I recently became aware that singer songwriter Cee-Lo Green will be replacing his signature white cat “Purrrfect” with a Moluccan cockatoo “Lady” on the set of the hit show “The Voice.”
While care must be taken when bringing any animal on to the set of show especially one with lots of noise and bright flashing lights to ensure that the individual animal is comfortable and not stressed by the environment, I am particularly concerned about the wider implications of featuring an endangered exotic bird as a “pet” on the show.
You see, for better or for worse, the actions of U.S. celebrities can have an impact on national international trends, and the last thing this species needs is to be popularized as a “pet” for both conservation and welfare reasons. Moluccan cockatoos are in trouble in the wild and in captivity.
Nearly the entire remaining population of Moluccan cockatoos is found on the tiny island of Seram in Eastern Indonesia. The population has declined as a direct result of their popularity as “pets” which has led to severe trapping for trade. I have twice traveled to the island of Seram parrot conservation projects with the Indonesian Parrot Project, and have seen first-hand the challenges this species faces as well as other species popular in the pet trade.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) added the Moluccan cockatoo (Cacatua moluccensis) under the protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) on May 26th 2011, and the birds have been on CITES (Convention on International Trade In Endangered Species) Appendix I since the 1990s. This action has curtailed reported trade at the international level, but has not eliminated it. In fact, despite these protections, Moluccan cockatoos remain one of the most sought-after birds in the pet trade. Although protected at the provincial and national level in Indonesia, Moluccan cockatoos continue to be traded within Indonesia and are still smuggled to outside markets including Malaysia and Singapore.
An investigation by our friends at Pro Fauna -Indonesia an animal welfare organization, that 47% of the parrots traded at the five bird-marts on the island of Java, were protected under Indonesian law and include those listed on CITES Appendix I, thereby violating international conservation agreements.
The birds are delivered to the markets by middlemen who make huge profits by purchasing the birds from village trappers in Eastern Indonesia (including the island of Seram) where poverty levels are as high. These birds may fetch hundreds of dollars in domestic markets or thousands of dollars in the international market. However, the trappers from local villages receive an equivalent of just six U.S. dollars or less for birds in good condition.
Lack of law enforcement, weak agency policies, and government corruption has often characterize the wild bird trade in Indonesia. It has been reported that wildlife dealer have regularly avoided arrest by bribing Indonesian law enforcement authorities and those who refuse face the risk of physical harm at the hands of associated wildlife dealer “gangs.”
Clearly, the market demand for parrots as pets is a huge problem for this species, and markets are influenced by advertising – it is well known that celebrities and popular television shows are key advertsing outlets setting trends in products, fashions, and yes, “pets.”
Not only does the pet trade threaten wild populations the pet trade threatens the welfare of individual cockatoos whether wild-caught or captive-bred.
Moluccan cockatoos are beautiful, intelligent animals but they are very challenging to care for especially in the long term, and are prone to considerable welfare problems. Many Moluccan cockatoos develop self-destructive behavior including feather plucking and self mutilation not known to occur in the wild. Many parrot rescues are already filled to capacity with Moluccans and other large parrots.
Breeding the birds in captivity and promoting them as pets does not help the situation – it actually aggravates it.
It is commonly asserted by breeders of exotic birds that captive breeding reduces pressure on wild populations. However, the cost of wild-capture tends to be much cheaper than captive breeding (Snyder et al 2000) and, as such, the availability of captive-bred birds does not typically deter wild-capture. Indeed, demand and subsequent collection of wild parrots for the global pet trade continues to threaten wild parrots despite the ability to produce captive-bred birds. Moreover, history has shown that the increased popularity of exotic animals as pets often leads to a subsequent increase in the illegal trafficking of their wild counterparts.
Another point to consider is that there currently exist no legal standards governing bird production facilities. The U.S. Animal Welfare Act (AWA)—legislation passed in 1966—extends protection to certain warm-blooded animals maintained by certain animal dealers, transporters, exhibitors, and research facilities. Birds were excluded from the AWA until 2000 but standards for regulating breeding facilities are still in development.
Contrary to popular belief the breeding of these birds in captivity in the United States doe s not contribute to conservation efforts because most captive breeding is done outside of official species survival plans or other directed conservation efforts. There currently is no captive breeding release program for Moluccan cockatoos. Captive parrot breeding release programs are notoriously difficult and have far more failures than successes. Moreover, if ever such a program were to be undertaken it would need to occur in the birds’ native country and in close proximity to native habitat and wild-free living cockatoos.
Even when bred in captivity, exotic birds are not considered domesticated animals, they are the native species of other countries and, as such, all their inherent behavioral and physical needs remain intact. Sadly, when it comes to birds, deprivation of their natural behaviors (to fly and flock, for example) is an inescapable component of their captivity. Confinement in cages can lead to neurotic behavior, excessive screaming, feather plucking, self-mutilation and other destructive habits. As a result, very few people are capable of caring for the special needs of captive exotic birds.
I hope “The Voice” will seriously reconsider featuring a Moluccan cockatoo or any bird as “pet” on the show. As I told TMZ, featuring a more appropriate companion animal such as a dog would be a better choice and that featuring a rescue dog or a dog in need of a home would be doubly beneficial.