A bird soaring in the sky unfettered is a universal symbol of freedom. The very term, “free bird”, connotes sovereignty, choice and liberation. The image of a bird in a cramped cage appears to elicit more outrage than a chained dog or beaten-down cattle. The idea being that birds should be able to fly.
It is perhaps fitting then that the Supreme Court is debating whether caged birds should have a “right to fly”. Responding to a petition, the SC will decide if caged birds should be released. This follows from a Gujarat High Court order that upheld a bird’s right to fly and be free. The determining principles are prevention of cruelty, and justice for a non-human entity. However, freeing caged birds alone is not justice. We should be phasing out bird trade.
The Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, has a curious bipolarity. Almost all wild species are protected by law with missionary zeal. Wild birds or animals cannot be caught or hunted, unless they are a threat to human life, standing crops or property. The idea is that wild Indian species deserve protection and conservation. Curiously, interpretations of the same law imply that wild birds and animals that are not Indian do not require protection or conservation. A host of birds that are “exotic” — that is, non-native to India — can legally be kept as pets in cages. This includes species like the African grey parrot, a popular pet in India, smaller lovebirds and budgerigars, often found stuffed in scores in pet shop cages.
Our response to animals, particularly animals affected by us, determines the moral fibre of society. Thus, at least for form’s sake, most of India finds it abhorrent and cruel to eat dogs and one can’t openly admit to hunting wild animals. It is the same moral impulse that leads to freeing a caged bird. But, actually, it is not ethical to release exotic birds, and true compassion entails phasing out bird trade completely.
First, releasing exotic species is an ecological crime against native Indian wild species. In the absence of natural predators, some of the worst ecological disasters are caused by the introduction of non-native species. For example, Indian crows are a huge pest in Australia and that country is currently implementing an eradication programme. The same bird, carried by people, is a threat to native birds in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Second, pet birds mask a poaching trade, which is cruel and illegal. Finches from India are illegally kept as pets under the garb of the legal exotic trade.
While the intent of letting free a caged bird — even a sickly exotic caged bird — appears honourable, it is selfish. It is an activity designed to assuage our own guilt, and one that can have serious ramifications on other wild species. The answer is to regulate the pet trade in live birds, and phase it out completely.
Several products — diamonds, platinum, even wood — come with certification that assures cruelty- or conflict-free practices of production. It is harder to enforce certification for live beings. Given the huge demand, it is unlikely that regulation can enforce cruelty-free practices in the lucrative pet trade. Birds continue to be stuffed in cages, bottles, bags — sometimes smuggled illegally, sometimes traded legally but cruelly. The birds we see mask untold bloody trails.
Unfortunately, caged birds have no future, except being loved to cold death.