Each and every living being cherishes its life. Liberating animals into the wild is a custom that has special meaning in some Buddhist traditions. Often this will involve purchasing, blessing and then releasing animals that they have saved from being killed. Practitioners believe that this brings spiritual benefit to themselves and to the animals being released. However, despite such kind intentions, this practice does more harm than good if not very carefully researched. It often results in unintended harm both to the animal and the ecosystem into which the animal is released.
In January 2019, the issue was in the public eye after the New Zealand Herald published an article about individuals who do this practice here in Aotearoa. The article correctly warns that releasing animals in this way can be very harmful to our ecosystem.
New Zealand has a precious and distinct environment, and strict biosecurity regulations that aim for preservation of our indigenous flora and fauna. It is an important principle in Buddhist values not to cause harm to other sentient beings. Where a practice brings harm to the environment and the creatures that depend on that environment, that is obviously in conflict with this.
The custom of animal liberation has in some cases been transplanted here without a full understanding of the harm that can be done. We recommend that people wanting to help relieve the suffering of animals investigate other means of helping them (see the end of this article) or instead only release species appropriate to the local ecology, such as releasing native eels into specific unpolluted waterways. Environmental education is needed to reach the individuals and groups that wish to engage in animal release practices. However, even if you purchase an appropriate species from a market and release it into the appropriate environment, by buying the animals you may be providing the people who catch the animals with a reason to continue capturing and making money from animals in future. Wiser environmental altruism, such as participating in the cleanup of waterways or other ecosystems, could be encouraged as an alternative.
Other ways to benefit animals
One alternative that still involves direct contact with animals along with a specific religious ceremony is to conduct animal blessings.
We also suggest you look at supporting organisations that help animals. There are many. You can provide volunteer help and/or financial assistance to organisations that provide help in various ways to ensure the well-being of animals. This includes animal sanctuaries, nature conservation projects, and animal rescue and welfare organisations.
You can also adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet, to ensure that you are not contributing money towards the farming and slaughter of birds, fish and mammals for meat.
Further information and links
The Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT) conducts animal blessings and in some situations, live animal release. An article on their website makes some detailed recommendations about ensuring that we do not cause the animals we release to suffer. “While Buddhists believe the karmic benefit of doing these practices will be ongoing and perhaps have a greater effect in future lives, the welfare of the animals in this life is also critical.”
They continue later in the article:
“In many parts of the world, releasing animals into the wild is illegal without the proper permission from authorities. There is good reason for this. Apart from [the risk of releasing them into the] wrong habitat and slow death, there is also the impact on the receiving ecosystem.If the creatures you have released do survive, what threat do they pose to the local species? How likely are they to upset the ecosystem? There are countless examples of introductions of various species having a devastating effect on the environment. The animal you release could be displacing local species for shelter and food. It could also be introducing disease, which is likely with many animals rescued from live or wet markets. And if the animal survives, it may interbreed with indigenous species and negatively affect the gene pool. The law to not release animals into the wild without permission is there for a reason.” More here.
Fo Guang Shan’s Statement
Fo Guang Shan 紐西蘭佛光山 has issued a statement against doing this practice in NZ, which we would like to share:
“An article was released recently by the NZ Herald, citing members of society, who have claimed to be visitors of Fo Guang Shan Buddhist temple, for ‘releasing life’ from restaurants back into the local environment. We would like to publicly clarify that such acts of releasing animals is not something that is propagated at the Fo Guang Shan temple and reinforce the message against animal release in NZ and urge society to apply wisdom when desiring to act on compassion. The following extract from Venerable Master Hsing Yun in his recent speech emphasises on this matter and is advocated by Fo Guang Shan:
“Compassion and tolerance alone are not enough. They need to be supplemented by wisdom. In this world, the meaning of compassion is often distorted, leading to excessive indulgence and turning a blind eye to what is wrong. When applied inappropriately, compassion can become the source of crimes and wrongdoings. For instance, the common practice of freeing live animals actually causes harm to more animal lives. Inappropriate and lavish giving of money only nurture greed and corruption. Therefore, true compassion and tolerance must be supplemented by prajna wisdom to prevent traveling down the wrong path, rendering the initial intentions futile.”
Learn more about ways to benefit animals by following these links.
Note that some conservation projects involve killing introduced species that are harming delicate local ecosystems and species; if you wish to avoid those projects you can find plenty of others that involve weeding, tree-planting etc.
Examples of direct ways to save animals from being killed:
In the Kaimanawa ranges of New Zealand, a herd of wild horses is culled every few years, as it keeps growing and this has a negative impact on the native flora and fauna of the region. Before culling the herd, attempts are made to find new homes for the horses. As most of us don’t have the resources or expertise to take them, there is also an option to donate to their wellbeing.
Other projects to rescue animals: