HILDEN, N.S. – Bianca, the little white dove may have been released as a symbol of love, or of a spirit being released, but when she arrived at the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre she looked more like a symbol of ill health, thin and riddled with lice.
“The feathers were vibrating, there were so many lice,” said Dr. Helene Van Doninck, the veterinarian who runs the centre. “People who release these birds at weddings and other events usually think it’s a wonderful thing to do, but they should understand what it can mean for the birds.”
Van Doninck gets a few malnourished or injured white doves every year and has had people concerned about disease contact her about dead ones they’ve found.
“This is a domestic animal and it doesn’t know how to survive in the wild,” said Van Doninck. “I think there are a lot of people who don’t realize how dangerous this is for the birds. I just want people to know the risks. If they understand and accept that it’s up to them. They just need to realize it’s not totally benign, and I hope if they go ahead with releasing birds they make sure they’re birds from someone who takes care of them and ensures they have proper identification. Some of the birds who’ve been brought in here have no identification bands.”
Carlyle Smith, who lives in Fall River, started providing white doves for releases in 2004. He does as many as three events in a day, doing releases year-round as long as the weather co-operates. He has 12 breeding pair and about 60 "flyers" he uses for releases.
Although his services used to be in demand mainly for weddings, he’s now often contacted to provide birds for releases for anniversaries, birthdays, funerals, grand openings, graduations, baptisms and other special days.
“The numbers I release vary a lot,’ he said. “There are usually two to three at funerals, and at weddings up to a dozen.
“I do most releases within 100 kilometres. These birds are physically gorgeous but they don’t have the homing instinct and ability to travel distances that some of the other birds do.”
He said hawks injure or kill some of the birds and sometimes weather results in birds becoming lost or dying. He lets the birds out to fly most days so that they will know the area and has them tagged with Canadian Racing Pigeon Union leg bands.
“Sometimes they go out and meet other birds and can be gone for a while,” he said. “There are going to be some losses but I think there’s a tremendous opportunity to help people. It’s a service we provide, and people are overwhelmed by symbolically seeing the spirit released.”
Van Doninck is concerned about people considering the birds as entertainment. A Kijiji "Moncton white dove release" listing states that events can be “made brighter with these 'Living Fireworks' exploding into the air.”
Van Doninck suggests that people planning something for an animal lover consider another option.
“Release bubbles (never balloons because they’re deadly to wildlife) and make a donation to a charity that helps animals,” she said. “Do something nice for somebody to mark an event.
“There are a lot of people who think a release is a harmless and wonderful thing to do; they need to be informed before they make a decision.”