28th June 2019

Undercover research collected by Freedom for Animals shows birds of prey are being ‘‘tied down, manipulated and starved” in UK zoos. UK charity, Freedom for Animals filmed at bird of prey zoos across the UK and collected evidence that birds are routinely tied down to the ground for long hours, can be effectively starved until they perform in flying displays and live in poor conditions. 

Groundbreaking footage taken at the zoos shows wild birds such as owls and falcons being tied down to the ground by their legs on short leashes, a practice called tethering. The charity found that birds can be tied down for most of the day and night, unable to move further than the end of their tether. Most zoos offer some form of flying display where visitors can watch zoo handlers flying birds which is a chance for the bird to exercise. However during the investigation most birds were only flown for minutes meaning some were tied down for most of the day.

There are around 95 bird of prey zoos in the UK, housing a minimum of 4252 birds from 170 species. These include many species of owls, falcons, vultures, buzzards and eagles. These zoos house birds in aviaries but also have them tethered out on grass lawns, enabling the public to view them. Despite Government guidelines stating owls should never be tethered, owls were seen being tied down at several zoos. 

Campaigns Officer Maddy Taylor stated, 

“Birds of prey used in falconry and held in zoos are still wild animals, they still have all their natural instincts and needs as those animals in the wild. This includes being able to perform natural behaviours, arguably the most fundamental to them being flight. Surely then, denying these animals the ability to fly at will must impact significantly on their welfare? Yet we have found almost three quarters of zoos are tethering birds, some tying them down day and night.”

Many birds were witnessed chewing at the leg straps that held them down or were repeatedly trying to take off from the ground, only to be pulled back to the ground by the leash. 

TV Vet Dr Emma Milne stated that denying birds flight “and the chance to escape stressful situations and the choices that come with that is unacceptable on welfare grounds.”


As well as flying displays, zoos can offer ‘experiences’ with birds for the public, including handling, photo opportunities and even hunting days. In order to make the birds handlable, the birds are trained by handlers. One common training practice is to withhold food from the bird until they respond to humans. This process, called ‘manning’ can take days.

Maddy continued:

“The practices of tethering and manning are outdated traditions within the bird of prey industry, practices which we believe do not meet modern animal welfare standards. Would we find it acceptable to tie down any other animal for hours on end? Would we ever agree to effectively starve any other animal to make them perform on command? Of course not, because it is unethical and vastly cruel to do so.”

Freedom for Animals are calling for the Government to review the industry and ban the practice of tethering.

Failing to meet guidelines

Some zoos were failing to even provide minimum basic care, with birds living in cramped, barren cages. One third of zoos did not meet the minimum size standards for bird housing, meaning birds are physically restricted even when not tied down. Many aviaries lacked access to clean drinking water, a breach of animal welfare laws and guidelines. Laws that are supposed to be adhered to, including the Zoo Licensing Act 1981, Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 appeared to be contravened by some zoos. 

Using Freedom of Information requests to local authorities, the charity has revealed that 40% of the zoos visited did not hold a zoo licence. These zoos would therefore not be subject to ongoing inspections by DEFRA officials, leaving the animals 'vulnerable’. Of those that do hold a licence, analysis of zoo inspection reports revealed that several zoos were overdue inspections.

Maddy commented,

“From our investigation we have found that zoos are breaching welfare guidelines. Yet many zoos are not being inspected when they should be, or don’t even have a licence. How then, can the law be upheld and more importantly the animals protected? The same species of bird in different establishments are receiving vastly different levels of monitoring of their welfare. This urgently needs addressing by DEFRA to ensure all zoos are correctly regulated.”