Long-sizzling opposition to pyrotechnics boom ignited in 2016
Ushered in with the traditional fusillade, rolling around the world from the first cruise ships across the International Dateline through Asia, Africa, Europe, South America, North America, and finally Hawaii, 2016 will go out with a bang too, just as 2017 begins.
More than 12,000 fireworks will explode over Sydney, Australia, London, England, and New York City, annually the scenes of some of the most renowned New Year’s Eve displays, but Dubai shot off a global record 400,000 skyrockets and other pyrotechnic devices to usher in 2014, and many other cities now stage explosive extravaganzas rivaling those of Sydney, London, and New York City.
From sea birds to “fire bulls”
The first animals terrified in the New Year will be night-flying seabirds, including perhaps endangered albatrosses. Scarcely a bird or mammal in the inhabited regions of Planet Earth will not have been at least startled by the time the sun rises over the last of the singed cardboard cylinders and drifting wisps of sulphuric smoke left by the midnight revels.
Fireworks were among the first concerns of the humane movement when it emerged worldwide in the early 19th century––and not just because of the frequent misuse of fireworks to deliberately torment animals, as when firecrackers are tied to a dog’s tail or sparklers are tied between a bull’s horns at village festivals from Spain to India.
Early humane societies that operated orphanages campaigned against the use of child labor to make fireworks, still a common practice in the developing world, leading often to deaths and disfigurements.
Early animal shelter managers soon noticed that influxes of lost and disoriented dogs arrived in the wake of every holiday celebrated with fireworks, whether the Fourth of July, a patron saint’s day, the Diwali “Festival of Light” celebrated in India, Guy Fawkes Day, celebrated throughout the former British Empire, New Year’s Eve, or Chinese New Year’s Day.
But humane organizations have for nearly 200 years accomplished little to reduce the mayhem from celebratory explosions. Indeed, it may be that more fireworks are detonated each year now, strictly for entertainment and ceremonial purposes, than in all the 1,000 years between the Chinese invention of fireworks circa 900 CE and 1900.
2016 on the fireworks front started with an online petition posted in January by Animal Concern Scotland, asking the Scottish and British Parliaments to “Restrict the use of fireworks to reduce stress and fear in animals and pets.”
Opened the petition, “Fireworks now occur at all times of the day and evening for many weeks during the autumn and winter. Pet and animal owners struggle to keep their companion animals safe during this extended period. We call for fireworks use by the general public to be permitted on traditional celebration dates only.”
The Government of Scotland responded, “We are aware that fireworks can cause distress to animals. Restrictions on the general public’s use of fireworks, and permitted noise levels, already exist and we have no plans to extend them.”
In other words, bang off.
Success in South Africa
But 2016 may have been the year that public and political opinion began to turn against fireworks, if only just a little bit.
Announced the National SPCA of South Africa at year’s end, “The City of Ekurhuleni Municipality recently advertised an event, the Ekurhuleni New Year’s Extravaganza, boasting the biggest New Year’s Eve fireworks display in South Africa to be held at a venue in Kempton Park. The Kempton Park SPCA submitted an application to the High Court in an attempt to stop the fireworks display in an effort to prevent unnecessary and devastating suffering to animals. The High Court ruled in favor of the Kempton Park SPCA, stating that the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality is interdicted and restrained from holding its planned fireworks at this event.
“Subsequently the City of Ekurhuleni issued a statement claiming that they had no intention of using fireworks and that the event had been incorrectly advertised.”
Success in the Americas
In between, much else happened.
In June 2016, for example, when Buenos Aires mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta announced the closure of the 140-year-old city zoo, media mentioned among the other deficiencies of the zoo the stress to the animals from Christmas fireworks displays. This had barely won a mention previously.
Larreta spoke, however, only days after Walt Disney Parks & Resorts opened Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida to night safaris, with the promise that soundtracks and lighting had been designed to minimize stress to the resident animals, and that the Animal Kingdom would be the only Disney theme park which would not close each night with fireworks.
And success in China!
Two months later, in early August 2016, regional officials in Huichang County, in southeast China, pledged “to eradicate a nearly 70-year religious tradition of sacrificing tens of thousands of ducks at local temples” during the Laigong Temple Fair, reported Adam Hegarty and Huang Nan for China Daily.
“Every year since 1949,” Hegarty and Huang Nan explained, “thousands of Huichang residents have descended, in particular, on Cuizhu Temple in Fuwei, carrying ducks and fireworks to worship the local god Laigong, and pray for health and safety.”
About 35,000 ducks per year were killed, but that stopped at instigation of U.S.-born Taiwanese playwright Stan Lai, whose father was born in Huichang.
Instead of sacrificing live ducks, worshippers now burn paper or plastic ducks, distributed free to temple-goers.
And fireworks are also now officially discouraged, Huichang Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Affairs chief Guo Jinghong told Hegarty and Huang Nan, because they make “too much noise and pollution.”
Why 2016 brought a few landmark instances of governmental and corporate recognition of the deleterious effects on animals of fireworks is unclear. No humane organizations of global influence campaigned specifically against fireworks.
Indeed, the only humane initiative of note on the fireworks front was the introduction of a four-day fostering program by the East Valley Animal Shelter in Los Angeles, to make extra space available for the annual post-Fourth of July lost dog influx. The program temporarily placed 64 dogs, helping the shelter to accommodate 264 new arrivals.
But social media may have helped, publicizing several appalling instances of fireworks use to harm animals. One case, near Bosqueville, Texas, in which video of a dog’s body being blown up was posted by the alleged perpetrators, in October 2016 “was shared more than 9,500 times, and one post had about 658,000 views and 1,400 comments,” reported Kristin Hoppa of the Waco Tribune.
Guy Fawkes Day dog attack
Several cases of dogs responding to fireworks by mauling people also won widespread notice––especially a Guy Fawkes Day 2016 incident in Dagenham, Chelmsford, England, in which Sara Blackman, 34, of Chadwell Heath, came to the rescue when a large stray German shepherd lunged at her youngest child.
“There were fireworks and the dog was going mad. He was almost at the baby’s throat,” explained Blackman to Phoebe Cook of the Barking & Dagenham Post. “That baby wouldn’t have stood a chance. The dog would have killed that baby.”
But Blackman was mauled herself, suffering serious arm injuries, before truck driver Stephen Selfe, 53, intervened.
Said Selfe, “It was absolutely terrifying. It was more frightening than serving in the Gulf War.”
The ANIMALS 24-7 files document dozens of similar incidents occurring during the past dozen years alone, and others involving mass deaths of startled birds flying from their roosts into obstacles, dogs mistaking tossed fireworks for sticks and trying to retrieve them, even nominally closely guarded endangered species suffering fatal consequences when panicked by unexpected nearby explosions.
Before 2016, however, such cases tended to receive only local attention. Now, at last, they appear to be beginning to detonate widespread concern.