of macaws in their Brazilian habitat, made her stay up at night. I have had some nightmares while reading this book and I can't even imagine some of the things she witnessed.

Yet I believe anyone who cares about birds should read "Of Parrots and People". It's an up-to-date, behind the scenes, look at the current situation, that reads like a great piece of investigative journalism.

“Of Parrots and people” is also serious food for thought. It reminds every well-meaning bird keeper that this is a multi-million dollar business – and that the people cashing in will keep assuring everyone that their baby parrots are bred in “loving homes” and that “there are plenty more where these came from”. And while Tweti’s overall argument is slanted towards big birds with big life spans (that will more often than not survive their owners) such as macaws, african grey parrots and amazons, those of us keeping budgerigars or even canaries are not left off the hook. If birds evolved over millions of years to fly, flock and breed at their will, even a pair of tiny zebra finches in a big cage are, for all purposes, living an unnatural life.

That humans have always been fascinated by birds is a well established fact. That we snatch them from their families, clip their wings and stick them in cages because we love them and find them beautiful – even as they disappear in the wild – says more about human kind than about birds.


ParrotyPaul said...

First, let me say I have not read the book, but from what you portray here, she makes some points about smuggling that are true, but as for parrots being kept in cages as pets, I have some experience (2 years) living in the Amazon Jungle, drilling exploratory wells for the Brazillian Govt. Parrots there must sometimes fly hundreds of miles DAILY for food, are hunted by other parrots for food, by the natives in the jungle for food, and the idea that a well-loved and cared for pet parrot will be unhappy in a cage is food for thought. I have seen thousands of parrots being roasted over a fire that would have traded places with a pet parrot in a heartbeat....great chow close at hand, loving friends to play with and learn from, and nobody trying to eat them every day. So you can look at this situation from another angle, and the parrots I and my friends and family have owned all seemed to love life, having been bred in captivity and never knowing the wild.

bookworm (inês) said...

hey ParrotyPaul, thanks for your comment
I guess one thing Mira Tweti's argument is sure to do, is put some bird owners on the defensive. She is well aware some people are great parrot owners (or parronts as she calls them). But when you think of the numbers being surrendered to rescues and the others languishing in small cages, alone and with little human (let alone bird) interaction it's obvious there needs to be a lot more education on the responsibilities of bird-keeping and its implications.
She does tell of a Spix Macaw (extinct in the wild) that was surrendered (probably after some pressure) to a breeding program in Brazil. When the author visited this bird, he was desperate to speak with her in English, and was distressed when she left. It seemed cruel to take a well-adjusted pet from his owner.
On the whole I think it's good she took such a polemical stand-point. The more public discussion about this issue the better - it's a complex topic with few clear cut answers.
I hope you find the time to read the book!