Updated: Apr 28
It began with just two Parrots
Belize Bird Rescue is about to celebrate its 19th anniversary. Naturally the organisation has grown in that time, but our core values have not changed. Since the day in April 2004, peering into that bucket containing two baby parrots, our mission to radically reduce or even halt the wild-caught parrot trade in Belize has never wavered, even if our approaches have evolved and changed.
Belizean law has always stated that it is illegal to ‘capture, keep buy, sell or molest’ any species of wildlife, which of course includes parrots. Historically, parrot-keeping has been socially and culturally accepted and legally condoned. Our provision of a rehab facility for former-captive parrots provided the Government of Belize with a much-needed mechanism to enforce their wildlife laws relating to captive birds. However, the social and cultural aspect has been much harder to address in a non-confrontational way, and it has taken many years of education to undo the perception of ‘Pretty Polly’ as a household pet and put her firmly back into the protected wildlife category.
Response from the Belize Forest Department was tentative to being with. They were understandably wary of us as unknown foreigners, and reluctant to trust our motives and goals. They were also well accustomed to backyard ‘facilities’ popping up and closing after only a year or two. We were told recently that FD can take up to 10 years before they take a new conservation project seriously.
Education, persuasion and frustration
Initially we shied away from of any form of publicity. We didn’t brand our truck or our clothing. This was before social media and although we had a website it was instructional and very low profile. We began with a home-printed leaflet on captive parrot care which was peppered with ‘surrender your bird for rehab’ messages. All of our efforts were focussed on getting people to give up the birds they already had and to stop buying poached parrots. Forest Department enforcement was sporadic, unpredictable and politically selective. It was a frustrating beginning.
As we began our gentle education programs in schools, we realised that our threats of illegalities and fines meant very little to anyone. All of the students either had a bird themselves or knew someone who did and they knew there had been zero legal consequences for anyone, apart from the very occasional confiscation. Without the full co-operation of the enforcement agencies, we were toothless.
Enforcement and Permitting
In 2014 we began talks with the Forest Department to address these inconsistencies and make meaningful impacts on the local captive bird trade. Between us we devised a permitting program whereby households with habituated birds already in captivity could keep the parrot legally and under permit, provided they complied with minimum standards of diet and husbandry. A timeline was drawn up for the amnesty period for licence applications with a cut-off date sometime around the end of 2016 after which all unpermitted birds would be confiscated for rehabilitation.
We made great inroads, and around 1000 applications were submitted. We published articles in print media and appeared on national TV and radio to help get the word out. Forest Department did their part too with increased inspections, enforcement and publicity. We were on a roll!
Attitudes were beginning to shift. We could sense it in our talks with primary school students. They were becoming aware of the laws, and increasingly empathic with the plight of captive parrots. Our favourite tool was a parrot suit that we would invite a willing student to wear – enthusiastic until he or she realised they were to spend the whole lesson sitting in a chair with no play-time, sweet treats or time out from the chair, just like ‘Pretty Polly’ in her cage.
Back on Track
Sadly, the licence program hit a few bumps in the road. Administration changes and then Covid 19 stalled the program. The education continued and we managed to maintain a level of awareness, but the public had noticed there were no consequences again, and caged birds were back on the rise.
Thankfully 2023 seems to have us back on track with enforcement and licensing. We’ve received enquiries about the permitting program and our rehabilitation methods from several other countries signalling an attitude shift throughout the region. Meaningful, yet sympathetic enforcement, plus a positive alternative to life in captivity for confiscated or surrendered birds provides agencies with an appealing approach to challenge a cultural practice, disregarded by law and ingrained for generations.
Belize Bird Rescue in 2023
Nineteen years and over a thousand parrots later, we are stronger than ever. We've cared for almost 250 different species of native birds, and the facility and our knowledge has grown to accommodate this amazing variety of needs. We have come such a long way since our accidental beginnings. Every day is different, bringing new challenges and opportunities and we can't wait for the next one!
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