By Dr Liz Tyson, Born Free USA

Pink Floyd – the one who got away

In almost 20 years of campaigning against wild animal captivity, there have been very few times a story about a zoo has brought a smile to my face. Zoos are miserable places for animals. They force animals to live in unnatural environments, in unnatural social groups, and in unnatural climates. They put fences, and cages, and glass walls between the animals and their freedom. And for what? For people to pay money to go and gawk at the animals when they have a few hours to kill at the weekend.  

The animals in zoos will never go back to their natural habitat – they will live and die in those places.

If any of the animals manage to escape their zoo prisons, they often pay the price with their lives. Such was the case with two brown bears who escaped their enclosure at Whipsnade Zoo last year. As the fence that contained them failed in high winds, the bears were shot and killed. Tragedies like this have played out too many times.

Pink Floyd’s story is different. Pink Floyd is a flamingo who was born in Tanzania, then shipped to South Africa, then to Wichita Falls Zoo in Kansas, USA, back in 2005. It is difficult to imagine how stressful those journeys must have been for Pink Floyd and their 39 flamingo companions, but it is clear that Pink wanted to reclaim their freedom. 

Flamingos are birds who can fly at speeds of up to 40 mph, and can cover distances of around 350 miles in just one night. Why, then, is the overriding image that many of us have of flamingos of them standing still, often on one leg, in shallow waters?

Why is it that many people are surprised to learn that flamingos can fly at all? We have zoos to thank for that.

If you have ever visited a zoo that holds flamingos captive, you might have wondered how the zoo gets flamingos to stay in one place without containing them in an aviary. The answer is simple: they mutilate them. 

Flamingos and other large birds in zoos may have part of their wings amputated via a brutal practice known as “pinioning”. By chopping off the bone – usually when the bird is a baby, and usually without any form of anesthesia – zoos can house large groups of flamingos and other bird species without worrying about them flying away.

Of course, the birds are permanently maimed, but mutilation of these majestic animals is simply part-and-parcel of them being held captive in zoos.

While some zoos only clip flight feathers, which has the same effect albeit on a temporary basis, many opt to amputate as it means that they only have to do it once in the bird’s life. Either way, these birds are rendered flightless so that they can be put on display.

In 2005, the zoo that Pink Floyd arrived at had not yet had chance to steal their flight from them, and Pink was able to escape. 

Since then, Pink has been sighted in Wisconsin, Louisiana, and, most recently, Texas. To put that into context, the site Pink was last seen in Texas is 679 miles away from the zoo they escaped from 17 years ago. Flamingos mate for life and Pink was seen with a companion from a colony of banded flamingos in Mexico for many years, though they now appears to be alone again. We don’t know what Pink has been doing in all of the intervening years and, frankly, it’s none of our business – Pink is free to live their own life as they choose.

The zoo has stated that Pink’s escape is something of an embarrassment to them and they have made no attempt to recover the bird over the years, nor do they intend to.

As sightings continue of the now rather elderly flamingo, their story is a bright spot in the sad history of zoos. So rare is it that the animals win, as Pink Floyd has. 

On Zoo Awareness Weekend this year, please remember those animals who will never experience freedom and help us to continue fighting for them. In the meantime, raise a smile for Pink Floyd, who is out there somewhere living thier best life in freedom.

Dr Liz Tyson 

Programs Director, Born Free USA

Liz is an animal advocate with almost 20 years’ of experience working for animal protection and conservation. She acted as Director of the Captive Animals’ Protection Society (CAPS) from 2010 - 2015, after working in primate conservation in the UK and South America for various years previous. She now works as Programs Director for Born Free USA, where her role includes the management of one of the USA’s largest primate sanctuaries. She lives with her three rescue dog companions, Chambira, Maya, and Stanley Millett in San Antonio, Texas.