Does Theravada Buddhism encourages animal release? Would it be conflicting if one is under the branch Theravada Buddhism but perform animal release?
There is a non-offence clause under the precept against theft for monks that seems to suggest the goodness of it:
tena kho pana samayena aññataro bhikkhu pāse bandhaṃ sūkaraṃ kāruññena muñci. tassa kukkuccaṃ ahosi … pe … “kiṃcitto tvaṃ, bhikkhū”ti? “kāruññādhippāyo ahaṃ, bhagavā”ti. “anāpatti, bhikkhu, kāruññādhippāyassā”ti.
And again there was that time when a certain bhikkhu freed a boar caught in a snare out of compassion. To him there was worry... "What did you have in mind, bhikkhu?" "I was led by compassion, Blessed One." "There is no offence, bhikkhu, for one who is led by compassion."
-- pārājikapāḷi, 1. pārājikakaṇḍaṃ, 2. dutiyapārājikaṃ, vinītavatthu
Certainly there appears to be no conflict with the Dhamma; it is ostensibly a wholesome act, falling under charity, I think.
No, the Theravada tradition wouldn't encourage things like driving around a truck full of shellfish in holy cities, hoping for them to somehow develop Saddha and get a higher birth. Only on very rare occasions, certain animals were able to listen to the Dhamma and benefit from it. So the Theravada tradition would consider it as a waste of time or borderline foolish behavior. Besides, the number of animals in the universe are said to be infinite. So even if that works, it's never going to end.
This article claims,
In East Asian Buddhism and particularly in Tibet and China, the release of animals, particularly birds or fish, into their natural environment became an important way of demonstrating Buddhist pity. In Tibetan Buddhism it is known as Tsethar; whilst in China it was known as 放生 (Fàngshēng). This practice is based on a passage in the Mahāyāna Sūtra of Brahma's Net [etc.]
So that's Mahayana.
This artlce says,
Life release is a traditional Buddhist practise of saving the lives of beings that were destined for slaughter. This practise is performed by all schools of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. It is known as "Tsethar" in Tibetan Buddhism.
So that claims Theravada as well as Mahayana, but it's unreferenced.
This article on Buddhism in Thailand says, in its description of the Laity,
To get ordination into monkhood even for a short period, of course, brings much merit. Besides, there are other ways of merit-earning, such as releasing caged birds or freeing caught fishes, plastering gold leaf on Buddha statues or religious monuments, contributing to the construction of a new temple or the repair of an old one, etc. "The Law of Karma" that each action has its corresponding result and the belief in rebirth are two important factors in molding such attitude towards life among the Buddhists. Though Nibbana (Sanskrit: Nirvana), the highest bliss in Buddhism, is aspired to by all good Buddhists, the vast majority of them still think it is not so easy to reach and that they will be reborn again in this world, in heaven or some other world, or — at the very worst — in hell. Hence, as long as they live they must try to do good in order to ensure good results in this very life as well as in the life to come. "Be a light unto yourself. Each man must strive for his own salvation" — these were the Master's words. In view of this, Theravada Buddhism is often said to have individualistic temper. Nevertheless, it is very tolerant, [etc.]
Wikipedia's Buddhism in Thailand article starts,
Buddhism in Thailand is largely of the Theravada school, which is followed by 90% of the population. Buddhism in Thailand has also become integrated with folk beliefs as well as Chinese religions from the large Thai-Chinese population.
Note that this answer doesn't argue whether and when it's correct to buy and release animals, doesn't argue whether that's a beneficial or a harmful practice: instead this answer is trying to say whether it's a common practice in a culture or country where Theravada Buddhism is established.
Does Theravada Buddhism encourages animal liberation? Would it be conflicting if one is under the branch Theravada Buddhism but perform animal liberation?
I would like to divide my answer into 2 aspects. First the animal liberation aspect seen from the perspective of the animal and then how to approach unwholesome acts such as animal cruelty, destruction of the environment, war and violence in general. Why all these? Because they are intimately woven together as i will try to explain.
Performing acts of animal liberation:
I would like to take the perspective of the animal. Is it a good thing to interfere with that beings life and try to save it from pain and suffering?
Its important to view this from a karmic standpoint. Those beings are in that situation because of their past kamma. They are now receiving the effects of their past deeds meaning that their past kamma is now in effect. If one interferes with that kamma-receiving-process one will disturb that beings kamma-process. One might disturb it in such a way that the being does not get the full effect of the kamma and thereby have to suffer again at a later time.
We do not know what that being is experiencing. We do know that pain and suffering plays an important role in growing and developing spiritually. If one interferes with that beings life one might "cut-off" a process where the being is actually gaining insights and developing. If that happens then the act of saving that being will instead do much more harm than good because one is taking away that beings oppertunity to both grow and develop but also to receive the results of past kamma.
I do not have the "right" answer. What i just wrote is at least an important thing to keep in mind if one is considering to do animal liberation acts. One must ask oneself: "am i really helping that being by interfering?".
Unwholesome actions such as animal cruelty, destruction of the environment, war and violence in general:
From a hardcore buddhist perspective it is not recommended to try to save the world by doing e.g. animal liberation acts, becomming an environmental activists etc. Why is that?
Because that is only treating the symptoms. Buddhism does not treat symptoms. Buddhism goes much deeper than that. It goes to the root of the problem. The root of all problems such as animal cruelty, destruction of the environment, war and violence in general are the 3 root defilements; Greed, Hatred & Delusion.
Greed is the cause of e.g. crabs and whales are being caught to eat and elephants and tigers are being caught to steal their horns and teeth.
Hatred is the root cause of war, violence, intolerance etc.
Delusion happens when one does not see "clearly". One sees e.g. phenomena as being solid and permanent and satisfactory. Because of the apparent solidity one superimposes qualities onto phenomena such as "beautiful, ugly, good, bad etc.".
As long as there exists greed, hatred and delusion in the world the effects of those will also persist. What can we do then?
We can go to the root of the problem. By working on ourselves we can stop ourselves from putting more greed, hatred and delusion into this world. By following the eight-fold noble path we can work on our ethical conduct, mental development and wisdom. By keeping to our ethics and morality and developing ourselves through insight meditation others might be inspired and then begin to practice themselves too.
This is the true and only way to end war, destruction of the planet, animal cruelty and all of those unwholesome acts. They are effects caused by human greed, hatred and delusion so naturally by dimishing these 3 poisons in ourselves we will see a diminishing of the effects in the world also.
If one only treats the effects one will never succeed. Its like keep pouring water into a bucket with holes in it. The water will keep running out. But if one instead fixes the holes in the bucket or even better getting a new intact bucket then one will go to the root of the problem instead of treating the symptoms.
So to sum up. One should practice the noble eight-fold path and develop the different path-factors. The goal is not to dimish war, destruction of nature, animal cruelty etc. These are positive side-effects that happens when one is reducing the root defilements in oneself.
The goal is to work on ourselves and develop our minds and by doing that all the other positive things happen. That way we will become better at "seeing clearly" and thereby better at helping other beings.