Sunday, September 23, 2007

A bird’s eye view

The two tall wiry men spied our car and fled. My friend Rahul and I were on one of Delhi’s busiest roads while the two men were tearing along the footpath, hoping to escape through one of the narrow lanes that run perpendicular to the main road. The mini-truck I was driving wasn’t really built for high speed chases and it was slow-going. The fugitives were gaining ground, and I was beginning to lose hope when Rahul, ever the impetuous adventurer, opened the door, jumped out of the slow moving vehicle and gave chase. I was concerned. Granted, he was built like a bull with the heart of a lion, but the odds were against him. I honked and hustled. The road opened up. I put pedal to metal, overtook Rahul as he caught up with the straggler, passed the front runner and swivelled to a stop. I jumped out of the car and ran toward fugitive 1 through the dust clouds and latched on to his booty bag. Fugitive 1 dropped his bag and escaped into the lanes, and when fugitive 2 dropped his bag, Rahul didn’t chase after him either. It was the bags we were after.

Pleased as punch, we took out the contraband – bags full of ‘parrots’ (parakeets actually - India doesn’t have any indigenous parrot species - the green, long-tailed birds that squawk and talk and are often kept as pets in homes). About a dozen of them trussed six cages. We checked to see if their wings were clipped and then released them. I wouldn’t want to bore you with the poetic clichés that one can’t help but utter when one sees a bird that has known what it is to be free, struggle with a wire cage, stare at you with a mixture of mistrust and disbelief as you open the trap door, and then with a sudden flurry, fly away – a green blur on a blue canvas. This was our third ‘heist’ of the day. Release score: 25 parrots... at least.

Now if you’re wondering what’s the big deal about bullying two street-side bird sellers, here’s are some details to help with the perspective. India is home to a number of indigenous birds that make popular pets. Parakeets, munias and mynas are perhaps the most popular. My relatives had them, I’m sure many of yours did too. As a kid, I begged and pleaded with my parents to buy a caged pair but they refused. I thought they were being incredibly stingy but once I was old enough to care and understand, they explained how unfair it was to confine a creature that was born to soar in a tiny cage where it couldn’t even spread its wings. A little research will also tell you that the trade in live birds is worth millions, fuelled by breeders and fanciers who are genuine bird lovers and enthusiasts. The sad irony is that approximately 70%-80% of all birds trapped die before reaching a buyer. Trapping, trading and keeping wild-caught birds has been banned in most parts of the world and is illegal in India. The trauma of being trapped and breaking a leg or a wing in the process is the least a trapped bird has to suffer. Once trapped, a bird the size of a parakeet would be stuffed with 40-50 other parakeets, in cages or containers no bigger than a shoe box. Most would not survive this journey as they’ll die of asphyxiation, or would be crushed to death. Of those that do, many will starve and the few that remain will be sold on the streets. Not only is the process cruel and exploitative but the trade encourages the spread of avian flu and worse, has cost the world nearly two-thirds of its wild parrot population.

The buck stops with us. The people who create the demand and thus the market for this trade are people like you and me. Our friends, relatives, perhaps even you, dear reader. And it is up to you and me to convince such people that it is the bird lover who is driving the object of his affection to extinction. Recently a friend of mine from Mumbai, sweet thing, moved by the sight of these caged birds, bought a few and set them free. Unfortunately, by buying the birds, she only added to the cruel trade (see slip stream). So if you really love your feathered friend, set it free (without paying for it). If it never comes back, it really is free, it will love you more for it and you’ll know that it never was yours... nothing ever is...


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