At least once a day in the busy season, if not twice or more, I’ll overhear a particular comment as members of the public drift by to see the birds at our mews. It’s usually some variation of, “Oh, now this I don’t like to see.” And inevitably followed by some dramatic statement about how, “They’re chained to their perches, and not allowed to fly! How cruel!”
Now usually I’m just out of eyesight of these people, and to address their comments directly is often impossible, or at the very least a bit creepy as I burst from the weigh room going, “Well, about that!” So I generally go up to the fence and cheerfully ask if anyone has any questions. Inevitably, the sort of person who’s vocal enough about their views to have made a comment in the first place will also be vocal about the perceived cruelty they’ve judged, in their ignorance, to be in front of them. Their subtlety ranges from the careful: “How long do the birds sit out here like this?” to the blunt: “Isn’t it cruel to leave them on their perches all day?”
My current tactic has been a sort of upbeat, hyper-education in which I smile widely (this would be their cue to run), and start in about a wild raptor’s day-to-day life. How catching prey uses so much energy that they need to conserve it for the chase. The concept that they don’t spend their whole day swooping and diving just for the heck of it often comes as a surprise to these misinformed members of the public, unsurprisingly.
I tell them how our birds do get to fly, every day, in safe and controlled conditions. To let all of our birds loose at once would result in a very messy end! And that ones’ domestic dog needs a lead for its, and other dogs’, safety, so how is it very different?
I then go on to relate anecdotes about the time our Barn Owl, Louise, picked her knots and was free on the lawn one day – and promptly put herself in her mews to sleep. Since they do fly free each day, if they didn’t like their living conditions they would just fly away!
Then I invite them to tell me if they’ve seen any wild birds of prey, and inevitably they’ll have seen a buzzard. Who hasn’t? I tell them how buzzards have become so lazy that they will often sit, for hours, on fenceposts by the sides of busy roads to wait for road kill, so that they don’t even have to put themselves through the bother of actually catching their own prey at all.
Sometimes they hear one of our birds shouting, and make an off-hand comment, “Oh he’s not happy.” As if they know this after a five-minute observation of raptor behaviour. I laugh, not cruelly at their expense, rather as a chuckle of long-sufferance from many, many hours of listening to all the screams, hoots and warbles that is the background music to my days. I translate the call they’ve commented on, and then go on to talk about that bird’s personality, and relate stories of its hijinks. They all have hijinks, it’s not hard to think of amusing ones to tell.
Generally by this point, the people who first saw rows of “chained” birds (where are the chains, I ask you?) forced to sit on perches all day now start to see the relaxed postures, the raised legs and preening. The veil of outrage has lifted and their powers of observation start to return. Sometimes they leave soon after, before I force more education into their closed minds, but other times they stick around and watch indulgently for a while.
There’s always the odd person who will never agree with us, because obviously they would know better than the people who make caring for birds of prey their life’s work. Sure, we can agree to disagree. Or rather, I can agree that you’re willfully ignoring the facts just to suit your self-righteous outrage. Enjoy that.
But thankfully most people are happy to be informed otherwise, and I invite them to watch our birds flying free and see how the bond between falconer and bird works. How impossible it would be to do what I do if I thought there was any cruelty to it. We all come to this work from a love of these birds, and admiring their wild cousins, and we want to ensure their lives are just as good. More so, since there’s no fear of starvation or an injury that wouldn’t be treated.
So when you say you “don’t like to see this”, I tell you to first try and actually understand what’s in front of you. Ask us questions, and listen to our answers. If you’re still outraged, well then please leave and maybe we won’t mind if you never come back!