The folly of releasing animals as acts of compassion

by Kelvin Wong, The Buddhist Channel, May 26, 2005

Singapore -- Releasing of animals has been a traditonal practice of Buddhists. This action is probably inspired by the vows to save all beings from suffering, which incidentally also helps the person gain some merits.

Compassion as it has been said is foolish without wisdom. Wisdom comes not from gut feeling of "I think I did the right thing", but arises from careful study and understanding of the consequences of our actions. Is this respect, when we release an animal from its captivity, are we certain that our actions are based on wise contemplation, despite our compassion?

Just as the Buddha had urged the kalamas (in the Kalama Sutta) to investigate all teachings and traditions, Buddhists now are urged to investigate this tradition of animal release, to know if their acts are worthy of the cause.

The action of releasing birds has by itself sprouted an industry for it. For a religion that talks about compassion, it does seems strange that our actions can bring about an industry that catches birds in the wild, hold them in small and cramp cages (usually with many other birds) and then allowing people to buy and releasing them back to the wild again, just so that we "humans" may feel that we have done a good deed.

One of the methods of catching birds by these vendors is to set up a net across the woods. As the bird flies through they get entagled inside it. Many of these nets are not meant for catching bird harmlessly, unlike those used for research. The entagled birds often gets injured or exhaust themselves when they desperately try to get free. By the time the bird catcher comes and collect the bird, they are either exhausted or starving. Many either die in the net or while being transported to the market.

Those that live are then stuffed into a cage which hosts many other birds as well, often in unhygienic conditions. We don't even know if the vendors feed the birds, if at all. Due to the cramped conditions, some of the birds fight amongst themselves in the cage. Some suffocate or bleed to death because of the fights. By the time anyone comes along to buy these birds for release they would have already suffered for a few days. So, for every bird released, probably five more would have died.

Such acts of cruelty are not just consigned to birds, but also to other species such as fishes, terrapins and tortoises. To have them caught, some vendors would have their habitats destroyed or poisoned, some are ripped apart from their flock or have their entire flock killed. Like a lot marine fishes (which are not bred in farms), many of them are caught by locals using dynamites or cyanide poisoning. In the process, their habitats are ruined, which in turn render those not caught to suffer and live in a poisoned environment. Many of these shop owners who buys fishes and animals care very little about the sources of these animals or the methods used to catch them. Their main concern, obviously is the bottom line.

Some of us may feel that its okay to buy from restaurants because we are directly saving the beings from being killed and they don't effect the economics of the restaurant themselves. Ironically however, when we purchase any "live food" whether with the intention of eating or releasing it, the act itself continues the economic cycle that benefits those who make a living out of selling these animals. Also, some of these live food may not be endemic to our native environment. Releasing animals into a different environment which they are not accustomed to causes great impact to the existing ecology, or to even the animals themselves. If the animal is farm bred, they normally don't survive well in the wild.

Even if the live animal is native to our areas, and releasing them would not be detrimental to the environment, we should also enquire: How were they caught? What sort of destructive acts were committed before they were caught? How are they treated by the restaurants? How long have they been kept in the tank? But the time we buy any of these animals, they have already gone through all these various stages of sufferings.

For every ONE we buy, probably 5 more died or suffered, and another 2 or 3 more probably replaces it. If you buy one fish from me, I won't get just another one to replace it, it will get at least one more, so that I can sell more. Therefore, it would be nave to think that its always a one for one replacement.

The moral argument here is not about being for or against the releasing of animals, but in the economics behind the action, that is, the act of exchanging of money in order to get them released. Whenever we pay to buy something, it becomes an encouragement for vendors to continue in their trade.

This dilemma is constantly played out with animal conservationalist in places like Africa. They constantly have to struggle with their personal emotion of not buying a young primates (e.g. gorilla, chimpanzee or gibbon) from the market place because once they do that, it will encourage the sellers to catch more to sell them back to the conservationalists. And to catch these young primates, usually it means that its parents have to be killed in order to pry them off from their arms. So effectively, they are not releasing one animal by buying them off the streets, but killing 2 or more animals because of it.

Closer to home, true animal lovers do not buy pets from pet shops, they adopt them from the animal shelters. I have a friend's cousin who loves dogs and have taken in a lot of stray dogs to feed and shelter them. His daughter thought that since he loved dogs so much, the best birthday present was to buy a cute puppy for him. Not only was he unhappy, but he was very upset by this move. True animal lovers knows the sufferings of these pets have gone through, and will never agree to buy one from a shop, no matter how cute they are.

What about those whose livelihood depends on such sales? Well, life is certainly not easy for anyone caught in such a moral dilemma. It is even harder for a wise and compassionate Buddhists. This is something for all concerned to ponder in depth, for there is no quick solution.

Being aware of the consequences of our own actions and choosing the right path perhaps, may be a good way to start. Like a famous NGO campaign says, only with the buying stops, the suffering and the killing will stop too.

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