22 NOVEMBER 1930, Page 21

Imprisoned Birds


'LIVERY Englishman who wishes to be really English 12.4 —and which one worthy of the name does not ?- must have learnt to ride a hobby horse. It is this which makes Tristram Shandy the supremely and typically English book, because it is the history, with many digres- sions, of the triumphant cavalcades on their respective hobby horses of Uncle Toby and Mr. Shandy Senior. For this reason I make no apology for also riding mine in public. Not only Uncle Toby and Father Shandy indulged in this exercise but also great and famous Englishmen, among whom I would particularly cite Wilberforce, who rode his to a triumphant finish in the teeth of bitter opposition.

Now, if Wilberforce's hobby—the freeing of slaves— was a splendid and a noble charger, mine, though more humble, is, I contend, worthy of respect. It is in two words, the freeing from imprisonment of all innocent creatures. It is surely true that those, if any, who have the patience to read this short essay to the end, would shrink in horror from the mere idea of imprisoning without just cause an innocent human being. Why, then, should this feeling not be extended to other innocent creatures who, unlike human beings, have not the con- solations of philosophy or religion in Misfortune ?

It may be true that " Stone walls do not a prison make nor iron bars a cage " for human minds that are innocent and kindly. But we cannot hope that the melancholy of beasts and birds deprived of their liberty to move freely over hill and plain .and especially at will through the air, which is the very climax and epitome of freedom, can be tempered by any consolations of this kind.

There is something indescribably exhilarating in watching the flight of birds through the air. Goethe gives the fullest expression to this sense of release from earth which birds alone of all creatures can give, when he makes Faust exclaim :—

" Doch ist es jedem eingeboren

Dam sein Gefithl hinauf and vorwrirts dringt Wenn fiber uns ins blauen Raum vorloren Ihr schmetternd Lied die Lerche singt Wenn iibor schroffen Fichtenhohen Der Adler ausgebreitet sohwebt Und 'fiber Flitchen Ober Seen Der Kranich nach der Heimath strebt."

No one who has ever really felt this could, I believe, wantonly imprison them for his own pleasure. Yet we find the most kind-hearted men and women entirely without feeling in this matter. Such a man was, to take a. notable example, the poet Cowper, the unhappy. " Stricken Deer," who, one might suppose, would in- tuitively have felt a genuine repulsion for the imprison; ment of birds: that he had no feeling of this kind is

shown from one of his letters*. I cannot refrain from quoting this passage on account of its own charm and because it in a way supports my argument. He writes :—

" . . . I have two goldfinches which in the summer occupy the greenhouse. A few days since, being employed in cleaning out their cages, I placed that which I had in hand upon the table, while the other hung against the wall ; the windows and the door stood wide open. I wont to fill the fountain at the pump, and on my return was not a little surprised to find a goldfinch sitting on the top of the cage I had been cleaning and singing to and kissing the goldfinch within. I approached him and he discovered no fear. Still nearer and he discovered none. I advanced my hand and he took no notice of it. I seized him and supposed I had caught a now bird, but casting my eye upon the other cage perceived my mistake. Its inhabitant, during my absence, had contrived to find an opening, whore the wire had been a little bent, and made no other use of the escape it afforded him than to salute his friend and to converse with him more intimately than he had done before. I returned him to his proper mansion, but in vain. In less than a minute he had thrust his little person through the aperture again, and again perched upon his neighbour's cage, kissing him, as at the first, and singing, as if transported with the fortunate adventure. I could but respect such friendship as, for the sake of its gratification, had twice declined an opportunity to be free, and consenting to their union, resolved that for the future one cage should hold thorn both. I am glad of such incidents, for at a pinch and when I need entertainment, the versification of them serves to divert me."

It would, indeed, be difficult to imagine a more touching little incident, more perfectly described than this ; and yet we find Cowper, who was the most tender-hearted of men and a real lover of birds and animals, not persuaded by it to give freedom to these little friends but only as he says " resolved that for the future one cage should hold them both." It never seems to have struck him that the bird that twice refused the opportunity of freedom may have done so because it would not abandon its friend, and that the reward really fitting for such devotion would be to liberate them both. So Cowper's goldfinch, like Sterne's starling, had, we may presume, to die in prison as the consequence of its unselfishness. It is strange, indeed, that a man of Cowper's extreme sensi- tiveness should not have felt the desire to release these two friends and to see them fly out together into the sunshine to enjoy " green days in forests." If he did not feel in this way and could write about it, " I am glad of such incidents, for at a pinch and when I need enter- tainment the versification of them serves to divert me," one feels it an almost hopeless task to educate the public to a sense of real repulsion at the sight of birds and beasts—but especially birds—confined in narrow spaces, so totally unnatural to them.

But while Cowper clearly felt nothing of this, Keats understood it, and, indeed, what else could we expect from the creator of the Ode to the Nightingale' ? His little song over his dead dove shows us that he at least

To Rev. William Unwin, dated 4th August, 1783.

realized that a prisoner's bonds, even though they were silken, might break the heart of a little wild thing 1-- "I had a dove and the sweet dove died ; And I have thought it died of grieving. 0, what could it grieve fort Its feet were tied With a silken thread of my own hand's weaving ;

Sweet little red feet 1 why should you die—

Why should you leave me, sweet bird, why ? You lived alone in the forest tree, Why, pretty thing, would you not live with me ?

I kiss'd you oft and gave, you white peas ;

Why not live sweetly, as in the green trees ? "

So Keats at least understood that a wild thing, whOse element is the air, cannot be kept behind bars even if kiss'd oft and fed with white peas (how appropriately ingenuous and even childish is that line) without pining away for the desire of freedom which is common to all of us. We feel he at least would have joined a campaign to free the innocent.

I am certainly not unaware of the difficulty there will be in bringing round not only those, who, like Cowper, have their pleasure out of their caged pets, to realize what this must generally mean to the birds they love, but also all those to whom the matter is one of complete indifference. And yet if the necessary legislation is to be passed public attention must be aroused and interest awakened. Some legislation has been passed, but how inadequate it is 1 It is indeed so petty as to make one wonder whether it was not the child of irony rather than of sympathy. A pamphlet of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals informs all and sundry as follows, under the title of :— " Protection of Birds. WARNING.

By an Act passed in May, 1925, it is now an offence punishable by a Maximum Fine of £25 and 3 months' imprisonment with hard labour- 1. To capture, or attempt to capture alive any wild bird by means of a live bird used as a decoy which is tethered or secured by braces or other similar appliances or which is blind, maimed or injured. 2. To use bird lime or any substance of a like nature for above purpose. 3. To keep or confine a bird in any cage or other receptacle of insufficient height, length, or breadth to permit the said bird to freely stretch its wings. Certain exceptions as to the size of cages are permitted in respect of Poultry or other birds, which are being conveyed by land or by water or whilst being shown at competitions when confined for a period not exceeding 72 hours."

What has been done is no doubt good, so far 'as it goes, since it makes it an offence severely punishable to inflict certain forms of real torture on birds. These forms of torture have, of course, been in very general use in many countries—and still are in use—for furthering the slave trade in birds. But, indeed, when we. come to point 3 respecting the caging of birds, how scandalously small is the measure of relief afforded. It is penal to confine a bird in any cage or receptacle of a size that will not permit it freely to stretch its wings.

Anything less than this would be to permit something in the nature of a Chinese torture. Is this really as far as our highly civilized and refined legislators of to-day are prepared to go ? Is there no means of making the public feel the real cruelty practised in decoying, catching, and keeping birds for trade in naturally the smallest possible cages, because this trade is carried on for profit, and the larger the cage the more difficulty in handling and, there- fore, the smaller the profit ?

I met the other day in a bookshop with a publication called Cage Birds Annual for 1930, and described as the Year Book of the Bird. World. In this to me, I must confess, most depressing of books, descriptions are given of how to keep in cages not only such birds as canaries, which, being now bred in cages cannot be classed with wild birds, but also blackbirds, thrushes, nightingales, black-caps, wheatears, ring ousels, whinchats, stone- chats, skylarks, meadow pipits, tree pipits, grey wagtails, &c., &c.

Now, we must remember that all these little fellows are caught and caged by bird fanciers for profit, or 'such a book as the Cage Birds Annual could not appear. We must remember that of those that are so caught and caged few survive to be kindly treated, and perhaps placed in' great aviaries for the delectation during a few minutes a day of those who keep them, we must remember that in the very nature of things even those who have this good fortune cannot possibly be really happy because their life is an entirely unnatural one.' The comparison I made above of this trade with the slave trade is not altogether amiss. I have no doubt that many of those who carry it on are humane and honourable persons just as many slave holders were, but that does not affect the issue.

The question remains : how are we to educate the public in this matter so that this evil shall first be miti- gated then stopped ?

In the first place, I venture to suggest that school children should be taught the horror there is in im- prisoning innocent creatures, so that all will ultimately come to have not only no pleasure in the sight of caged birds, but even a sense of-real physical discomfort, such as any man or woman, must feel who thinks about the subject at all. In the second place, it seems to me that it is a matter which can be constantly kept before the public and before Parliament by such a powerful Society as that for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and legislation in this way promoted. Not only Municipal Legislation, however, is required, but also International Agreement for the protection of migratory birds. In this way we may gradually reach a stage when the public will feel that it is nothing less than an insult to our heroic aviators, living or dead, to take pleasure in the capture and imprisonment for life of their little colleagues of the air.