By Jeffrey S. Kerr, Esq.
More than 500 birds die of starvation and parasites. Feral dogs attack and kill caged flamingos. Fifteen confined parrots perish in a fire. In every one of these cases, the federal authorities who are supposed to protect captive animals did absolutely nothing. How is this possible?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is charged with enforcing the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), the only federal law that explicitly protects animals used in entertainment. For years, it excluded birds from protection under the Act, but in 2002, Congress amended its definition of “animal” to include all birds except those “bred for use in research.” The USDA subsequently updated its regulations to make it clear that birds (other than the unfortunate ones used in experiments) would be protected.
But in the 13 years since, the agency has yet to bring a single enforcement action on behalf of birds and has declined to regulate their welfare, even though many are suffering greatly and many have died as a result of neglect. Dealers, breeders and roadside displays can starve birds, deny them water, jam them into barren cages and never take them to a veterinarian—all with impunity.
Last year, the Garold Wayne Interactive Zoological Park posted disturbing photos on its Facebook page of two blue-and-yellow macaws and a Goffin’s cockatoo lying dead at the bottom of filthy cages. The photos show the birds surrounded by disintegrating newspapers and excrement, with no trace of food or water visible. The cockatoo had apparently plucked the feathers out of his chest—something that birds do when sick or distressed. They probably all suffered from neglect, trauma, stress, starvation and dehydration before they died. Yet the USDA insists that it won’t take any action in cases like this.
On the same day that the USDA announced that it would protect birds—other than those used in experiments—it also acknowledged that birds needed regulations specific to their complex needs. After issuing a notice of the proposed new rules, it received more than 7,000 comments about the issue, so it hired an avian health-and-welfare expert. Yet to this day, more than a decade later, the agency has not written, much less published or enforced, any bird-specific regulations.
In the meantime, the USDA is purposely disregarding the fundamental protections that all animals are already afforded in the AWA. Every animal, including birds, needs safe housing, wholesome food, fresh water and routine veterinary care. But the agency’s position is that if bird-specific standards don’t exist, then birds aren’t protected.
After PETA took the USDA to court over this issue, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia found that even though the agency had failed to enforce the AWA and failed to impose bird-specific standards, its lack of action was not “unlawfully withheld” and concluded that it could not force the USDA to take action.
How can this be? And how many more birds will suffer and die while the USDA continues to do nothing? Every taxpayer and everyone who cares about birds should be questioning this senseless decision.