Swan song nears for 'unacceptable' Paris bird market

A person carries a parakeet at the bird market in Paris on the Île de la Cité on May 6, 2018.
A person carries a parakeet at the bird market in Paris on the Île de la Cité on May 6, 2018. © Gerard Julien, AFP
Text by: Tracy MCNICOLL
6 min

The chirp-chirping of budgies on Sundays under the glassy ironwork canopies of Paris's Île de la Cité will soon be no more. The city decided last week to shut down the iconic weekly bird market, a stone's throw from Notre-Dame Cathedral in the heart of the French capital, citing animal rights' concerns and chronic irregularities.

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Held alongside the island's daily flower market on the Place Louis Lépine, the bird market has similarly been a mainstay for generations of Parisians dating back to the 19th century. The City Hall decision to shutter the bird sellers comes as the adjoining market – officially the Queen Elizabeth II Flower Market since it was renamed in tribute during the British monarch's visit in 2014 – looks forward to a €5 million renovation from 2023 to 2025.

For some, the cacophonous stalls of birds, burlap sacks of seed, stacks of cages, fish tanks and a miscellany of other small animals exude the charm of old Paris. But for animal rights activists, the site is a callous relic, a "vestige of another time", and has to go.

"Imprisoning birds is cruel and archaic," one such group, PAZ (Paris Animaux Zoopolis), said in a petition it drew up against the bird market that collected more than 2,500 signatures. "It deprives them of their liberty and their most elementary behaviour, that of flying. Moreover, the vast majority of birds sold on the Île de la Cité are exotic. They aren't used to our climates and are very vulnerable to outdoor exposure (draughts)," PAZ contended. It said the market's presence also encourages "breeding and in some cases the illegal capture" of birds.

City Hall argued that the market, which stands across a cobbled forecourt from Paris police headquarters, had become a hotbed for illegal trade in the feathered creatures despite repeated efforts to put a stop to it.

An investigation by France's National Office for Hunting and Wildlife (ONCFS) in 2013 led to the arrest of seven people at the market. Forty-six goldfinches were seized during that operation. The birds are prized for the beauty of their song and were selling for up to €150 each.

"It had been known for several years that this market had become the epicentre of a bird-trafficking racket" in the region, Paris Deputy Mayor Christophe Najdovski said during the debate at City Hall. "And yet, despite a number of actions taken, that trafficking persists today."

Najdovski, whose portfolio includes animal welfare, said the birds are put on display at the market in a manner that is "unacceptable in view of the animal welfare standards required today". His Europe Ecologie Les Verts – the Green Party, which is allied with Mayor Anne Hidalgo's Socialists – had lobbied for the ban. The city seized on the opportunity of the flower market renovation to amend the regulations that govern the site.

For the moment, 13 businesses are authorised to operate at the bird market, although the city says only seven of those still sell birds. The market also attracted unregistered street peddlers who would regularly set up shop on the site despite a 2004 city bylaw that banned them from selling birds. The city has pledged to provide support to the established merchants who will be affected when the market closes.

Some bird fans had bristled at the prospect of the shutdown. "These activists and ecologists describe us as poachers and talk about animal abuse, but we're enthusiasts. We take care of our birds, we love them. And we do not raise protected species!," Issam Akrouti, who heads the Cercle Ornithologique Lutétien, a Paris-area bird enthusiast group, told Le Parisien newspaper in January.

"Of course you shouldn't shut away wild birds in cages, but our canaries and budgies wouldn't survive two days if we released them into nature," Akrouti told the daily. "This is a battle the Parisian bobos [a slang term referring to urban “bourgeois-bohemians”] are waging against rural life: They want to cut humans off from contact with animals." The entrepreneur explained that, while the birds are displayed in cages when they are at the market, they generally live in aviaries or fly free inside people's homes, with their cages serving only as "bedrooms" for them to use.

Kittens, puppies, dolphins, minks

The bird market's closure is the latest effort by the city of Paris, and France generally, to improve their animal rights record.

During the same Paris City Hall assembly that greenlighted the bird market closure, the city called on the French government to ban the sale of kittens and puppies under the age of six months in pet shops from 2022. It also asked city police to put a stop to angling with live bait or barbed fishhooks in the French capital's waterways.

In January, France's lower-house National Assembly passed a bill to put an end to the use of wild animals in circuses across the country and to ban the captivity of dolphins and orca whales in marine parks. While lawmakers were debating that legislation, Parc Astérix, an amusement park northeast of Paris, announced it was closing its 32-year-old dolphin aquarium and dispatching its eight animals elsewhere in Europe, leaving only two marine parks with such creatures in France. The new legislation also aims to ban the raising of minks for fur and reinforce rules on pet sales and the penalties for animal abuse.

The City of Paris had already decided to quit authorising circuses that feature entertainment using live animals from 2020 onwards.

Meanwhile, the fight continues for Paris Animaux Zoopolis. The group's active campaigns include lobbying for a France-wide ban on fishing with live bait. It also wants angling forbidden entirely in Paris, "to avoid gratuitously inflicting great suffering and agony on many fish". PAZ argues that since consuming the fish caught from the city's polluted waterways isn't allowed, fishing allows the creatures to be cruelly treated like toys.

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