“Chats” with Irena Schulz

Written By: B.D. Butler - Jun• 19•13

irena.2I recently threw caution to the wind and asked the very delightful Irena Schulz to participate in a “chats” session, to my surprise and absolute delight….she accepted!

I got Snowball's book here.

I got Snowball’s book here.

I have always admired her work from afar, the most clear and obvious reason is we live on opposite coasts and have never been in attendance of the same parrot expo/festival.  I like to think that we have some things in common as well.  She loves music, sings and plays guitar… so do I.  Irena happens to own a cockatoo that is his own celebrity, the infamous Snowball.  I have Cooper who wants so badly to be in the “biz” as he calls it, so badly that he can taste it.  However, he and snowball will have to chat about the in’s and out’s of the business, before we make out determination of whether or not he is ready.  I am also not going to be a stage father.

You may have heard the name Irena Schulz from various arenas, here and there.  Let me just throw out a few associations.  Parrot Advocate, David Letterman, Blogging, Parrot Expo(s) around the country, Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo’s Manager, Director and Founder of Bird Lover’s Only Rescue, Wife, Mom and Friend.. just to name a few.

Just like the rest of my “chats” segments, Irena received an email from yours truly, with about 20 questions that she answered.  Some are easier than the others, but I love the fact she took her time and wanted to think about them in-depth.  That’s what makes for a fantastic interview!

 

Yes, this is Irena and Snowball on Late Show with David Letterman!

What brought you to realize your love for birds?

My mother had two parakeets when I was a baby.   Their chatter was soothing to me and helped me fall asleep.  As I grew older, I seemed to have a connection with them.

What is it about birds that gave you the “bug”?

There was no defining moment.  As I mentioned, we had two “keets” in the house from the time I was a baby, so I grew to love and appreciate their moods and intelligence.

What kind of birds have you owned through the years?

Although I started out with parakeets, I also had Zebra Finches, Cockatiels, Conures, Cockatoos (my favorites are the Medium Sulphur Crested and the Moluccan), Rainbow Lory, African Greys, Senegal, and Macaws.  Most of the birds I cared for in later years, I acquired as rehomes (rescues).

What made you go from bird lover/owner to bird advocate and start your own 501 (c)3 org?

Short answer:  necessity.

Long answer:

I stopped purchasing baby birds when I realized that there were many people looking to rehome the birds that they could no longer keep.  I began taking in unwanted parrots.  But I knew my limits, so I began contacting friends who were also great caregivers to birds and matched up birds to those who I thought would provide a great home.  Then those avenues became exhausted because they too knew their limits and I was running out of options.  I created flyers so I could find “new” adopters for these birds.  The title for my poster was an attention-getting “BIRD LOVERS ONLY” and then I went on to explain that I was looking for potential homes for unwanted parrots.  So when I had to expand, I “temporarily” called the organization that I founded Bird Lovers Only Rescue Service.  Unfortunately, that name became permanent once I had to develop a website.

You have been such an inspirational member of the avian community and helped so many people and birds in countless ways, who are some members of the avian community that you look up to?

 An easier question to ask would be “Who don’t you look up to?”, although I dare not answer that question.  I do respect and admire most people in the avian community.  I find their strengths and draw from that.  There are so many people out there with so much to offer:  from those who make toys, create healthy recipes for feathered companions, fund raise for causes, rescue, and transport, to those who research and educate.

 What is your favorite part of the aviculture community and it’s members?

The helpfulness and comradery when birds are in need are what has impressed me the most.

 Tell me about your educational focus for future members of the aviculture community.

As you may be aware, I collaborate on music cognition studies aptly named “The Snowball Studies.”  Dr Aniruddh Patel and I will be meeting this month to begin a new series of studies which continue to focus on music cognition in parrots.  We will also be co-authoring a book.

irena.3Children are my main educational focus at this point.  Sy Montgomery was very kind and generous in beginning the “Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo” series in order to introduce him to children.  In order to avoid tragic mistakes in the future, I believe that reaching children through entertainment (books and educational presentations with Snowball at schools) will help prevent some cases of abuse and neglect.  I will be writing the sequels to “Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo” for children in grades 3 through 8.

We currently do educational presentations in schools, churches, and nursing homes.

What things do you think the current avicultural community needs to instill in future parrot owners?

I feel that the avicultural community is on the right track and is doing a great job of educating the public on avian intelligence, neediness, and longevity.  I still receive calls asking me to “suggest a first bird for their six-year-old child” as one example.  While there are some mature children who are capable of caring for another living being, most will not.  It’s very likely this bird will be novel for a very short time and spend the rest of its life in some corner being ignored trapped in a cage.

If there is one thing that I would hope the entire avicultural community would instill in present and future parrot owners (or any pet, for that matter), is that we are all part of the animal kingdom and share intelligence that is not unique to the human species.  Through scientific research, I have no doubt that we will find that animals are intelligent and share similar emotions to us.  Because of animal intelligence, we should always remember to “respect life” in general.

Of course people want to know about Snowball, how did he come into your life?

He was relinquished to us in August of 2007.  His previous owner, Dane Spudic, brought him to us along with a CD of Snowball’s favorite tunes by the Backstreet Boys.  Dane and I took birds to the same veterinarian, Dr Karen Becker, and she suggested that he contact me at Bird Lovers Only.

 

 

Snowball has been on several media outlets, including the CBS Sunday morning show, a Taco Bell commercial and my favorite…. David Letterman, among others, what was that like?

When Snowball’s video became viral, I had media contact me from around the world.  I was like a deer in headlights.   We all thought Snowball would have his fifteen minutes of fame and that would be the end of it.  Instead his fame continues to reach new heights and his fan base increases with each new venture.

Being on Letterman was surreal.  Here is a man who keeps his studio at exactly 54 degrees because before each show he runs up and down the stairwells to get his adrenaline going.  He even has bodyguards guarding the doors to the stairwell so he won’t be interrupted.

Prior to the show, I met Dr Phil.  I had Snowball on my arm so I couldn’t stand around and talk long.  He was a friendly fellow, but the stage makeup on him was such a distraction to me.  Of course, you don’t notice the makeup when you are watching celebrities in TV and movies.  So when I come face to face with a man wearing more makeup than I usually do, it’s “distracting.”

Snowball also has literary credits; can you tell me about that?

Snowball has a tell all book “Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo” written by Sy Montgomery and published by Bauhan Publishing.  Snowball told his story while Sy wrote it all down.  He has been in “Birdology” by Sy Montgomery, has been discussed by Dr Oliver Sacks in his book “Musicology”, and Snowball is in several college text books throughout the U.S. and Canada.  He has also been in many magazines throughout the world.  I will be writing the sequel to “Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo” once the book-signing engagements dwindle down a bit.

Snowball always gives us plenty of material to write about.  We never run out of cartoon ideas, and we never run out of stories to tell in the children’s books.

irena.6What’s it like to have such a famous parrot?  Does Snowball have many diva demands?

Because Snowball is a family member, it’s hard to envision him as the international celebrity that he is.  To us, he’s just another feathered child.  My life changed dramatically as a result of his “stardom.”  Before we moved to South Carolina, I had an 80+ hour work week.  Between the usual rescue duties, I also conducted research studies and played agent to His Royal Snowness.  Although I no longer take new birds in to the rescue since our move to South Carolina, I stay involved in transporting birds to available rescues and sanctuaries as well as assisting in veterinary costs.   I also stay involved in music cognition research, writing, fund-raising, marketing and promotion and being Snowball’s agent.

Diva demands?  Other than Snowball wanting mirrors on every wall including ceiling and floors in order to admire himself, new and fun tunes to dance to, unlimited pine nuts and pistachios, new windowsills to destroy in the time it takes to answer a phone call, his own Facebook page, a hotel on wheels, his own series of books, millions of adoring fans to applaud and praise him, VIP treatment on the road, an Emmy for his segment on the WGN News, a movie role (and an Oscar for his performance), his own personal masseuse, and his very own personal assistant – Buddy Palmetto, a humble and hard-working cockroach, not much in the way of “diva demands.”

irena.5Does Snowball have an agent? 

Yes.  That would be me.

Can he give my Congo Cooper some tips on the entertainment biz?

Let me get Snowball so he can answer this one personally.

Snowball!

Snowball!  Please come here and answer this question for this nice gentleman…

Snowball:  (he’s clearing his throat)…”Call me.”

 What are the top three things that you think a good rescue needs to succeed?

1 – Financial stability.  You have to have the funds to vet birds.  Toys, food, and cages are costly and are something you need to keep in good supply.

2 – Good working relationships with at least two avian vets.  One or the other may not be available at all times, so you do need backups in case of emergencies.

3 – Character.  The person or persons involved in decision-making and daily management need to be dedicated, ethical, diplomatic, and professional at all times.

What are the top three things you think are most important for being a parrot owner? 

The same things that are required of a good rescue to succeed.  I believe these three qualities to be a recipe for success in many walks of life.

Tell us about a “day in the life” at Bird Lovers Only.

bird lovers onlyIf only I could give you an example of the ‘usual’ day here, but I’ve learned to expect the unexpected.  I make it a point to not stay on a strict schedule with the birds.  I’ve found them to expect certain things at certain times which can make them neurotic when my day becomes topsy-turvy due to an emergency situation, research, family, etc.  So I make it a point to “mix things up daily.”

Other than the usual duties involved in rescue, I read up on related research studies in music cognition, write, manage Snowball, and sometimes sing and play guitar around the birds.  Being Snowball’s agent can become time-consuming especially over contract negotiations and licensing agreements, but it all works out in the end.  All funds that come in benefit the research and Bird Lovers Only’s rescue programs.

Does your family help out, and what do they think of your work with parrots?

My husband is a computer programmer so he is the technical person that helps with the web site and other technical issues that are beyond my scope.  He also helps by power-washing cages weekly while I scrub everything else down in the bird room.  We both take part in giving them showers, feeding, and daily care and attention.  My family is very supportive of my work with parrots.  They understand that it’s a passion of mine and that I become very dedicated to projects.

Where would you like to see the world of aviculture in ten years?

I would like to see more research done on avian intelligence and behavior.  I would like to see research studies done that may prove parrots to have the ability to feel happiness, anger, jealousy, and suffer just as humans do.  I would like to see a healthier respect for life in general.

 

Thanks again to Irena for taking time out of her book signing, parrot advocating, family time and managing Snowball… to participate in the latest Parrot Earth “chats” segment!  Words cannot express my gratitude and I hope you enjoy this interview as much I as I do!!  Keep an eye out for Snowball… that kid’s going places!

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Fantastic, enlightening, fascinating…..Thank you both!

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