December 8, 2009
Every year around the world, hundreds of millions of animals are released into the wild through the Buddhist practice known as “mercy release.” The tradition is based on the belief that freeing a captured animal creates good karma, bringing a person good fortune in this life and better prospects for the next. This tradition began hundreds of years ago with spontaneous acts of compassion toward animals. Unfortunately, the modern version of mercy release causes enormous animal suffering and environmental damage.
Many people don’t realize that the vast majority of animals used in mercy release were captured for the sole purpose of being released. Animals trapped for mercy release can sustain fatal injuries from the nets or snares. Others suffocate or starve during transport, when they’re kept in tightly packed crates for days or weeks. Animals who survive to be released often collapse soon afterward from exhaustion, illness, or injury and become easy prey for predators. Many others die after they’re released into the wrong habitats; freshwater turtles, for example, are sometimes released into the ocean, where they suffer a miserable death.
Conversely, some non-native animals set loose through mercy release end up flourishing in their new surroundings, causing enormous problems for native species. The invasive species introduced through mercy release are a threat to ecosystems not only in Asia, but even in countries where Buddhists are a small minority, such as the United States. The northern snakehead, a fish which is considered a major threat to freshwater ecosystems in the eastern U.S., may have established its first breeding population through mercy release, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Mercy release is not merely a once-yearly event. Many Buddhist temples arrange mercy release ceremonies several times in a single month to create good karma for their followers. In some cases, it’s also a way for temples to collect money from their members.
Mercy release is practiced in many countries around the world, including Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, Nepal, India, Australia, England, France, and the United States. In Taiwan alone, 200 million animals, including nonnative species, are released each year. It should not be surprising, then, that a recent study found that 49 of Taiwan’s 51 major rivers were infested with invasive species. We cannot wait until it is too late to sound an alarm on this issue.