Wildlife and Weddings: Not a Cause for Celebration

Incorporating animals into wedding ceremonies is a practice that spans many cultures and can involve a variety of species. Many couples, however, do not stop to consider how the animals got there, how they are treated, or what will happen to them after the party’s over. The unfortunate truth is that animals involved in weddings are often placed in highly stressful situations, and may be hurt or die as a result. Wedding planners should consider the implications before using living creatures in ceremonies. An otherwise joyous event, symbolizing a couple’s love and respect for one another, should not be an occasion for the mistreatment of animals.

Elephants are especially popular in Hindu marriage ceremonies, as they are believed to bring good fortune to the new couple. In these ceremonies, the groom rides on an elaborately decorated elephant while guests dance and sing around them. Being forced to perform for people in unnatural and noisy situations, such as weddings, is extremely stressful for them. As is typical with most elephants used for entertainment, these pachyderms are chained for extremely long periods and “disciplined” using a bull hook (a long club with a sharp metal hook on the end).

There are two commercial operations that rent elephants for use in weddings. One is based in California and the other, R.W. Commerford & Sons Traveling Petting Zoo, is in Connecticut. Elephants are often trucked hundreds of miles to and from ceremonies. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which regulates this use of elephants, has cited Commerford numerous times over the past two decades for its failure to meet the minimum requirements under the Animal Welfare Act, including failure to provide adequate veterinary care, failure to maintain enclosures and transport trailers, and failure to provide adequate housekeeping. Commerford also has been cited repeatedly for failing to handle animals so as to minimize risk of harm to the animals and the public.

Minnie, one of Commerford’s elephants, has been used in a number of wedding ceremonies. This despite the fact that Minnie has been involved in at least four dangerous incidents while giving rides to people where handlers and/or the general public were injured. At least two of these dangerous incidents are believed to have immediately followed Minnie being struck with a bull hook by a handler.

Doves are a traditional Christian and Jewish symbol of peace, love and faithfulness. Dove releases, therefore, are popular during wedding ceremonies. Misconceptions exist, however, about what happens to the birds once they are released. Many assume they are set free, which is not the case at all. The industry standard is to use white homing pigeons who have been trained to return to a home loft once released. Misinformed amateurs or unscrupulous businessmen, however, sometimes purchase doves from a pet store for ceremonial releases, which often end tragically. In July of last year, more than 40 albino ringneck doves, apparently released during a wedding, were found in a New York City park, some injured from attacks by other animals or starving and too weak to fly. Birds from pet stores should never be released into the wild, as many of them have never even flown and can’t locate food or avoid predators.

Although homing pigeons are specifically bred and trained to be released and fly home, the training may be conducted by backyard hobbyists with limited knowledge and skill. In addition, when released at weddings, the birds can become confused and lost in the alien environment or because of bad weather or insufficient light. Marc Johnson, founder of the bird sanctuary, Foster Parrots Ltd., states, “Bottom lines are the biggest concern of a business and when you combine that with animals, it usually is the animal who pays the price. We have taken in a dozen or so of these white ‘doves’ who became disoriented in storms or unable to physically return to their ‘home.’”

Butterfly releases are performed at wedding ceremonies to represent happiness and new beginnings. Unlike doves, when butterflies are released they are truly set free. Many, however, do not survive the shipping, handling or release into environments not suited to them. Robert Michael Pyle, founder of the Xerces Society, was quoted regarding butterfly releases, “They end up being released [in] unsuitable times, places, and weather conditions, resulting in death, disorientation, or pointless flight in the absence of nectar, mates, or the right habitat. I feel treating butterflies as if they were mere living balloons is both cruel and degrading.”

Butterflies are often shipped long distances to be released during events. To keep them alive during shipping, the standard practice is to individually package the animals in small envelopes and place them in a cooler with ice packs to force the cold-blooded animals into a state of dormancy. Prior to release the envelopes are given to guests. Often these “releases” are sad events, with butterflies dying inside the envelopes or injured due to poor handling. Many are not able to fly when released, falling instead to the ground to be killed by other animals or the shoes of guests.

Releasing commercially bred butterflies into the environment can also have a detrimental effect on natural butterfly populations. Dr. Jeffrey Glassberg, President of the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) states, “Our concern is primarily one for the wild butterflies that are negatively impacted in a number of ways by the intentional release of farmed butterflies into the environment (especially by the spread of disease and by the loss of genetic fitness caused by interbreeding with the farmed butterflies).” The release of captive-bred butterflies can also disrupt the migratory behavior of wild butterflies and interfere with scientific studies of butterfly migrations. For these reasons, NABA and other groups have called on the USDA, which regulates the interstate shipment of live butterflies, to ban the release of captive-bred butterflies.

Decorations and Favors
In addition to incorporating animals into ceremonies as transport or for symbolic releases, some couples have included animals in their day as wedding favors—giving fish, turtles, birds, butterflies and other small animals to guests. Often, the recipients are unprepared to care for the animals, who die as a result.

Increasingly, animals are also used as decorations—for example, by putting turtles in tanks or fish in bowls for centerpieces. Building wedding cakes around live fish or birds is also increasing in popularity. In an episode of the Discovery Channel reality series, Cake Boss, the show’s star created a cake with a compartment housing two doves.

Though couples may incorporate animals into their wedding day out of a sincere desire to add pageantry to the event, the distress animals endure as a result is too often overlooked. In most cases, the best way for couples to express their love for animals and celebrate their new beginning is to refrain from involving live animals in the wedding, and perhaps instead choose a humane gesture, such as making a donation to a shelter or rescue center in the name of their guests or encouraging guests to do so in lieu of gifts.