Food by VICE

The Guy Behind London’s Owl Bar Says You Misunderstood the Whole Thing

After a campaign from incensed animal welfare campaigners, owl bar organiser, Seb Lyall was forced to scupper plans to let a room full of intoxicated humans come into close contact with birds.

by Phoebe Hurst
Mar 17 2015, 6:00pm

Photo via Flickr user DIVA007

Life is hard as a novelty cafe entrepreneur these days. There was a time when you could turn your establishment into a "dog-friendly boutique coffee bar," or open a cat cafe without harassment; letting an Instagram-friendly array of #fwuffy things crawl over your delighted customers with little regard for animal wellbeing or food hygiene. Even the cereal cafe guys got off with only a few light gentrification gibes.

But poor Annie the Owl—the owl bar pop-up that was due to open in an undisclosed London Soho location this week—has had no such luck. Despite attracting 125,000 ticket applications after its announcing its launch last month, the organisers have been forced to scupper their completely well-thought-through plans to let a room full of intoxicated humans come into contact with sensitive birds, due, unsurprisingly, to animal welfare concerns.

Nearly 29,000 people have signed an online petition calling on Annie the Owl to cancel the event, emphasising the discomfort the noise levels in an average Soho bar would cause to a bird that can hear mice moving under layers of snow.

"Five owls working for six hours over seven nights for public entertainment and money-making is downright unfair and cruel," the petition's page states. "If that's the way to spread a message of conservation, I'd rather not have it spread."

In a Lisa Simpson-esque stand for animal rights over dollar bills, the Barn Owl Centre charity that Annie the Owl had hoped to donate ticket sale profits to also said that it would refuse any money linked to the venture. "If we were given a donation I would set up a video and record myself shredding it up with a video recorder," charity founder Vincent Jones told the Evening Standard. "Even if it was for one million." Woah, man.

In a statement on its website last week, Annie the Owl organisers announced that "after consultation with experts, and following the advice of Police, Health and Safety and Westminster authorities" they would be postponing the pop up's opening to April— and running it as a booze-free "event" in a more spacious, owl-friendly location with "ample educational material" and "yummy smoothies". Not quite the same as sipping an "Owld Fashioned" while petting Hedwig though.

Apart from denying Metro reporters an outlet for their seemingly endless supply of owl-related puns ("Feathers have surely been ruffled this week…"), the bar postponement is a blow for Annie the Owl organiser, Seb Lyall, whose dream of bringing the tawny owl's feathered majesty to Soho revellers is no more.

I spoke to Seb to get his side of the story on the ill-fated owl bar, and find out what's next for Annie and her gang.

MUNCHIES: Hey Seb, how are you feeling about the owl bar backlash? Seb Lyall: The media got it the wrong way, they thought it was going to be almost like a nightclub. I understand, if you're outside London and you use the word "bar," a nightclub is what comes to mind. However in London, a bar could be a smoothie bar or a juice bar. It doesn't mean it's going to be rowdy or have alcohol. That was the main misconception from the media and even now, the activists who are against us are still calling it the "owl bar" and reiterating the fact that it's going to be unsuitable.

But you've removed alcohol from the equation now? Yes, we still plan to go ahead with the event. We've removed alcohol, we've found a bigger space and there is still an element of fun, but it's now mostly educational. The falconers come with the birds and have a special section. People will sit down and chat with the falconers about the birds.

And what about the owls themselves? The people who are campaigning against our event forget that these birds are also used at festivals, music concerts, birthday parties, and all those things which are openly mentioned on websites of bird handlers and falconers. It's not something new, the event is planned to be organised and calm, and in a controlled environment. It will be six birds and 50 people over two hours. That's the issue people have had: they don't understand what the concept is and they think we're going to make money out of it.

How much money do you plan to make? We will actually lose money out of it. With the ticket sales and cost of handlers and venue, it's gone. Then there is staff and security and logistics. Everyone keeps saying how greedy we are and just wanting to make shitloads of money, what they forget is that even if half a million people sign up for tickets, only 120 people will be at each event. We have a charity who will take the money from us, our first charity backed out which was fair enough, there are a lot of people who would want that money because it's for a good cause.

Did you expect such a strong reaction from people over the welfare of the birds? Of course, backlash was expected but what seemed to happen here was that people were not reading our website. They were just reading stories from other media sources. Unfortunately that's the world we live in: you read the title and make up your mind.

What was the thinking behind the owl bar in the first place? We are doing nothing illegal, we're making sure the welfare of the birds is taken care of. We do events all the time, some of the events are for charity, some are to build our customer base. The idea was to give London something unique, it was not for making money.

That is still the idea, but we have to make a very strong case to convince people to read the website and then make up their own mind.

But you can sort of see why people would freak over the idea of birds being in a bar... Of course I understand, but I think we have communicated enough. We have written four press releases. They [organisers of the petition] have put me in the picture publicly. My name is everywhere but they won't come and have a conversation with me in public at all. They make the press release into something that they want to put on the petition, but it's their twist. I want them to come and have a radio chat with me, I'm not hidden.

We are not doing something wrong, and we've made sure of that. It's a given that we'll take care of the birds, their welfare is priority and we have professional handlers. We don't own the birds and the birds have done these kind of events before.

Have there been positive comments too? The response from the public is overwhelming and very positive. We get emails about marriage proposals being organised at the event, documentaries, and interviews so the public is still on our side. Of course you have campaigners who aren't happy with it, but they're not looking at the whole picture.

It's amazing how much furore can be caused by a few birds. I think they [the campaigners] just wanted something like that. Now Yelp is running a "pignic". There is a law against that. You cannot mix pigs with food and drinks, but there is no law about having professional handlers with the birds at our event. The handlers don't have a problem with it either.

Are you still looking forward to the rescheduled owl event in April, despite the problems so far? It's personal pressure on me, there's a Facebook protest page that is all about me and not the owl bar: it's a direct attack. It's very difficult for me, but when we sent a newsletter out to all the people who had applied for tickets to tell them of the changes, I got hundreds of replies and people were really excited.

That uplifts me but I feel like I've aged five years in the past three weeks, it's been overwhelming. It's a bit difficult!

I'm sure it will be a long time before you run any more bird-related events. Thanks for talking with me, Seb!