By Laura Tomlinson, FFA Investigator

As an undercover investigator, my job is to witness the exploitation of animals and collect evidence to expose cruelty and fight for change. But that doesn’t mean it is easy to see. 

And there is something especially sad about seeing a bird being denied the chance to fly. 

The Tether and Torment investigation took me to many different bird of prey zoos. Yet one main theme ran throughout most of them - birds were prevented from flying by tethering. Birds were tied down by their legs, unable to fly free and left for hours. For some, they were tied down for days at a time. 

I saw many different birds and many different enclosures, from the smallest owls to the largest eagles. Some tethered on lawns, some tethered in enclosures, including a dark windowless shed that held two Harris’s hawks. 

Time and time again I saw birds desperately trying to escape their tethers.  It was obvious to me that birds were showing many different emotions: boredom, frustration, fear, stress. 

In the falconry industry the term to describe a bird that is attempting to fly from the fist or perch while still attached is ‘bating’. Bating seemed to be a word used to normalise a bird that was trying to escape their tethers. To give it a sense of acceptability as if it was a perfectly natural thing for a bird to be doing. When I asked the staff at the zoos why birds were doing this, they never mentioned that this was a result of a bird being stressed or scared. Or that it can cause injury to a bird. Bating birds can suffer injury to their feathers and can even lead to them breaking their leg. 

Many birds weren’t even allowed to fly in an aviary at night. I asked all the centres if they kept birds tethered at night too - shockingly most of them said yes. Add to that, many of they zoos clearly didn’t have enough time to fly all the birds they had tethered.

My worst fears were quickly confirmed - birds were barely getting a chance to fly at all. One of the most basic instincts of these animals being completely denied to them. 

Nowhere to escape

Liberty was one of the first eagles I came across during the investigation. It was a very hot day and she was tied down with no shelter from the baking sun. She grabbed my attention as she was pacing around, making lots of distressed sounds, expressing her agitation from being tied down. 

One centre had five birds tethered on an open lawn in direct sunlight for a full day. When asked why they weren’t in the shade of their enclosures just meters away from where they were tied, one staff member said he was going to “put them away in twenty minutes”. Nearly an hour passed and the birds were still out on the lawn. 

Florence, a golden Eagle, was a very nervous bird. She spent the whole time I saw her continuously bating from her perch. It was heartbreaking to see such a majestic and powerful bird expressing such fear and sorrow. She had nothing to hide behind and no form of escape.

I saw many owls tethered in various zoos, despite many guidelines saying that owls should never be tethered. The smallest owl I saw tethered was an Indian Scops owl. This small owl was not only tethered most of the day but was used as a handling bird, meaning she was untied and picked up to be showcased to the public. During the day I counted how many people were stroking her. Over 80 people, including 40 school children, all lined up to have their photographs taken with her, one by one. An owl’s fear response is often to freeze, how then would any members of the public be expected to know if this bird was in fear? I couldn’t help but wonder if she was just numb to this now. So used to being manhandled day in and day out. 

All about entertainment

Many times, I asked why birds were tethered. There had to be a good reason for what I was seeing throughout these centres? Time and time again I was told that if they are loose in an aviary, they crash around and may harm themselves. This didn’t seem to make sense to me, so I asked “why?” 

Eventually I was told the real reason why the birds crash around their aviaries. Because they are hungry, and are so desperate to attract the attention of their captors to be fed that they risk hurting themselves. And why are they so hungry? Because food is deliberately withheld so that they can be easily controlled in public displays, their captors using food as a tool to make them return. 

Tethering a bird makes them easier to handle. Easier to be picked up, manipulated and used to put on a show for paying members of the public! It is not about protecting the birds. 

Ending tethering

Seeing these birds kept captive made me sad and very angry. I want to free every single bird I met on my investigation, but I know that we have a lot of work to do before we see that happen. What we can do right now is BAN this awful practice of tethering. By doing so, we will make life much harder for these businesses to operate, meaning fewer birds will be held captive. 

And that feels like a significant start to freeing these birds and finally giving them a chance at flight.

So please, take our action today and contact DEFRA, demanding they BAN tethering once and for all. 

Thank you.