FROM RAINFOREST TO RETAIL - Safari Select
In this third part of From Rainforest to Retail - a special Animal Aid report - we go undercover at Focus' bird supplier, Safari Select.
'Focus Do It All is committed to developing partnerships with suppliers who share common principles of animal welfare. We believe it is imperative that all those involved in the supply of animals to Petworld adopt the same standards.'
FOCUS formal company statement 14/10/99
The sole supplier of birds to Focus is Safari Select, based in Sundridge, Kent. A detailed investigation of this company was undertaken in the early '90s by the Roger Cook television programme. Safari Select, now described on its own website as 'the UK's largest tropical bird specialist', have been regular stallholders at bird fairs (that are, in fact, illegal under the 1951 Pet Animals Act) around the country. Animal Aid attended such fairs and, posing as potential clients, arranged to visit the premises of Safari Select and talked to their staff. There, we met first with livestock manager, Dave Taylor, and at a subsequent meeting, with the owner, Phil Dobinson.
Roger Cook investigation
In the 1992 Roger Cook documentary, Dobinson was described as a dealer 'whose money fuels the trade that drives the trappers ever deeper into the jungle'.
At that time, according to the programme, Dobinson had no less than 13 criminal convictions for selling birds without correct paperwork, and for cruelty to birds. The Cook investigation claimed to have found evidence that endangered birds sold by Safari Select were not captive-bred, as indicated in the company's sales receipt of a Roger Cook undercover reporter who did a test purchase of a bird.
Phil Dobinson, when interviewed by Roger Cook, denied all the allegations put to him. He said he did not have 13 criminal convictions for selling birds without correct paperwork or for cruelty to birds. He also denied falsely representing wild-caught birds as captive bred (1).
Extract from interview with livestock manager of Safari Select
We made arrangements to meet Phil Dobinson at his premises in Kent on 1st April 2001. During this visit, Animal Aid investigators posed as prospective clients setting up in business as traders in live birds and potential wholesale customers of Safari Select. Dobinson was not available - it was explained that he had flown to Germany at short notice as officials there had detained a consignment of endangered cockatoos. Animal Aid, instead, spoke to Dave Taylor, Safari's Livestock Manager. He confirmed that his company supplies birds to Focus and when advised of Focus's claim that its birds were captive-bred, his response was:
'No they're not. They're not captive-bred, they're not captive-bred. How they market them out is their decision but at the end of the day they're (inaudible) themselves idiots.'
Extract from interview with Phil Dobinson
On 9 August 2001, Animal Aid revisited the premises of Safari Select - but this time to speak to Phil Dobinson. He boasted that Focus's business was worth £60,000 a month to Safari Select.
Later in the conversation...
Animal Aid bird expert, Peter Robinson: 'While we're on this subject of public perception: one of the problems we've got is we're competing with Do It All, Petworld whatever. They're taking off you things like bronze wing mannikins, orange... Okay, right but we all know that nobody breeds orange cheek waxbills in captivity, bronze wing mannikins whatever. They are telling the public these are bred in captivity and the public is obviously going for that. Is there a policy in relation to that? Do we tell lies like that or what? I know it's a difficult question but...'
Dobinson: 'It is a difficult question. The thing is... all you've got to understand is that their staff are basically, 90% of their staff are stupid. They don't know very much about birds or animals. 90%.. Not all of them but a lot of them. They're a superstore like Sainsburys. Or even going to their pay desk to ask what colour shall I paint my house. The guys in there don't know, they'll sell you a can of paint but don't know anything about it. So if their policy is that they sell captive-bred birds, then that's what they sell. That's what they sell, that's what they sell.'
He then went on to suggest several ways of dealing with awkward queries:
'Captive-bred, just say it. You don't breed them yourself, you buy them from people in this country. Don't go into it...
'Or you can say to them, they are wild-caught finches and you sit there and explain for three quarters of an hour to someone who really doesn't care or understand, who just wants to jump up and down and play up in the shop...
'...just say well look sir if you don't think they're captive bred, don't buy them. He'll know himself - just like you know. Otherwise, 90% of the people are going to be people off the street and they're not going to know...
'You just don't deal with it. All you say is, as far as we know they can't be, but we need to speak to our supplier cos' our supplier told us that they weren't, so give us your number we're worried about that... and that kills the problem. Go back to him and say oh unfortunately you were right we didn't realise our supplier... most of the stuff he supplies but he didn't inform us that those African finches were actually wild-caught...
'Otherwise, if you say we only stock English-bred, then first of all your selection of stock will be halved straight away. Your sales will be halved straight away. You'll only be able to stock java sparrows, bengalese and zebras... a few Australian finches, so that's killed half your finches.'
Extract from conversation with Safari Select employee, Stan Wiggins
On December 1, 2001, our investigator visited the National Cage & Aviary Birds Exhibition at the NEC in Birmingham and spoke to Stan Wiggins, a member of Safari Select's staff, on the company's stand. Safari Select manager, Angela Corps, was also present for some of the conversation.
Our investigator stated that Focus staff had advised him that their finches were wild-caught.
Wiggins: 'They are from the wild...'
Wiggins: 'Some are wild-caught, we do get English-bred ones as well, which they get as well.'
Wiggins went on to criticise the level of expertise of some Focus sales staff, giving two examples of birds sold to the public who turned out not to be the species they were sold as. This problem of misidentification had previously been picked up by the ornithologist Peter Robinson. On March 5 and 6 - at Animal Aid's behest - Robinson visited six Focus stores selling birds. In three of the six, in response to his questioning, sales staff 'incorrectly named the small parrot species in their charge'.
- Roger Cook (1992) Pity Polly - Documentary programme for Central Independent Television plc.