Annie the Owl: Is London pop-up show ethical?

By Sitala Peek
BBC News

image copyrightGetty Images

Hand-reared owls are going on display at a pop-up event in a former London art gallery. The sell-out show in aid of owl conservation seeks to educate "London urbanites" about these normally reclusive birds of prey. But is it ethical?

Demand has far outstripped supply and more than 81,000 people entered a ticket ballot, causing the website to crash, when the final set of tickets was released for sale on Tuesday.

However, 29,700 people signed an online petition imploring council authorities to revoke the gallery's entertainment licence on the grounds it would be "cruel and cause considerable stress to the birds involved".

The event is entirely legal but is it ethical? Should we be using animals as our source of entertainment, even in the name of education and preservation?

The Annie the Owl pop-up show, which is running for five nights, was originally meant to be held in Soho, central London. However, following threats from animal rights activists it had to be moved to a secret venue.

The RSPCA has said it has serious concerns for the welfare of any owls used in a bar or cafe environment.

Owls are shy and reclusive by nature and "generally don't like to be handled or stroked and can find this very stressful," the charity's wildlife scientist Dr Ros Clubb said.

image copyrightAnnie the Owl

However, event organiser Seb Lyall said he was raising awareness about the species.

"Welfare is our highest priority and the handlers are in control at all times," he said. "That is why we changed our venue, we took on board people's concerns and found somewhere bigger with an outdoor terrace.

"I'm not making any money out of this, we're making a loss, but not everything is for money. This is an opportunity for people in London to learn about these incredible birds and experience nature which they might not otherwise do if they don't leave the city."

In many ways this show is much better for the owls than the country fairs they are normally taken to or the boisterous school visits they participate in, Mr Lyall argues.

"School children are very noisy and they will touch the owls. Our guests will only be allowed to touch the owls if the handler allows them to. I've been working with them for a month and they tell me 'their babies [the owls] will be more happy here'.

"A lot of people are calling us a cafe, or a smoothie bar. We are not either of these things. You can't order drinks or food, you receive a smoothie and canapes. This is a pop-up exhibition. That's all."

They may have formed this impression because under previous plans for the event to be held in Soho, Mr Lyall advertised it on his website as "A Pop Up Bar. One Week. Soho" and "Come say hello, sip yummy cocktails... and meet the OWL-PACK".

Mr Lyall said he was donating all profits to an owl conservation project. On the face of it that sounds like a positive contribution - except hand-reared owls are not regarded as endangered.

On the contrary there are too many born in captivity and the law prevents them from being released into the wild, Vincent Jones, director of the Barn Owl Centre of Gloucestershire, said.

"[The Annie the Owl event] is tagging on to this appetite for wildlife displays in an uneducated way," he said.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionOwls are a selling point of the Fukuro no Mise cafe in Tokyo

"They are not putting the birds first. They are putting themselves first.

"Our main opposition to this event is that it could fuel more breeding of owls in captivity for the pet trade and that's when the rescue centres get inundated with unwanted birds because they can live to 20-25 years in captivity. And it's illegal to release a captive bred owl into the wild."

Of course the idea of using live animals as entertainment in bars and cafes is not entirely new. Tokyo has a selection of owl cafes, one called Fukuro no Mise - or Shop of Owls - is particularly popular and has a two-month waiting list.

In east London, Lady Dinah's Cat Emporium - a cafe featuring live-in cats - has also proved very popular. There are also plans for more pop-up cafes featuring dogs and micro-pigs elsewhere in London.

There is no denying the Annie the Owl event has captured people's imaginations and many are looking forward to their pop-up experience.

Jamie Carey, 24, from north London, who has got a ticket, said the idea of being able to "experience owls and interact with them" was very exciting.

"I think it'll be a fun engaging way for owl knowledge and admiration to spread.

"I'm hoping people don't think it is an excuse to get drunk and take a selfie with some owls for a few Instagram likes though."

He said he had loved owls ever since his childhood in Ireland.

"They were in outdoor displays but kept in large cages at night and I was able to hold them under supervision and stroke them. Owls love to be petted."

image copyrightPA
image captionLady Dinah's Cat Emporium in London has a long waiting list

Hawk Board, which represents falconers and bird of prey keepers in the UK, says while it is not impossible for the event to be done sensitively and to benefit birds of prey, it still has reservations.

"You can always go to Regent's Park if you want to see owls in London or the Zoological Society of London to observe these animals in an environment that is much closer to their natural habitat," said its chairman Dr Gordon Mellor.

"My concern with the cafe is the emphasis still feels like it's on entertainment rather than education and held inside a cafe of whatever dimensions sounds a little-bit circus-like.

"Against that it is not breaking any laws."

Related Topics

More on this story

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.