Coming to Prague? Don’t take paid street selfies with animals!

The Enjoy Respect Prague campaign that launched last year aims to encourage tourists to behave with more respect towards the city and its local residents, for example by supporting local businesses rather than buying tacky souvenirs, using public transport rather than hop-on-hop-off buses, being quiet after 10pm, and not littering. But the newest addition to the campaign may raise some eyebrows – posters asking tourists not to pay money to people in the city centre offering the chance to take a selfie with a snake, owl or parrot.

Photo: City of Prague Gallery

Your first question when you hear about this campaign may be, like mine: “Does this even happen in Prague?” But Barbora Scherf from Prague City Tourism, one of the organisations behind the poster campaign, says that although the problem is smaller-scale and less visible than drunkenness and litter, it is very much there.

“You can see it very often close to Charles Bridge, for example, or in Karlova Street when there is a big concentration of people. It’s really just a few people or a few groups of people who have these wild animals – I don’t know in what conditions – but they appear in these places. It’s a small group of people, it’s a niche problem, but it’s still a problem.”

The campaign was initiated by Prague City Tourism and the district of Prague 1, who were made aware of it partly by members of the public reporting it and partly because the people working in these organisations could themselves see it due to the central location of their workplaces.

Photo: City of Prague Gallery

“We ourselves have offices in the centre and we sometimes see, for example, snakes, owls and other wild animals being forced to take pictures with tourists in the street.”

According to animal experts, using wild animals in this way is extremely stressful for them. They are kept outside for several hours in weather conditions that are far too cold or too hot for them, and frequent handling and transfers stress the animal even more, which can lead to physical injury, refusal of food and, in the most extreme cases, even death.

Jan Chmelař from the Czech Environmental Inspectorate (CEI) is sometimes called on to deal with these cases, although he says most of them are handled by the municipal police, who call the CEI when they need expert help.

Photo: City of Prague Gallery

“Even if it is not in our remit, we can still assist them with determining the species, describing the animal’s biology, checking for signs of animal cruelty, if the conduct is somehow stressful for the animal or goes against its natural behaviour, and other expert advisory services like that.”

In some cases, the inspectorate takes the animals and places them in facilities where they are taken care of. Jan Chmelař says that this year 10 snakes and five owls have been rescued so far. Last year, it was 10 snakes and 20 owls or small birds of prey.

“Basically, there are two categories of animals that are used for these productions. The first category is reptiles, mostly snakes, which are mostly boas and pythons. The second category is birds, and most of the time, these are smaller owls, for example barn owls, or smaller birds of prey.”

Photo: City of Prague Gallery

According to Chmelař, this practice is illegal for several reasons. First of all, a city hall directive forbids offering street services without a permit. Secondly, the animals are often acquired by illegal means on the black market. Thirdly, the animals used are sometimes from endangered species protected by international conventions or national laws. And lastly, it can qualify as abuse or cruelty under the Animal Protection and Cruelty Act.

Although fines are imposed for the practice, the perpetrators usually leave the country before the payment deadline is up, as in most cases they are foreigners, according to Mr Chmelař and the city of Prague’s press release on the subject.

The city hopes that, thanks to this campaign, the tourist demand for these photographs will disappear.