September 2022

In my role as a Freedom for Animals investigator, I recently visited a wetland centre in the North West of England. What I witnessed there was both shocking and inexcusable.

Located across a large site that spans the countryside, the centre describes itself as a visitor attraction that combines the wild beauty of nature with accessible, family-friendly activities; with year-round “attractions” advertised such as the otter enclosure and pond-dipping zone. Yet the animals forced to endure the activities, live anything but natural or accessible lives.

What struck me most, was the juxtaposition between the free-living birds who visit the wetlands for food, water, and rest, compared to the site's captive inhabitants, who are prevented from flying or migrating to explore different surroundings. Concerningly, all the birds held captive are also wild species, with little to no conservational reason to be confined to a life of captivity.

The flamingos, geese and other species present at this centre, are prevented from leaving for no other reason than to ensure that a large number of birds are always present, to attract better visitor numbers and thus generate more profit.

This is because wetland centres are essentially zoos. They take pride in, and advertise as, being places where wild birds can come and take salvage over the winter period, but at what cost? Yes, it is an amazing sight for visitors to see wild geese, swans and so many other birds migrate there to stay over the colder spell of the year. But for the birds that are held captive, those same experiences - and the freedom that comes with migration - isn’t ever going to be available to them. Even the most basic of natural instincts for a bird - the beauty of flight - is denied, so that they may never escape the “collection” and always be available for the public to view.

You may wonder, how is it possible that they cannot fly away? What prevents them from doing so?

And the answer lies in the most shameful act of all - pinioning.

Pinioning is the disgusting mutilation of a bird’s wing, and inflicted on innocent individuals, typically as babies, to disfigure them for life. Often carried out without anaesthetic, their entire wing bone is chopped to approximately 50% of its natural span, to ensure they can never fly away.

I distinctly remember witnessing a beautiful flamingo in one of the main ponds, alongside a large group of visitors. The flamingo was flapping, swimming, and bathing in the sun, and to the people beside me who were unaware of the reality, it simply appeared as if this stunning bird was basking in the summer weather, having a refreshing bath. Little did they know, they are one of many victims of the captive animal industry, who must endure the constant tragedy and pain of having their wing removed so they can never fly to freedom. Captive birds, such as the incredible flamingo I witnessed, are forever presented with no other option than to move in such a way as seen that day; bathing and walking the same enclosure - under the gazing eyes of humans - every day, day in and day out. They would never choose to be in such close proximity to people in the wild, yet in captivity they have no choice. There is nowhere to hide.

From the viewpoint of someone who is aware of the atrocities inflicted on these animals, it seemed so clear to me how disfigured the flamingo’s wing appeared to the naked eye; even from the viewing area the sharp decline in wingspan was evident. And on many of the videos presented on the centre's website, pinioned wings are clearly visible across the different avian species. The disgraceful practice is so widely used and accepted within the industry, that it isn’t even hidden.

One child asked their parent: “why do the birds stay here?”

To which they replied: “They have it cushy here so why would they go anywhere else?”

It is incredibly sad to realise that either many people are simply unaware of the abuse they’re physically staring at or are choosing not to question the reality these birds face to be in the position that they’re able to witness so closely.

And it’s not only birds who are being exploited in these establishments. On my way out of the centre, I saw a section I hadn’t walked through so quickly headed towards it. To my dismay, I saw a large group of families with children - doing what can only be described as - fishing for animals in small man-made ponds. These ponds were full of many different animals such as newts, tadpoles and water snails, as well as a variety of water insects. I was appalled. Animals - even newts who are supposed to be a protected species - were being roughly caught in nets and fished out of a pond, time and time again, and day in day out.

What is this teaching children? That animals are there for them to use as they see fit? That disturbing a natural environment for fun is acceptable? Of course, education is important, but it should never come at the expense of someone else's life. There are so many activities for children to learn about the wonders of nature which do not use live individuals.

Wetland centres such as this, give the illusion that animals choose to stay there and live a happy life in a more open environment than standard zoos. That because there are less cages visible, people can assume the animals have their freedom. But this is so far from the reality these animals endure, and the cruelty must be addressed.

You can find out more about our ongoing campaign Fight for Flight here: 

- 26th October 2022