Every year, many Buddhists all over the world release birds and other animals in an act of 'making merit'. The release of animals during special events such as the Buddha’s birthday or Vesak Day is supposed to represent the symbolic liberation of the captured, imprisoned and tortured.
However, the irony is that the trade in birds for this occasion has become exactly that - a trade in the capture, imprisonment and torture of birds.
Millions of birds, mostly Southeast Asian species, are caught, tightly packed and shipped off to far away destinations. A study in Taiwan found that for every bird released, 10 died during capture and transport. Observed death rates after release in Hong Kong have been as high as 75%.
Many Buddhists organizations around the world do not support this practice as the true meaning of the rite has been misunderstood, at great cost to bird populations. In 2009, the Chief High Priest of Malaysia the Venerable Reverend K. Sri Dhammaratana Maha Nayaka Thera commented on the tradition:
"If you are saving the bird from slaughter, then well and good. But if the bird was completely okay and your actions plucked it from its nest and cast it into a cage, knowingly or not, you are putting the bird in peril and that is cruelty,"
"The consumer is guilty here since if there is no demand, there is no supply. So he or she has to realise this in order to break this vicious cycle of cruelty."
The SPCA encourages other practices such as a vegetarian diet or contributing time or resources to animal welfare or wildlife rehabilitation organisations.
Not releasing birds and other animals into Hong Kong will do much more to stop the suffering of animals that are brought in to capitalise on this religious occasion.
Birds for religious release were either purchased wholesale from suppliers by religious organizations or bought from bird shops by individuals. Based on a survey of the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden as well as feedback from religious organizations:
An estimated 680,000 to 1,050,000 birds are released in Hong Kong every year.
In a comprehensive survey of bird release practices by Hong Kong University (Chan, 2007) found 48 religious organisations releasing birds. These organisations were reported to be releasing between a hundred to three thousand birds up to 18 times a year, in various sites. 90% of these organisations were Buddhist.
The study also found that,
"Most birds sold for release are packed 50-100 together in flat bamboo cages stacked on top of each other, thus maximizing the risk of disease transmission between individuals and species, and to people who handle the cages."
"A total of 512 birds of 13 species sold for release were assessed for physical condition and 281 tested for avian influenza. Ninety-nine percent had visible feather damage, injury and/or sickness. No influenza A virus was detected but other viruses were."
"Five Eurasian Tree Sparrows (Passer montanus), four Light-vented Bulbuls (Pycnonotus sinensis) and three Red-whiskered Bulbuls (Pyncnonotus jocosus) sold for release were radio-tracked. Half of them died soon after release."
"The large-scale religious release of birds may threaten source populations and has resulted in several exotic bird species becoming established in Hong Kong. It is also a potential public health threat, since most birds found dead from H5N1 in Hong Kong are of traded species, and results in the suffering and death of numerous birds."
The SPCA would like to encourage the public to find alternative ways to celebrate this important Buddhist event.
Chan, SW (2007) "The Religious Release of Birds in Hong Kong" , Masters thesis, Hong Kong: Department of Ecology, HKU.
Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden (2006) “Good Fortune or Misfortune?”, informational guide to the consequences of religious release of animals in HK.
New Straits Times, “Cruel Price of Wesak Day Freedom”, Malaysia, 8 May 2009.