By Laura Tomlinson, FFA Investigator

Birds don't naturally choose to live in cages. Birds don't naturally perform flying displays for humans in zoos. To get them to do these things, birds need to be manipulated by human training. And what better time to start then from when they are babies? 

Depending on the ‘job’ they are to be used for, some are taken straight from the nest before they have even hatched and some stay with their parents until several weeks of age, then removed.

I saw many young birds at the zoos I investigated. I will always remember when I witnessed two tawny owls being dumped in the middle of a display arena, where the public shows took place. They couldn’t have been more than 3 weeks old. They looked lost and bewildered. Unsure of where they were, eyes not developed and an audience staring at them. They weren’t even put on the ground together so unable to comfort each other. The noises, the lights. All strange and frightening. 

One zoo keeper asked the crowd if they wanted to meet a European eagle owl. The owl was only seven weeks old. There were over twenty people in the audience, mostly children. As this bird was brought out, running along the ground in to the arena, people were allowed to enter.

All running at him, they stuck out their hands and stroked him. Owls are farsighted and cannot see up close. This poor young owl, had hands all over him and was completely surrounded with nowhere to hide.

Suddenly after several minutes he saw a gap in the crowd and made a run for it. But he was quickly followed by children and so it carried on. 

His running away was a clear sign to staff that he had had enough but they made no attempt to remove him from this stressful situation. He was squawking and beak clapping, all clear signs of stress, but it seemed that no one was listening. I timed how long he had to endure this. Twenty minutes. 

I asked the zoo keeper how all the stroking would affect his feathers. She replied that stroking an owl is bad for their feathers as our greasy hands can remove their waterproofing, but it didn’t matter as he had “a roof over his aviary and wouldn’t be flying in the rain”. I was concerned, as I knew that stroking an owl can damage the feathers in other ways but the zoo keeper failed to mention this. 

Tethered for the first time

One of my most upsetting memories from the investigation is that of a young barn owl, still with many of their baby feathers, being tethered for the first time. The zookeeper told me how he had been keeping him in his house from the day he hatched, in order to get him to acclimatise to human noises. So this poor baby had been living in a human home for several weeks until it was time to stick him outside.

As I watched, he tried to escape so many times, jumping from his perch trying to take off, not understanding why he suddenly couldn’t fly. He chewed at his restraints repeatedly and tried his best to fly away. 


One thing not many zoo keepers discussed with me was that when a bird is hatched he or she identifies with the first thing they see. This is known as ‘imprinting’. So if a bird hatches and the first thing they see is a human, then they will think they are human. This can lead to numerous behavioural problems, including aggression. I saw many birds trying to mate with the zoo keepers, yet this was often explained away as normal. 


Those birds that are taken from their parents after several weeks will know they are a bird. But as such will be terrified of humans. They then will be put through a process known in the industry as ‘manning’. This is how a bird is broken down so that humans can work with them and use them, in this case often for flying displays. Birds during this process will have food withheld from them, some going without food for days, until they comply with what is wanted of them.


It is just heartbreaking to think of the number of birds held in bird of prey centres that have had some form of intensive training in order for them to be ‘used’. Whether that be a bird used for people to hold or a flying display bird, they have all been broken down to be able to be around humans. These birds are wild and we mustn’t forget that. 

Please, boycott cruel bird of prey centres and take action on the campaign to ban tethering. We need to fight to give birds a chance at freedom.