LONDON—Whatever the sideshow, a cocktail party with no cocktails is unlikely to be much of a hoot.
But visions of a romantic evening in London sipping martinis under the gaze of watching owls faded away when animal rights protesters forced the organizers of a pop-up owl event to ditch the booze and find a less intimate venue for hipsters to commune with nature.
So on Monday night at a secret East London location just off Brick Lane, a pair of bouncers guarded the entrance to the city’s most hyped night out. Almost 100,000 people had applied for tickets to see Annie the Owl during her five-night residency. The barn owl and five of her closest friends joined the golden-ticket holders inside for an evening of cheese boards and falconry.
The atmosphere was amiable, the customers were largely satisfied, and the birds appeared unfazed as experienced owl-handlers introduced them to the hushed and seated crowd. Perhaps the absence of alcohol and a second, larger venue had been worthy compromises after all.
Seb Lyall, founder of Locappy, which organized the pop-up event, couldn’t let it go, however. “It was supposed to be cocktails. It would have been fantastic,” he told The Daily Beast as waitresses poured a second round of juices. Instead of mojitos, there were kale-based smoothies. The hippies had won, and it was grinding Lyall’s gears.
“The protesters were here a couple of days ago,” he said. “They were all drinking outside, slept outside, too…they’re tramps.”
One group of campaigners calling themselves London Vegan Actions posted images of the protest on their Facebook page. Some wore cartoon owl masks and sat beneath a Hunt Saboteurs Association flag.
Lyall claimed that protesters had threatened him, abused him, and called him through the night, warning: “We’ll come and get you.”
“They’re terrorists, literally wearing masks. It’s quite scary,” he said.
Despite the organizers’ concessions, demonstrators insisted that the event was still exploitative. Banners proclaimed that all wild animals belonged in the wild. “A bird in a cage is a fucking outrage,” read one.
Charles Mason, who has put on live animal displays for more than 30 years, said the owls on show live in an aviary, not a cage. Despite’s Mason’s years of experience, mainstream animal welfare organizations share some of the activists’ concerns.
The event allowed each of the 75 guests to hold one of the birds. A spokeswoman for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) said owls do not generally enjoy being handled and could find it stressful to be in a crowd.
“I didn’t expect this uneducated backlash based on mis-constructed views of the event,” Lyall said. “They think it’s going to be in a nightclub, with drunk people, but this is spacious, comfortable environment…Even the RSPCA was calling it a café. They just didn’t know.”
One of the most vocal critics of the pop-up event is Vincent Jones, director of an owl sanctuary in the west of England. He told The Daily Beast that he had been tricked into agreeing to accept a donation from Locappy on behalf of the Barn Owl Center of Gloucestershire.
Jones said he had been told that a fundraiser was being held and only later did he discover what the event entailed. “If a show is going on at a country event, at least it’s in the countryside where birds of prey live,” he said. “Owls do not live in café-bars in the center of London.”
Jones, whose rescue center needs $120,000 a year to care for unwanted owls, said he had refused the donation and that he would not be used as cover for a publicity stunt. He said there is a growing problem with birds raised in captivity as pets or performers, which cannot legally be released into the wild if their owners tire of them.
“Harry Potter was bad enough,” he said. “But an owl café is just awful. Owls passed ’round like toys—they’re not toys. We would not be behind something like that.”
Back inside the bare-bricked gallery walls in East London, there was no sense that the birds were being treated like toys. Mason, the white-haired handler, kept the audience in check as the event in Britain’s trendiest neighborhood rolled on past midnight.
Sophia Hann, 20, had loved the chance to see a bird of prey up close, but the strict rules and enforced breaks between shows began to take their toll as other members of the audience slipped away early. “You do expect a nighttime event to be a bit more lively,” she conceded.