I recently received an email inquiring if I would be interested in the flip side of parrot rescues and the epidemics of rescues becoming hoarding situations. I of course was intrigued and asked for a sample of what she was talking about. Little did I know that I would get a very well written glimpse into her very heartfelt detailed story of volunteering and just trying to make a difference in birds lives. I decided to take the piece written by Caitlin Rice and make it a series. Rescues; Deplumed by Caitlin Rice
My life changed the day I walked into that basement and looked into the eyes of a Greenwing Macaw named Sebastian. I thought it was pretty bad down there, as I was greeted with a thick musty air and a claustrophobic feeling from the clutter while my ears were ringing from the loud parrot calls. I walked down a row of cages as he told me the name of each bird. The lack of toys and enrichment was my least concern; this man clearly needed help and I was willing to do what I could to see if any short-term improvements could be made.
I was helping him clean the cage trays one by one when I had made it to the back corner and suddenly my nose was overpowered by the worst stench.
I uttered the words “oooh stinky!”
“Oh that’s Sebastian. He’s always had stinky poop. The vet couldn’t find anything wrong with him, it’s just like that.”
I looked at the floor and saw a splatter of green slime that extended 4 feet, tracing back to a 32 inch wide cage, leading up to a big red parrot clinging to the front bars and ready to aim fire.
It was hard for me to imagine any vet saying that this was no big deal and judging by the current conditions of the 15 or so big birds down there, I couldn’t imagine this man was detail oriented enough to order and pay for the extensive testing it would take to rule out everything. I’m no vet, but I know bird poop is not supposed to smell like anything, especially rotten eggs and vomit. But that was the smell encouraging me to hold my breath and take short little gasps of air through my mouth.
“Hi Sebaaastian” He would say, in the dialect of a snobby elementary school bully.
“That bird is just meean” when I gave Sebastian extra attention. His cage was plastered head to toe with rotten green slime and it took weeks for me to scrub most of it away, as I would visit once a week to help clean the cages. I would bring bird treats in my pocket and sneak them in his food bowl while I scrubbed. I hoped to build a friendly repertoire with this supposed feathered buzz saw.
The first time I was ever there, the man pointed out a conure with toes missing and told me “that was Sebastian. He escapes and lets other birds out. Bit the toes off this one and killed my favorite sun conure”. He could point to scars on his own body from this bird and he wore them like badges of honor.
He told me that a vet had come and checked on all the birds because he had lost nearly a dozen last year and didn’t understand why.
“There was no virus, I don’t know what it could have been.”
I felt sick. I couldn’t imagine the degree to which a person would have to be in denial to not understand why an animal would die in this environment. Food bins had no lids and the newspaper used to line the cages was very old. The amount of dust left everything coated with a visible layer. There were times where I looked in the water bowls and felt a rush of intense horror and sadness at the thought of being one of his birds. No living thing should ever be asked to drink that water or breathe that air.
I felt bad for this man. I truly did. I believe that the conditions we provide for our pets is a reflection of ourselves and when I looked in his eyes, I got the feeling that he did not like what he saw in the mirror. I was willing to help make things better and he seemed to become more enthusiastic as time went on. I helped him haul away a hoard of things that he didn’t want any more and it really did look a lot better in that basement. I was proud of him for what he was willing to do and I felt optimistic about the future. It was Christmas time and I made him a dreamcatcher with feathers from parrots I had cared for over the years.
Unfortunately, things didn’t get much better. Later they got much, much worse.
I was honestly afraid of Sebastian but I still cared deeply for him. Being a mean bird doesn’t justify this treatment, and aggression in prey animals is not their natural demeanor. This is not something they come out of the egg destined to do; it’s the responsibility of people to lovingly nurture them and train them to coexist with us.
The man would reach in his cage to take care of food/water and Sebastian would veer towards him. I would hear “Get back! Get over there!” and turn to see the poor guy shivering in the corner of the cage. One time the man just said “forget about it, he’s too mean” and just left it as it was, right in front of me. I tried to see if he would target for a treat, maybe the man could do this so it would be easier to feed him. But it wasn’t working. He wouldn’t touch the target stick.
“He’s blind on that side, he can’t see you.”
I learned that his right eye couldn’t see a dang thing, but that a vet might be able to fix it with an expensive surgery. I made a mental note of this. Later I learned that Sebastian was also abused, violently, before he came to this basement.
I understand why the caged bird bites. One day I cleaned the cages by myself and it was the first time I ever had to unlock the chain and open Sebastian’s cage door. My hands trembled. I was so afraid I would jump and startle him into biting me, so I closed my eyes as I unscrewed the thing that held the water bowl in place. The reason his bowl was screwed on the inside was because the side doors were bolted down. I could hardly imagine his big head and body fitting through those tiny doors, but that was the reason they were permanently shut.
There was about ¼ inch of what looked like oatmeal and smelled like vomit in his water bowl. His food bowl was empty aside from a few crumbs. The smell burned my nose as water splashed into the bowl. I nearly threw up and tucked my face into my shirt while I washed the bowl with soap and water. I was choking back tears as I walked back to Sebastian’s cage and thought about what he was being forced to live with. He couldn’t even open his wings in that 32”x33”x22” cage. It was plastered with poop and he had no food or water. No wonder he kept escaping. The amazing thing to me is that he would go to the trouble of letting other birds out too.
He rushed towards my hand as I was reaching in to screw the water bowl back on. Despite every gut reaction in me screaming ‘pull your hand away!! Look at that beak!!’ I refused to leave this parrot without water and if he bit me while I put this bowl in there, I considered it a forgivable offense. But he didn’t bite me. He started drinking from the bowl before I had it fastened to the bars. At that point I could no longer hold it in. He is not a bad bird I thought as tears rushed down my face and cooled my cheeks, flushed red-hot by the surge of intense feelings. This bird was the product of a tragedy and I vowed to do something about it.
My husband Ryan went down there with me to see the birds and I showed him Sebastian. It was funny, his whole head fluffed up like a big happy clown wig and Ryan reached out to pet him. No aggression, nothing that looked dangerous to me. No “negative association with men”. I told the man and he made a comment about how he thought the bird would probably make a good pet for somebody, he just seemed so “unpredictable”. But this was his personal pet, not part of the adoption program.
I would have offered the man cash and walked away from that group then and there if I didn’t live in an apartment. Soon we would be moving in a house and I was counting down the months until I would be able to say that I wanted to take care of him. My pillow was soaked with tears the nights I would come home after helping him clean. I hated leaving Sebastian there. My husband listened to me as I would often say, “I wish I could tell him and he could understand, don’t worry, I’m gonna do everything I can to get you out of here. But instead he has to live like that, with no hope.” Ryan loves the birds too and it wasn’t easy for him either.
I have volunteered for animal shelters in 4 different states in the US and one of the top highly rated organizations in this country. I am not new to this scene and I am very aware how sensitive an issue it is to deal with hoarders and animal abusers. I knew I had to be extremely casual and discreet with this man if I wanted to help him or his birds. I asked questions after several weeks helping him and I did so in a pleasant manner. I wanted to know two things: who’s in charge here and what procedures are in place to prevent this from happening.
I was under the impression that this man was just another volunteer who liked to socialize with other parrot people. However, I learned that he was president of the parrot shelter and education club I had started volunteering with. I’m sure you can imagine the cocktail of emotions that began to flood my body.
I went to a business meeting to find out more.
It was at this business meeting where I overheard one of the volunteers (who is also buddy buddy with the president) talking about how she had to put up plastic on the walls to prepare for Sebastian. My entire body started to tremble as I felt a fluttery surge of panic flood my stomach.
Nooo. Not her. Please God no.
I tried my best to stay cool, to look unintrigued. She had more birds in her home than one would care for in a lifetime, and out of all the volunteers she was least knowledgeable about them. Standing in her driveway you can hear the collective screams of dozens of large parrots. She was one who wasn’t afraid to use force with the big birds who bite. She would use towels to grab perfectly normal parrots to go in or out of their cage. It was by the grace of God that I overheard this conversation and was able to offer my residence for housing Sebastian, since I didn’t have any large macaws it would be more convenient. It was only four more weeks until we would be living in a big four bedroom house. Please, just let him hang on until then.
Copyright 2014 – Parrot Earth – Rescues; Deplumed (Part One)