By Nicola O'Brien, Campaigns Director

“Ronny is an imprint owl... from the moment her eyes opened up, the first thing she has ever seen has been people... Ronny does not understand she is actually an owl... The way her brain works, the way her self perception works, she actually thinks she is human”.

These words were spoken by a bird of prey ‘handler’ at one of the centres we visited during our undercover investigation. She was describing a barn owl named Ronny, who was being used in a flying display for crowds. 

What this person described as ‘imprinting’ is a natural biological process. But in captivity, this process is exploited by humans to put owls, and some other birds, under human control.

Wild birds would not normally fly to a human’s hand and perch there. They would not normally allow humans to ‘pet’ them. They would not normally allow someone to tie them down. All birds used in the bird of prey industry for displays will have been trained to do so. 

Imprinting is one of these methods used. It’s a method that deeply affects the psychology of the owls, leaving them confused and with many disturbing behavioural problems. 

Imprinting refers to a critical period of time early in an animal’s life when they form attachments and develop a concept of their own identity

To ‘imprint’ a bird to a human, they are removed from their parents whilst in the egg or before they open their eyes. They will generally be taken home by staff to acclimatise to human environments. This makes the bird believe that the human is their parent and they learn how to behave from their human handler. They are taught to recognise humans as their own, rather than other members of their species. 

Sadly, these human-imprinted birds do not know how to truly be the species they are. As they do not recognise members of their own species, they can be aggressive towards other individuals. As they mature, they will see humans as mating partners and attempt to mate with them, or attack other humans they see as rivals.

It was noted during some of our visits to zoos that owls in particular would be regularly trying to mate with the staff during displays. This was repeatedly treated as a normal occurrence by staff and not the disturbing example of a psychologically confused individual.

Best practice when rehabilitating or raising wildlife for release is to take precautions so that the animal does not imprint on their human carer. Yet we see this process used widely in zoos, to enable humans to control birds. 

Wildlife who are imprinted onto humans should never be released back into the wild as it is unlikely they would know how to survive or how to rear their own young.

It is argued that imprinting birds to humans that will be used in displays is better for the bird as it is less stressful. Trying to tame and train a bird who has been reared by its biological parents can be difficult as they are naturally wary of humans. However, we must question why we want to train the birds in the first place, and whether we should be training wild animals at all. 

This manipulation of wild animals, to completely alter their identity and behaviours is deeply unethical. The training of animals to perform tricks in circuses is now banned for wild animals, as the vast majority of people see these practices as demeaning and unacceptable. So why do we see similarly cruel and oppressive treatment of owls and other birds for public displays? 

We must end the use of ALL animals as entertainment and close bird of prey centres and displays. You can help achieve this by taking part in our Zoo Awareness Weekend.