A bridge over the river of suffering 13


When you are involved in parrot rescue you see many things: suffering, neurosis and psychosis. Often I see eyes darkened by futility. They have given up. They have reached the point where they would rather die than continue living. Life has become a living hell where the one that they wanted to love has turned into a demon. Because of that demon they become raving, screaming creatures that would do anything to make the pain stop. There is nowhere to turn; they live in a nightmare world.
This is how most people come to us. As rescuer, we naturally take the first paragraph to mean the suffering of birds. No, I am not talking about a parrot being relinquished. I am describing many of the people who turn over their birds to us. Often they are close to mental breakdown. They never dreamt that the sweet-looking, cuddly cockatoo they brought home would turn them into awful, spiteful people who throw things at cages and yell “stop it” at the top of their voices. Often they have abandoned the bird to its cage by then being afraid of another bite. Many times they cover the cage to stop the incessant screaming. Most of them would feel contempt for someone who treated a dog the way they have been treating their bird. In truth, I think most of them feel contempt for themselves. They hate what they have become.

Not all those relinquishing a bird come to us in this state of mind. Quite a few do.

What is the usual cure? We take the bird from them and let them return to their lives. Once the bird is gone they no longer scream “shut up” while their faces turn into masks of anger and frustration, they are no longer consumed by the need to outwit the harpy that has stolen their peace. The incessant sound of squawking is gone. The beautiful bird they once wanted is now living somewhere else and it doesn’t matter where. They cannot help feeling that they somehow failed the bird and this still haunts them; time slowly heals those wounds. They feel as if they brought home a Persian rabbit and watched it slowly turn into a monkey with wings. Those eyes, those knowing and intense eyes, no longer look at them with reproach from behind the cage bars. The beak no longer threatens them with pain. The nightmare is over.

It is our ignorance of their nature, our ignorance of the preventive measures, our ignorance of the antidotes that turns these beautiful creatures into living gargoyles. Bertrand Russell, the great Western philosopher, responded to the phrase “Ignorance is Bliss” this way: “Only the ignorant would think so.” Ignorance is not inborn. Ignorance can be treated by education. I know, I was once as ignorant of the plight of parrots as everyone else. Chloe was the stimulus that brought me to awareness. Because of her I sought the knowledge that gives me the power to help them.

Parrots and cockatoos take us by surprise. Even though they are a mystery they seem safe enough behind those metal bars and most people are comforted by that. “I can bring it out when I feel like it and then put it back,” many would say. No one tells them that having a parrot is like having a five-year-old with a pair of pliers and a foghorn. No one mentions to them that the five-year-old will go through puberty and be a teenage five-year-old. No one mentions that they are the last true dinosaurs still living on land and reminds of them of what happened in Jurassic Park. No one mentions that most will die if released into the wild. Parrots and cockatoos in captivity are still wild in nature. You can break their spirit but they will always remain wild.

Usually, the personality changes come slowly over a period of weeks. A young parrot will respond to the inappropriate petting of a human. Most people sexually arouse these wild animals and bring out their protective instincts by petting them down the back or under the wings. There are so many pitfalls that in a short time the birds have been taught to bite, scream and act like angry children. It’s not the bird’s fault. And, since the people have no idea what a parrot is, it’s not their fault either. A frustrated parrot can bring out the worst in those who do not understand their nature. Only education can change the vicious cycle of adoption, fear and loathing, and relinquishment.

Rescues and sanctuaries are usually filled up. There is no room at the inn. Just finding a rescue or sanctuary is hard and finding a place for a bird can be an immense hurdle. Finding those willing to help you to work out the issues with your bird is even harder. Most people do not look for help because they are already at wit’s end. They were taught as children to take responsibility and they try to find solutions themselves. With parrots, this is a shot in the dark and it rarely works. They give up and then find out that no one can take the bird.

Guilt, fear, anger and sadness often consume those who give up their parrot. All we tend to see is the malnourished bird, with its chewed feathers and glassy eyes—like a doll’s eyes. It is hard for us to see the suffering of the people who relinquish the parrot. It’s true that some people treat parrots as a commodity and a source of income; I wonder what makes people so callous, so unaware of the beauty of life. But most of the people we see are those who made a hasty choice and find themselves in living hell, torn between guilt and frustration.

If we can learn to see that both sides suffer then we can apply a salve to both wounds healing both the human hearts and the winged ones as well. The more we educate others the less suffering there will be on both sides.
I have seen the joy in a parrot’s eyes that has a new life with a caring and loving companion. For me, nothing compares to that feeling, nothing. To see even one bird love and trust again is worth the effort of a lifetime.

As we spread the word about the true nature of parrots and cockatoos they will find loving companions. We will also help others to avoid the pain and suffering that goes with trying to own something beyond their understanding.

Parrots live in a different world far removed from humanity. They bring that world with them in their genes. Education is the bridge between those worlds. It is our mission. Saving lives is so much more than re-homing parrots. Re-homing and fostering stops the bleeding. Education has the potential to end the suffering once and for all.

  • KoKo

    Thank you for an honest article. In the end, I want to see the abolishment of breeding of parrots who do so poorly in human homes. No bird deserves to be caged for his/her entire life, and less so when the “caretakers” are uneducated about the bird’s needs and desires.

    • Don_Scott

      I agree

    • Red Lynn Bird

      I agree 100%! Why don’t people leave these birds in their natural environment!

      • fatherdon

        I agree wholeheartedly. Dr. Steward Metz started the Indonesian Parrot Project for just that reason. Please support his work to protect wild populations! Captive birds are mere shadows of their kin in the wild. Commercial breeders turn out functionally autistic birds who have missed essential steps in their development.

    • fatherdon

      We fail to produce critical minds in our K – 12 system in the U.S. What we do produce is consumers that buy whatever the TV tells them to buy. That includes soap and politics.

  • elizabetta

    I still blame the irresponsible ones who buy parrots without a clue as to what their needs are. There are so many parrots and cockatoos in rescues, that it is unethical to continue to breed them.

    • Don_Scott

      As a determinist I blame no one. The educational system in the US is horrible and most people come out with nearly no education at all. But, yes, they should not be bred and they should be protected in the wild.

    • fatherdon

      It’s hard for me to blame those who grew up in a consumer culture where immediate gratification is the law. Breeders and bird stores…I have no love for them. I agree that they the problem.

  • James Lee Lucier

    The insane commitment of a parrot in love is total. Humans don’t have it in them to give enough in return. We fail them.
    Then we kid ourselves about their intelligence and treat them as if they can’t read us on a basic animal level better than we read ourselves.

    • fatherdon

      rAmen!

  • Red Lynn Bird

    I am in that situation. Someone bought one and it ended up at my house. I knew nothing about them! I have lost my livingroom where he lives. Cannot watch tv or have a conversation. He demands constant attention. He can be as sweet and loving as a human, and mean and spiteful too. These birds have feelings….but they are extremely difficult to live with. I feel so sorry for the cockatoo in my home. I do what I can for him but it is not enough..

    • fatherdon

      This may help:

      Red Lynn, there are some basic principles that you must confirm for yourself to work with “problem parrots and cockatoos.”

      • They are not domesticated animals, they are entirely wild in nature.

      • Working with wild animals requires learning their natural way of life and using that knowledge to find common ground.

      • We cannot learn something if we think we already know it. For example, Red Lynn, if you were adamant that the sun goes around the earth not the earth around the sun then you would be incapable of understanding the solar system. Parrots are not like any other animal we know. How different are they? They have no saliva, no teeth, no muscles to breathe in air, hollow bones, prehensile feet with opposable toes, no mammary glands, and so on. Just putting skin crème on them can cause their skin to burst open and bleed. Their way of life in the wild is unimaginable to us. Why do we think that we can just bring one home and live with it? Most of us were brought up to think that way.

      Some people just seem to get lucky. They have birds that don’t pluck, bite or scream. Some of those “lucky” people may actually have psychotic birds that are afraid to vocalize or have other severe problems. Some may just have a bird that is only slightly neurotic (all captive wild animals have psychological problems of one sort or another). Red Lynn, these “lucky” ones may not be so lucky if their companion cockatoo suddenly begins screaming or biting. Unless they know how to train a bird these problems rarely go away on their own.

      So your companion bird has issues. Rest assured, all of them do. Sometimes those issues don’t bother us but we can be sure that they are not pleasant for the bird. Look at the problem you are now facing with your bird as a chance to learn new skills. It’s like learning to do carpentry. Once you know how to cut wood, nail, square an edge, read plans, make adjustments when something doesn’t turn out just right, etc. then you can start working on building a kitchen cabinet. You wouldn’t try to build one if you had never seen a hammer or a nail. See the situation as an opportunity instead of a problem.

      Like all skills you need to learn both from books and from experience. If you are building a cabinet the books will explain the kinds of wood to use, where to buy them, what kind of weight they can hold, how to finish them. That is knowledge. Wisdom comes from building cabinets. Chloe, an umbrella cockatoo, was my first project. She had feather destructive behavior, various phobias and neuroses, and yet she seemed “normal” enough. I took Dr. Friedman’s LLA course (Learning and Living with Animals) which, despite the name, is strictly about using behavior analysis with parrots to shape behavior and heal them. By learning to look at her with new eyes that focused on her actual behavior (not what I imagined her motives to be) I was able to bring her to near sanity. I made plenty of mistakes but with the help of Dr. Jenkins DVM and Dr. Susan Friedman’s teaching, I got her to choose life instead of the alternative. You can do this, too.

      I know that their bites are painful. I also know that their suffering is greater than I can understand. I know that they belong in a world with few restrictions, where they literally own the sky. I know that they belong in communities that live as nearly as one in a harmony I don’t comprehend. Seeing eyes dull with the pain light up with joy and interest in the world us all the payment I need. You probably will feel as I did when you help a feathered one choose life.

      If you decided to train dolphins you would certainly study and practice the required skills needed to work with them. It’s the same with cockatoos and parrots if you realize that you are working with a wild animal. So how to begin? I suggest that you join the parrotBAS group here: groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/ParrotBAS/info. This is not a chat group. You join and then request the “mini lessons” and wait for a tutor to instruct you. They can help you with one problem such as biting after you finish the lessons. Trust me. This is excellent information. It is where I started!

      Essential book and video to get you started:

      The Parrot Problem Solver by Heidenreich

      The Basics of Parrot Training (video) by Heidenreich

      These are both basic, not in depth, resources but they are good starting places.

      You can find a link to these at our Amazon Store (The tiny bit we get isn’t even worth mentioning). By them wherever you wish! The single best book on the nature of captive parrots is The Manual of Parrot Behavior but it is expensive and not light reading: it is the latest scientific information on behavior that we have compiled for us. Yes, I recommend it but keep in mind that it is written for the professional. There is no single volume that can teach you as much about the nature of a parrot than this particular text.

  • Mea Potter

    My boyfriend of 2 years has a goffin cockatoo which he had for 25 years and also has had a bird or two before him. Over the last 4 to 5 years, this bird has driven him and myself crazy. We can not enjoy a night at his house with out him throwing something at the cage or consistently yelling at the bird. The bird has bit him several times over the past several years. We want to one make our lives together but I am not ready to move in with the bird. I need advice on where or what we should. He loves his bird and I would never ask him to get rid of him, but I can not live with the bird or my boyfriend being so upset and stressed all the time.