Animal Aid

NEC BIRD FAIR - National bird market exposed

Posted 1 March 2004

Tragically, the giant wild bird market at the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) was allowed to go ahead over the weekend of 6-7 December 2003 despite our protests.

Birds on sale at the NEC Cage & Aviary bird market.

Animal Aid sent representatives as part of a ten-strong team of animal protection and environmental protection groups, who gathered evidence of animal welfare and public health problems. Investigators were overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the problems, with traders openly flouting the law and the conditions imposed by the market's licence.

Peter Robinson, expert ornithologist, estimated that between one-third and half of the birds on sale were in cages that did not meet legal requirements. He noted that most dealers piled cages on top of each other, thereby allowing contaminated food and water into lower cages. Although the licence conditions specified that birds should be sold in suitable containers, our team witnessed newly purchased birds handed to customers in small, crushable boxes. Peter also estimated that roughly half of the creatures on sale were wild-caught.

Overcrowded cages at the NEC bird fair. Many of the cages did not meet legal requirements.

Public health issues were examined, too. Birds First, an organisation campaigning to stop illegal sales of pet birds, carried out test purchases. Of three parrots purchased at random, one was found to be suffering from psittacosis, a highly infectious disease that can also affect people. The infected bird and his cage-mate, both Senegal parrots trapped in West Africa, were given expert veterinary care and will continue to be closely monitored. During an initial clinical examination, a vet confirmed that the victims showed no outward signs of ill-health but left untreated they would probably have died.

We had repeatedly spelled out to Solihull Council - who licensed the market - the risks posed to animal and human health. Yet it is clear that it did not implement sufficient bio-security measures to prevent the spread of disease.

Defending the indefensible

Many of the world's parrot species are in steep decline and most on sale at the NEC are categorised as 'threatened' in the wild under Appendix II of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). If illegal events like this are allowed to continue, then these beautiful birds will disappear from the world's forests forever.

Yet still some bird dealers and keepers spoke with us and attempted to excuse the inexcusable. They claimed that the wild-caught bird trade was necessary to provide 'new blood' for bird breeding programmes that aid conservation. The facts are rather different. Capturing birds for the pet trade is the biggest factor in species decline apart from habitat destruction. Also, the pet trade cannot participate in species reintroduction programmes because of the prevalence of viral diseases, one of which had plagued UK bird keepers in the weeks prior to the NEC event. These conditions could have a devastating impact on wild populations should captive-bred birds ever be released. This is why breeding and release programmes of endangered species must be 'in situ', such as those for the echo parakeet on Mauritius and the Puerto Rican Parrot.

Cockatoo. Capturing birds for the pet trade is one of the biggest factors in species decline.

Enduring image

On the Sunday afternoon, I explored the exhibition hall and witnessed for myself the hideous spectacle of cages full of wild birds. If not sold
at this event they would more than likely be transported around the country to other illegal sales. I squeezed through a cheering audience watching 'performing parrots' - always a favourite with the clientele!

Critics who have visited these markets often say that the memory of one animal in particular stays with them and continues to haunt them long afterwards. This was certainly the case with me. While standing at the main entrance with the other protesters, a visitor passed by swinging a parrot in a cage. The proud new owner did not even have the sense to cover the cage to calm and protect his new possession from the icy wind. I recognised the bird as a conure - a species almost always wild-trapped. He was frozen with terror and remained static in the same position while his cage was leant against the window at the front of a waiting bus. I watched him eye the people and the objects outside, studying, absorbing and trying to make sense of the alien world in which he was now confined.

Macaws. It is estimated that around half of the birds on sale were captured from the wild.

This trade is brutal. More wild birds will have died during trapping and transit than actually survived to reach the NEC sale. Either through ignorance or a naive belief in bird dealer propaganda, consumers support the destructive trade by purchasing at what they consider to be bargain prices. Yet these traumatised animals will never adapt to life in captivity. Many who survive the trade system eventually become unmanageable and are either cruelly treated or handed over from one keeper to another - a scenario all too common in a ruthless pet industry.

'Seems reasonable'?

During my visit I bumped into Sean Lawson, the officer at Solihull Council who recommended that the market be granted a licence and who memorably once stated that the Council's legal advice would remain secret because it might be 'used against them'. I asked what he thought of the event and he replied that it 'seemed reasonable'.

Animal Aid's Elaine Toland questions John Hounslow, Head of CITES at DEFRA.

In answer to my enquiry as to whether he had noticed any birds kept in illegal conditions, he told me that none had been brought to his attention. So, after tracking down one of our investigators who had been collecting video footage, I called Lawson over to the entrance gate. I explained that while it was impractical to raise all of our concerns there and then, we could show him some examples. I reiterated that these were merely the tip of the iceberg and that we would provide a complete dossier in due course. This will be used to counter any future licence application submitted by the organisers early in 2004.

Outside protest

While evidence was gathered inside the NEC, protesters outside handed leaflets to visitors, reminding them that the market was unlawful and advising them not to get involved in illegal activity by purchasing birds. While hardened collectors were annoyed by our presence, a handful were genuinely distressed to learn the true nature of the event and left without attending. One gentleman stormed out leaving his wife inside and told a waiting cameraman that 'this will probably result in divorce'! He added that he had been appalled by what he had seen.

Media coverage

Sky TV transmitted regular bulletins about the protest, which also headlined on regional television news. Local press and radio covered the story with interest. In the weeks prior to the event, dynamic local campaigners had kept the spotlight on Solihull Council. A march was organised through the town centre and a 10,000-signature petition was presented to the Principal Environmental Health Officer and the Head of the Licensing Committee. Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson - stars of the TV comedy series, Birds of a Feather - also added their voice to the protest by writing to the Council.

Budgies. More birds will have died during trapping and transit than actually survived to reach the fair.

Soon after the market ended, Animal Aid also issued an alert via the media to those who had made purchases. We urged them to have their birds checked out immediately by an avian vet. We advised further that anybody showing flu-like symptoms should report to their doctor for a blood test.

We would like to extend our special thanks to New Life Parrot Rescue, PO Box 84, St Neots, Cambridgeshire, PE19 2LB, 01480 390040 - a charity which carries out exceptional work in rescuing and rehabilitating unwanted and neglected parrots, as well as promoting parrot welfare.

Watch our Ban the Bird Market Video
The video presents our case against the bird market.

Read our report on the wild bird trade

And for further background see the Ban the Bird Market campaign index.

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