Old World Aviaries

The SPCA and Pinellas County Florida

Jean Pattison

I sat down last night about dusk, wanting to write this article, and didn’t know where to start, or if it would even be read or do any good.

All of a sudden I heard one of my small Poicephalus screaming wildly. I knew something was horribly wrong. I ran out to find a hawk flat against the side of one of my flight cages with a mirror image of a little red-bellied flattened against the inside of the cage wall. The wire on the cages is only ½” x 1”, and there is only six inches of space between the cages. Somehow the hawk squeezed between the cages and partition and was able to grab my little male Red-bellied Parrot. I quickly scared off the hawk and grabbed my little Red-bellied Parrot out of his flight cage. I saw no blood anywhere and he only favored one leg a bit, so I think he will be okay, just a bit scared……well a lot scared. He is now in a holding cage in the house under my watchful eye.

I came back to the computer with tears streaming down my cheeks thinking to myself, “Is this all really worth it?”

There are so many things we breeders have to worry about. Birds becoming ill, working many hours a day cleaning cages and feeding the flock, the public’s perception that we are factory farms, when in reality we are lucky to have our birds breeding and healthy. We don’t take vacations with our loved ones, since we can’t find good help to take care of our flock while we’re gone. We worry about theft and never leave the premises at night. Since working on the Florida theft committee with Jan Schottenloher and Linda Meade for three years, there is much I learned, and I learned what to be afraid of.

If we didn’t love our birds so much, I am sure a lot of breeders would just throw in the towel.

Thieves know what they are doing. For many years now, I do not go to bed until 2 or 3 a.m., and then my husband gets up and patrols the property until daylight. We did once have two men climbing over our back fence with burlap bags to steal some of our birds. So the vigilance does payoff.

When I retrieved my little Red-bellied from the clutches of the hawk, I was angry, very angry.

So much we go through. We are judged by every group of animal people there is, starting with rescue organizations, pet people, bird behavior consultants, anti-breeding groups, pet “over population” groups. And then there was the ordeal of September 10, 2006. A lot of professional breeders and aviculturists have just gone through this ordeal together, and this is the reason for my article.

The ordeal I refer to was an injustice perpetrated by a new kind of “thieves” — “thieves” who do their dirty work under color of “legal authority” — “thieves” who operate using the “letter of the law” against innocent and law abiding animal breeders — “thieves” who can steal our animals from us when we are doing nothing wrong. Those “thieves” are those people employed as law enforcement officers and animal shelter personnel who believe in the “animal rights” philosophy and religion — people who do not believe that we should breed animals to be sold as pets. President Bush calls religious fundamentalist terrorists “evil-doers.” We now have to deal with another kind of fundamentalist terrorist “evil-doer” — the “animal-rights evil-doers” who take our animals from us because their animal-rights religion tells them they should, by whatever means available.

Early in the morning of September 10, while a breeder was at a bird expo for the weekend, a group of terrorist evil-doers entered her home and proceeded to remove approximately 35 pairs of her breeding cockatiels, mostly show cockatiels, as well as a few other species and her pet birds. The total birds removed were at about 100. Cage trays were removed and dumped on the floor; cages were turned on their sides, with nest boxes containing newly hatched chicks and fertile eggs. The cages were then shoved into waiting vans. Naturally the chicks were smothered and died, and eggs were addled and embryos killed. The terrorist evil-doers claimed that they had been told they could move breeding pairs without harming or upsetting the birds. Wonder what expert told them that? The evil-doers removed all the animals on the property and took them to a warehouse to conceal their loot.

Just a bit over three months passed and the birds were retrieved from the holding facility by their owner on December 16. Many of the birds were thinner than when they were taken. Many were very plucked and tattered from being overcrowded. Some of the birds were in cages too small for the species, as well as not being as cleaned as they should have been. Birds, including breeder birds, had their bands removed while in the custody of the evil-doers. While working the theft committee for three years, this is the same scenario we saw over and over again.

The terrorist evil-doers in this story? The SPCA of Pinellas County Florida! And to make matters worse, the animal removal was all done under the supervision of the local sheriff’s department.

As the story unfolds, a disgruntled neighbor called the sheriff about barking dogs. The sheriff entered the house through a back door that she claimed was left open and found the birds in what was in her “opinion” an abusive situation. The bird that started it all was Sun conure with a plucked breast that the breeder had just gotten from a friend who was retiring. The sheriff concluded that this bird must be abused! The sheriff didn’t know to take into account the very visible fat chest and perky attitude of the bird. Animal Control was then called in and refused to take the animals, seeing no violations. The undeterred sheriff then called the SPCA, which will gladly confiscate any animals. This is great publicity, and sympathy always brings in money. This particular SPCA has on their Web site, if called anonymously they will hold your name in confidence, and …“SPCA Humane Officers will follow up on your information. Every attempt is made to improve the animal's situation through owner education and persuasion. When this does not lead to positive results, the SPCA works closely with city and county law enforcement officers to correct the situation.” http://www.spcafl.org/site/PageServer?pagename=cruelty_invest
(The pictures on the web pages are not of this breeder’s birds. These are from a more recent case.)

In our case, the owner’s friend arrived at the owner’s home, as requested by the ower, to check on the birds and newly hatched babies as well as check their food and water. The friend was arrested for animal cruelty. The owner was called and said she would return home immediately. The police and the SPCA told her they would not wait and took all the animals. I assume they don’t read their own Web page. Once the breeder’s friend arrived, one would have thought since there was a caretaker on premises, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) could have been called. We Florida breeders are licensed and governed by the FWC, which regularly inspects bird breeders. If there are violations they issue a warning and return to reinspect the facility to verify that the violations have been corrected. In extreme cased they will confiscate.

Thanks only to Fred Smith, the regional director of the American Federation of Aviculture (AFA), in his tenacity to get to the bottom of this, were the breeders in Florida made aware of this injustice. Fred Smith wanted to know if one of our AFA members was really as bad as the news media portrayed and to investigate the accused member. Fred Smith went to the SPCA to see what the conditions of the birds were.

Once Fred was satisfied with the breeder’s care of her birds, we were all made aware of the case. Fred spent countless hours on the phone, and one call was made to the Florida Federation of Aviculture Inc. (FFAI). The FFAI, working with the AFA, was brought up to speed, immediately started its own investigation, and held an emergency meeting.

Notices were put out by Fred and other FFAI members with the date of the first court hearing. The SPCA was filing a petition for ownership not only of the confiscated birds, but also for any other birds owned elsewhere by the breeder and her friend. They petitioned for fines and jail time to be imposed on the breeder and her friend, and they asked the court to order that the owner and her friend were to never own birds again. They also asked for a court order that the breeder pay all boarding fees and other costs incurred by the SPCA. The fees and costs to date are approximately $13,000.00.

During all this time, there was an ongoing criminal investigation, so no information was, or could be, given out to the public or to the news media. In many animal confiscation cases, the criminal charges against the animal owner are dropped as soon as the confiscating party is granted permanent possession of the animals. This is a pressure tactic and a ploy used by the prosecution to keep the truth and any evidence from being obtained by the animal owner or by the media while the confiscating party pursues their confiscation case. This case followed that modus operandi. In this case, the breeder won her birds back in court, and all criminal charges have now been dropped against the breeder and her friend. In this case the owner of the birds fought back, and won her birds back, against seemingly overwhelming odds that she would not be able to successfully fight the powerful and arrogant SPCA.

The hearings spanned three months and were grueling. The first court hearing was attended by approximately 20 aviculturists. It was very obvious to all the aviculturists and professional breeders in the courtroom that the SPCA personnel and lawyers knew virtually nothing about birds or breeding birds or their anatomy or diseases or their proper maintenance. The entire SPCA team (including the sheriff’s officer who first arrived on the scene, all of the testifying SPCA personnel, their testifying veterinarians, and their attorneys) was in way over their heads. Some of the testimony presented by SPCA witnesses regarding the care the SPCA was giving to the birds made it clear that the SPCA did not know how to care for any bird, much less care for a flock of breeding birds. They used bleach in their cleaning solution to clean the birds’ area, resulting in damage to the birds’ respiratory systems. They fed the birds incorrectly, resulting in some of the birds developing diarrhea. They incorrectly assumed that vials of polyoma vaccine found at the breeder’s home were medications for diseased birds, and they demonstrated that they knew virtually nothing about bird diseases or treatments for bird diseases. The vet for the SPCA was a dog-and-cat vet with an interest in birds, but she was at least 10 years behind the times in the evolution of avian medicine and care. As the prosecution continued to put on their case, they were oblivious to the fact that most of their witnesses’ statements were idiotic and that their evidence simply served to demonstrate their ignorance about birds and bird care. It became clear that the SPCA was accustomed to winning animal confiscation cases based on unfounded allegations and with hardly any effort.

We were not intimidated. Of course, we realized that this biased, unbalanced, and inaccurate information that was being presented to the judge by those who knew practically nothing about birds was all the judge was hearing, and we realized that if we expected to prevail we needed an expert who knew about birds to testify — otherwise the case was going to be a “slam dunk” for the prosecution. We needed an avian specialist. Jan and I called veterinarians all over the state. Other members were working with their vets trying to get them on board. We were told that no vets could afford the time off from their practices to testify on the breeder’s behalf. Many told us to walk away and let them have the birds — we were told, “You can’t win against the SPCA.” The cost of defense was going into the thousands of dollars for this breeder and all for a bunch of cockatiels. Even though they were being bred for show and careful genetic blood lines, the cost was way over what the birds were worth. This breeder could not afford to bring in an avian vet. That’s all there was to it.

Despite all the nay-sayers and all the cautions that we could never win against the SPCA, we were not willing to abandon the breeder or our cause. Individual members of the Florida Federation of Aviculture started donating money for a vet. Two bird clubs in Florida, the Imperial Bird Club and the Jacksonville Bird Club, donated $500.00 each for vet costs. To them I am eternally grateful. Some clubs and organizations refused to get involved, for fear of the SPCA or some other organization making them targets for harassment. This is another fear we breeders are now faced with. If we help, will we suffer too?

Many aviculturists attended all four hearings. Dr. Margaret Wissman, a board certified avian veterinarian, agreed to be a witness for the defendant and testified at the last hearing. It is my belief that her testimony made it clear to the judge that the allegations that the SPCA had made about disease and perceived cruelty and neglect were not a truthful picture of the situation — Dr. Wissman made it clear to the judge that the breeder was not cruel or abusive or neglectful — and that her testimony is what turned the case in the breeder’s favor. It took the judge almost two weeks to reach a decision. The petition from the SPCA was denied in its entirety — the SPCA lost on every count. The judge ordered the SPCA to return all of the birds and other animals to their owner.

We also must remember that most of the “animal welfare” organizations, which claim to have the best interest of the animals first and foremost, are against breeding animals of any kind. Many of them support the philosophy of “animal rights,” which contends that animals are not ours to use. They especially do not believe in breeding animals to be sold as pets. Many of them do not believe that we have the right to own or use animals of any kind for food, for fiber, for research, for entertainment, or as pets. These same organizations, who have been given the power under existing law to allege animal abuse by their owners, and who have been given the power to confiscate animals from their owners without a warrant and without a hearing, are fundamentally and philosophically biased against breeders. Existing law allows these organizations to be our accusers, our judges, and our executioners, and they revel in that power — they are the poster children for the saying “Power Corrupts; And Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely.” They have an absolute conflict of interest when it comes to any case involving breeders, and they should not be allowed to participate in any confiscation cases. Yet, the law allows them to freely operate and freely confiscate despite this clear conflict of interest. Of course, these organizations will confiscate at the mere hint of a dirty water bowl or recently spilled food. Many of these people see problems where none exist or knowingly create them, as was done in this case. The sheriff’s officer ordered the barking dogs (who had been found loose in the yard) to be tied up next to a dirty water bowl, then had photographs taken of the situation as “evidence” of their “abuse” by their owner.

Thank you AFA for Fred Smith. Thank you FFAI for your work in this, and thank you, Imperial Bird Club and Jacksonville Bird club, for your monetary support in this effort. Thank you Dr. Wissman for your support of aviculture. We could not have done it without you.

Many people behind the scenes worked tirelessly on this case and studied the FWC regulations as well as county and state statutes. I am very grateful to all that pitched in and did work and made donations in the name of aviculture. Many people from out of state gave their support and donations as well, and I thank all of you, too.

After this experience and seeing the support of the avicultural community, I know that yes, it is all worth it.

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