24 June 2015

Going for a Song? The Price of Pet Birds

The price of birds for sale in pet stores in Taiwan sheds light on legal (and illegal) trade, with consequences for native wildlife. 

A Golden Parakeet songbird in Taiwan

A new study by Su Shan (Institute of Zoology) et al investigates the birds for sale in pet shops in Taiwan, and the factors that affect their price. 

Taiwan is an interesting place to study birds. Songbirds are kept for singing competitions, and there is a tradition of taking caged birds out for a walk (‘bird walking’). As in other Asian countries, birds and other animals are set free in order to make merit (prayer release), potentially adding significantly to the numbers of alien birds living wild. There is a lot of trade with other Asian countries, and some birds have been obtained illegally. 

The price of the birds is a measure of the market, because easily-obtained birds are assumed to be cheaper. The bird trade is very lucrative in Asia and checking the price is one way to find out which birds are being bought and sold. 

The authors say, 
“species that are for sale in large numbers, are native to Taiwan, and with healthy wild populations available for international trade (as assessed by CITES) all fetch a relatively low price in Taiwan.”

This is good news because Su et al say the birds released for prayer are likely the cheaper birds, therefore releasing native rather than alien species. However the higher price of alien species does not guarantee they will not be released into the wild. The paper says more than 200 million prayer release animals are set free in Taiwan each year.

The researchers visited 72 pet shops, including 32 in Taipei City, and recorded which species were for sale, how many there were, and at what price. Sometimes many birds were kept in a cage, with cages stacked high. Nonetheless they were able to identify almost all the bird species, except for three very similar white-eyed birds where the shopkeeper’s identification could not be relied upon due to questionable legality.

A native sparrow in Taiwan

There were over 26,000 birds for sale, of 217 species. The most expensive birds were Golden Parakeet (Guaruba guarouba), retailing at US$8,000, and Major Mitchell's Cockatoo Cacatua leadbeateri) at $7,500. All of the most expensive birds were alien species. The cheapest bird was the Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus) at only 86 cents each.

To the surprise of the researchers, the complexity of the bird’s song did not increase the price, perhaps because parrots are very expensive, especially if trained to mimic speech. Larger birds also cost more to acquire and care for, and the authors point out that parrots may be a “once in a lifetime purchase”. 

A bird’s plumage also affects the price, with grey birds being cheaper, and yellow the most expensive. 

The authors say, 
“Cultural factors may be key in driving such colour preferences. For example, the colour grey has associations with low value in Asian countries (e.g. China and Japan)… In traditional Chinese culture, nature is composed of five elements – wood, fire, earth, metal and water – and each element has a colour and compass point associated with it. Yellow exemplifies the earth and represents the centre of the compass, and is therefore of high importance.” 

Therefore a yellow bird can fetch a higher price.

Since the majority of birds for sale were alien species (68%), this is a threat to Taiwan’s native wildlife. The authors consider several ways to reduce the threat, including discouraging prayer release. Alternatively, they suggest altering practices so that it includes conservation as an aim. 

Su, S., Cassey, P., Vall-llosera, M., & Blackburn, T. (2015). Going Cheap: Determinants of Bird Price in the Taiwanese Pet Market PLOS ONE, 10 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0127482 
Photos: Tupungato & red-feniks / Shutterstock.com

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17 June 2015

Emergency Planning Is For Pets Too

Failure to include pets in emergency planning puts human lives at risk.

A grey cat looks out of a pet carrier

“There is no other factor contributing as much to human evacuation failure in disasters that is under the control of emergency management when a threat is imminent as pet ownership.” So say Sebastian Heath (FEMA) and Robert Linnabary (University of Tennessee) in a review of the ways in which pets should be included in emergency planning. 

Emergency management has five stages: planning, preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery. It is important to include pets at all stages so that people with pets are more likely to evacuate if necessary. The human-animal bond can also encourage people to prepare for disasters, since they may be motivated to plan for their pet even if not for themselves.

Strong emergency planning also entails having a good start point, which is not currently the case for animals in the US. Shelters and rescues struggle to cope with the existing number of strays and unwanted pets, with millions of cats and dogs euthanized annually. One consequence is there is no spare capacity that could be utilized in an emergency. Another is that in a disaster, organizations would have to assume stray pets are unwanted, rather than separated from their people, because this is already the case during normal times.

One thing everyone can do to help mitigate disasters is simply not to have more animals than you can care for. The authors suggest this is backed up by local bylaws prohibiting too many pets. If people are struggling to provide proper care for their animals, they will struggle even more during an emergency. Once people have three or more pets, the proportion who will evacuate falls substantially (unless they also have children). Another reason is that during an evacuation, you might have to care for the animals on your own at the shelter.

Many emergency shelters will not take pets. Heath and Lannabary say, “Although most evacuees are able to find a place to stay on their own, prior identification of a pet-friendly shelter where owners can find temporary shelter for themselves and housing for their pets provides further encouragement to pet owners to evacuate with their pets.” 

They suggest emergency planners provide free leashes and cardboard pet carriers to those who have to evacuate, and that shelters have a designated area for working dogs (like search and rescue dogs) to rest between shifts. In the US, the National Fire Protection Association’s Standard for Mass Evacuation and Sheltering, due to be implemented in 2017, includes a section on service animals and pets.

Communication following emergencies should include positive stories of people who have successfully evacuated with their pets, as this will encourage others to follow suit. Failing to evacuate pets can lead to dangerous attempts at rescue. In one chemical spill, about 20% of evacuees later tried to return to rescue pets they had left behind. 

News stories about disasters typically focus on the response, rather than the whole picture. Heath and Linnabary say, “Stories of the plight of animals in disasters are common in the media and often described as being solely the result of the disaster. However, disasters rarely create new situations, in most cases, disasters simply expose underlying systemic vulnerabilities.”

Following a natural disaster, there is often an outpouring of support. Heath and Linnabary say it is important to have plans to ensure support is appropriate, for example that monies go to organizations that will account for how it is spent, and that items donated are ones that will be useful. Requests should come via official channels and they also point out that, in the absence of an appropriate official response, other organizations will step in, sometimes in ways that suit their own ends rather than the local community.

Many people are willing to help animals in a disaster. Emergency planning should include a volunteer coordinator who can assess the suitability of volunteers and match them to tasks, as well as training for relevant people within the community (such as animal shelter and veterinary staff). FEMA has credentialed courses for Animal Emergency Responders specializing in e.g. companion animals, equines, or livestock, and other useful courses on topics such as Animals in Disasters. 

If you live in an area prone to natural hazards such as wildfires or earthquakes, you can make plans for such events that include your pets, such as having an emergency preparedness kit for your animals. Here are some useful suggestions from The Red Cross, the Canadian Disaster Animal Response Team, and the Humane Society of the United States.
One of the lessons of this paper is that solving existing vulnerabilities for companion animals is important for resilience in an emergency. The full paper is essential reading for anyone interested in emergency planning. It is open access, available here http://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/5/2/173 .

Have you thought about how you would look after your pets in an emergency?

Heath, S., & Linnabary, R. (2015). Challenges of Managing Animals in Disasters in the U.S. Animals, 5 (2), 173-192 DOI: 10.3390/ani5020173
Photo: eAlisa / Shutterstock.com 

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10 June 2015

A Short Break

Isn’t this the prettiest kitten? Ragdoll cats are said to be especially good with children, and it’s certainly the case that the Ragdolls of my acquaintance are friendly to people of all ages.

I’m taking a short break from the blog but will be back next week. See you then.

Photo: cath5 / Shutterstock.com

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