The problem with releasing doves

The Pope and a dove

The release of a white dove should symbolise all that is good and pure and peaceful. But when it goes wrong, it goes very wrong, writes Ben Milne.

Pope Francis, two children, a prayer for peace, and the symbolic release of white doves from a Vatican window. What could be the problem? Answer - a crow and a seagull which proceeded to maul the poor birds as soon as they left the Pope's care. It was symbolism, but not the kind the Curia intended. Avian tweets of anguish were followed by inevitable tweets of the digital variety, many along the lines of "I never knew Richard Dawkins trained birds".

So is it ever a good idea to release doves?

Unfortunately, the traits which make the gentle dove a poster child for peace - uncomplaining, non-aggressive, highly visible - make it an easy mark for the tough birds in the urban playground. "It's normally sparrowhawks that attack them," says Marnie Lawrence, who trains birds for release at weddings and christenings. "There's not an awful lot you can do about it - but there are certain areas where there are going to be more predators." A large Italian city, presumably.

Lawrence uses white rock doves - which are strictly speaking pigeons, not doves - at her Hertfordshire business. Using a pure-bred dove would be too risky, she says, because they have no homing instinct. "A pure-bred dove would not survive. It wouldn't make it home."

Not all trainers make the same choices. The Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recently highlighted a case in Athlone where untrained doves had been released for a wedding and then left to wander off in the wild. But there are other dangers attached to releasing a dove, as the International Olympic Committee knows to its cost.

For many years the Olympic opening ceremony included the symbolic release of doves. But at Seoul in 1988, the doves were released shortly before the Olympic flame was lit. Unfortunately, several of the poor creatures were still milling around the area of the cauldron, with fatal results. The headlines were cruel if inevitable: "When doves fry."

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