Consider alternatives to fireworks, for animals’ sake, and ours | Opinion

July 2, 2021 6:00 am

Photo courtesy of Humane Society.

On Dec. 31, 2011, 5,000 red-winged blackbirds fell from the sky in Beebe, Arkansas. The birds landed on roofs, lawns and roads, covering the ground in a blanket of black feathers. “It just looked as if it had rained birds,” City Council Member Tracy Lightfoot said.

Scientists believe this unprecedented loss of wildlife was caused by New Year’s Eve fireworks. The hypothesis is that the large booms scared the birds from their roost, and the disorientation combined with their poor night vision led to fatal collisions.

Most of us associate fireworks with dazzling visual shows eliciting “oohs” and “ahhs” from crowds of onlookers. But there’s a dark side to these bright displays. Many wild animals, pets and people with a history of trauma face distress and even danger as fireworks approach on the Fourth of July.

In May 2021, the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board announced its decision to cancel the traditional “Red, White and Boom” fireworks display for the second year due to COVID-19. As the Twin Cities take a break from some Independence Day traditions amidst the pandemic, we have an opportunity to reflect on the consequences of fireworks in our community and reconsider their return.

Fireworks can have devastating impacts on companion animals. More than 60% of dogs and more than 50% of cats show signs of distress from fireworks. The sudden and confusing nature of pyrotechnics can trigger severe anxiety in pets, most of whom have much more acute hearing than humans. Some pets bolt and get lost as a result of the stress.

The ASPCA reports that more dogs get lost on Independence Day than any other day of the year. Animal shelters report an increase in intake of lost dogs in the weeks following the Fourth of July. Some vulnerable companion animals have even died from the stress of fireworks.

Animals are the best known victims of fireworks, but humans also suffer adverse effects. Independence Day can be a difficult time of year for people who suffer an anxiety or trauma response from the constant stream of explosions. For some war veterans and survivors of gun violence, the loud pops and booms can trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Some children with autism also experience distress from the unpredictable and overwhelming sounds of pyrotechnics. 

Even Americans without mental health difficulties or trauma history are at risk. Fireworks threaten public health and safety in a myriad of ways. In 2017, eight people died and more than 12,000 were injured from fireworks-related accidents. On average, fireworks start 18,500 fires each year, including hundreds of structure and vehicle fires. Additionally, increased pollution from fireworks can exacerbate chronic illness. Breathing in smoke and particulate matter from fireworks can trigger symptoms of asthma and other respiratory disease. 

Exciting alternatives to traditional fireworks already exist and are increasingly popular in other parts of the world. “Quiet fireworks” provide stunning displays without the explosive sounds. These smaller pyrotechnic displays feature brighter colors and have been gaining prevalence in Europe for years. (The city of Collecchio, Italy, passed a law in 2015 requiring all fireworks to be quiet.)

Other alternatives include colorful laser shows and drone displays, which can amaze crowds without the noise, fire risk or pollution associated with traditional fireworks. These festive options can enhance our holiday celebrations while reducing harm to the community.

In 2018, Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter canceled the capital city’s annual Fourth of July fireworks show, citing budget concerns. (Expenses for the display typically totaled around $100,000.)

The tradition has not resumed since. As a Saint Paul resident, I am thankful that my human and non-human neighbors will be more at ease to enjoy Independence Day with a quiet night sky.

Minneapolis and other cities across the state should consider how they might also benefit from a permanent farewell to fireworks.

Creating a safer and more inclusive community is worth celebrating. 

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Julie Knopp
Julie Knopp

Julie Knopp serves as president of the board of Compassionate Action for Animals in Minneapolis. She is a communications specialist and also a freelance writer covering topics related to animals and the environment.