Last week, Times of Malta reported that scores of birds were living in cramped and filthy conditions at the Piscopo Gardens pet shop in Burmarrad. They included many exotic birds, including a sorry-looking bearded barbet, a bird that tends to prefer shrubland and forest in central Africa to heaps of excrement in a cage in Malta.

I wish I could say I was surprised. I am not accusing Piscopo Gardens of neglect or illegality of any sort; I simply don’t have the information to do that. I can say, however, that the place is (was?) renowned for its trade in exotic birds.

There are hundreds of cages and aviaries with all manner of birds from all over the world, some priced at thousands of euros.

The last time I was there, they included several species of waders, the kind of wild birds you normally see flying free on migration at the nature reserve at Għadira. There were snowy owls too, and flamingos and much more. I’ve never seen anything look so out of place.

For that reason, I boycotted Piscopo Gardens ages ago. If it’s cactus I want, I’d rather not buy it at a place that also sells birds that are not of the budgie and canary kind. I refuse to support, directly or otherwise, that sort of trade.

There are two arguments here. The first, which I will not be making, is that from animal welfare. I’ll just say that waders have long, delicate legs that do not really lend themselves to a wire mesh floor. Snowy owls typically hunt over large expanses of tundra in the far north. And so on. The animal lovers at Piscopo, and their customers, will vouch that the waders and owls are perfectly happy. I’m equally happy to accept their deep insights into avian joy.

The problem with exotic birds, and exotic pets more broadly, is the impact their trade has on conservation. Populations of wild birds of many kinds – parrots in particular – are being decimated for the pet trade. The tragedy is that the people who buy and sell these animals are for the most part bona fide animal lovers – as we say in Maltese, ‘iħobbu l-annimali’. I’m sure the owners of Piscopo Gardens are in that category, and I’m not being sarcastic.

It’s the sort of love that makes you look past many things. I’ve discussed this with the people who buy these birds, and they invariably say that the species they’re interested in are captive-bred and ethically and legally sourced. Problem is, they’re a classic case of what psychologists call ‘denial’. They simply and unwittingly choose not to see and think about the plainly clear.

In this case, the plainly clear is that there’s a fuzzy line between wild-caught and captive-bred, illegal and legal. Given nature’s monopoly on the making of species, captive-bred stock has to come from somewhere. In the case of exotic birds especially, that sleight often takes place over a mere generation or two. There are also transit countries – in the Middle East and Singapore, most notoriously – where the illegally imported is magically legally exported.

Together with drug and arms trafficking, wildlife trade is one of the biggest earners for organised crime networks

Take the grey parrot, popularly known as the ‘African Grey’ and a fixture of well-stocked pet shops. These birds are highly intelligent and emotionally sensitive, and form enduring bonds with each other or their human owners that can last decades. When deprived of companionship, they are known to get distressed and pluck their own feathers. Their lifespan, too, is as close to ours as makes no difference.

Arguably, this sort of animal should not be anywhere near cages. Traders and keepers will invariably say that their birds are bred in captivity, and that they are fully domesticated – much like budgies or canaries, in fact. They will also say that captive-bred means no threat to conservation whatsoever.

Except that’s only part of the story. It is true that African Greys breed in captivity, and that many of the birds found in pet shops are in fact captive-bred. It is also true, however, that breeding programmes regularly take in wild-caught birds as breeding stock. South Africa is the major exporter of captive-bred African Greys, but it is also one of the major importers of wild-caught ones. It turns out money is not the only thing that can be laundered.

The conservation outcome for the grey parrot is devastating. The species is now classified as ‘endangered’ on the IUCN Red List. Populations are in steep decline across the range in central Africa. Trapping for the bird trade is the main reason, along with habitat destruction. In three generations, the species has gone down by more than two-thirds. The next and inevitable stop on the IUCN list is ‘critically endangered’.

It’s worth remembering that we’re talking about a species that’s been around in pet shops and homes for many decades, and that most would think of as the standard talking parrot. The situation for other, less established, exotic birds is far worse. It is known, for example, that most of them die within the first few days in captivity. One parrot reciting funny things at the garden centre is very many very dead and very invisible parrots.

It’s this murkiness, this unwillingness by animal lovers to see past cuteness, that the traders exploit. Together with drug and arms trafficking, wildlife trade is one of the biggest earners for organised crime networks. If animal lovers stopped to think for a second, they’d buy a canary.

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