The unnecessary cruelty of Buddhist Fang Sheng.

On a recent trip to Cambodia I was saddened to see that the practice of releasing wild caught birds and other animals for merit is still flourishing. The tradition is variously called Fang Sheng, life release or merit releasing. Vendors on the waterfront in Phnom Penh near the Royal Palace and at the iconic temple of Wat Phnom were being kept busy with a stream of worshippers eager to buy. Cages containing thousands of stressed birds were lined up alongside the flower sellers and buyers were oblivious to their plight which seems at odds with Buddhist beliefs and doctrines.

Unfortunately the need to give life to another being in order to obtain good karma and cleanse ones past sins appears to override any consideration of the welfare of the animals that they buy and immediately release. The age old tradition dating back to at least the sixth century allegedly began with devotees buying animals destined for slaughter and literally saving their lives.

Now it is purely a trade in which turtles, snails, crabs, eels, snakes and live birds are made captive and sold for financial gain. The practice is prevalent across Asia and seems to be on the increase and causes more animal suffering than it prevents, undermining the original point of the ritual to save a life in danger.

Fang Sheng, cruelty to birds cambodia, birds in cage
Devotee carrying cage of birds into temple, Phnom Penh, Cambodia Photo: John Brookland

Trapping wild birds for the trade is indiscriminate. A recent study of the trade in Cambodia estimates 770,000 birds of 57 species are involved, many of which are endangered species ranging from owls and parakeets to finches and swifts. 10% tested positive for H5N1 bird flu which can cause illness in humans. In China alone it is estimated that 200 million animals are “freed” each year.

Sellers see no harm in it

The vendors use large “storage” cages containing over 400 small birds and then dispense a dozen or so into takeaway cages to take into the temple for blessing. This involves manhandling them which causes panic,injuries and stress. The vendors see no harm in it and believe the birds do not suffer.

Although the birds have food and water and the cages appear relatively clean it is the stress of capture, transport, overcrowding and constant manhandling that causes death and injury.

I watched in horror as one man dipped his cage of newly acquired birds in the nearby river to freshen them up and I saw another putting a dozen distressed finches into a sealed clear plastic bag as though they we produce from a supermarket.

fang Sheng, cruelty to birds
This man put live finches into a sealed plastic bag. Photo: John Brookland

In Thailand the SPCA have managed to negotiate some cooperation from Buddhist temples who are trying to ban or remove sellers from outside their complexes but this is not widespread. Buddhists in the UK and USA also practice Fang Sheng often with dire consequences. In 2017, two London Buddhists received £28,000 in fines for a mass release of hundreds of non native lobsters and crabs into the sea from a boat off Brighton causing “untold damage” to marine life.

Consign the ritual to history

The Buddhist religion supposedly venerates the life of all beings and is against suffering and many temples help street dogs by feeding them and allowing them to rest in their compounds. They collect food and feed zoo animals and carry out other compassionate acts to animals. But at the same time monks get involved in the wildlife smuggling trade and keep monkeys and other animals confined in awful cages in their temple complexes. It is perhaps time for the Buddhist hierarchy to look at their mixed approach to their beliefs and consign practices like Fang Sheng to history.

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Vets and Exotic Pets

The British Veterinary Association (BVA), The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), The Federation of Veterinarians of Europe (FVE)  and even the British Veterinary Zoological Society (BVZS) plus most other governing veterinary organisations worldwide have stated they are concerned about this burgeoning trade. They believe that ownership is a threat to native species, is a cause of population and habitat decline and that owners may not be able to care for them compromising their health and welfare. The animals can be a risk to human health as well as a danger to the public if they escape. Wild caught animals and birds are caused stress during capture, are poorly acclimatisation and suffer high mortality during transport and holding. So how come the trade and hobby continues?

NTCA’s – the veterinary professions’ acronym for exotic pets.

Vets have come up with the novel acronym of NTCA’s or ‘non-traditional companion animals’ to describe exotic pets which not only gives the impression that they can be described as suitable companion animals, but also gives their sanction to keep them.

There are some species whose five welfare needs are so specialised they could rarely or never be met in a domestic environment. Other species should only be kept under licence or for defined and authorised conservation purposes.” We support the keeping of species as companion animals for which there is reasonable expectation based on published evidence and professional experience, that their five welfare needs can be met by suitably informed people. However, some NCTAs, such as reptiles, have exacting husbandry requirements, e.g. for humidity, lighting, nutrition and temperature, others such as birds have complex social, cognitive and nutritional needs, all of which must be fully researched and understood before acquisition’.

BVA Policy on exotic pets December 2015
Wild caught African Grey parrots being shipped in overcrowded containers destined for pet trade.
Veterinary profession does little to stem the trade.

Despite the fact that there is plentiful scientific evidence of the unsuitability of most exotic animals as pets and that the veterinary profession accepts that there is a need for some control, they appear to do little to stop it and are actively embracing this lucrative pet owning trend. It is particularly surprising as the profession prefers to look upon itself as a scientific body but in the case of exotic pets they choose not act on the evidence. They do not support any kind of ban choosing instead to suggest compiling lists of ‘suitability’ as well yet more research when all the evidence has been sitting there for years

The keeping exotic animals and their suitability has been a contentious subject for decades, but there has been little initiative to curtail it. Our desire to own something unusual results in the suffering and deaths of millions of animals worldwide, even before they get into the hands of inept owners. ‘Specialist exotic pet veterinarians’ have been quoted as stating that most of the illnesses, deaths and injuries they deal with are caused by the owners lack of understanding of the needs of the animals. These include inadequate diet, either too high or low heating and humidity, dehydration, lack of sufficient live food, poor handling and many other factors.

I have witnessed this first hand having been an animal health inspector at Heathrow Airport during the high point of the wild bird trade in the 1970’s and been part of a campaign to ban it. I watched birds and other animals being transported round the world destined for the pet trade dying in front of me in their hundreds. The trade in wild caught birds is thankfully over in Europe and America, but has been replaced by the reptile trade which is just as bad.

wild bird trade, cruelty to birds, pet bird trade, caged birds, exotic pets
Cages full of wild caught birds in Indonesia destined to spend their short lives in tiny cages. Photo: John Brookland/animalrightsandwrong.suk

Vets cash in on treating exotic pets.

Veterinarians have been quick to embrace the situation and provide for this lucrative pet owing trend by opening specialist referral exotic pet hospitals. These are staffed by veterinary surgeons who have seen the opening in the market and obtained a certificate qualifying them to treat exotic animals and even an extra three year course to be able to call themselves specialists. Many vets are taking this pathway because the numbers being kept and requiring treatment are constantly rising and there is a great demand for their services.

Treating exotic pets doesn’t come cheap and although it is laudable for vets to step in and alleviate the suffering, treating exotic pets doesn’t come cheap and it could be argued that many animals are left to die or are abandoned because owners cannot afford the fees. Of course the insurance companies want a part of the action and were quick to provide policies. None of this though is of help in the long-term as it only encourages the trade to continue.

There is no legitimate reason for these animals to be kept captive in a home environment and there is more than adequate scientific evidence available to warrant the banning of their ownership, particularly in the case of reptiles.  The potential for suffering and neglect is extreme and the numbers dying or being discarded is immense.

Why is it then that authorities worldwide are so slow at making any attempt to ban or restrict trade in them? Could it be anything to do with the fact that the trade composes a large part of the huge money-making pet industry which has a powerful lobby behind it to defend its continuance and because governments earn a lot of tax dollars and pounds because of it. What is needed is action rather than more research and compiling lists. Why can’t we stick to owning genuine companion animals – we have enough problems regulating them.