I wasn’t able to visit Sebastian this month. I had a tremendous load of responsibility in February, 2014. I went on a rescue call for a bunch of small birds abandoned in a house while it was 4°F. It was rat infested. The owner died weeks earlier and the cigarette smoke still lingered. I suddenly had 9 Cockatiels and 10 Budgies quarantined in my apartment, and I had to give them several Dawn soap baths before they looked or smelled remotely clean. I was in the middle of moving. I took in a Conure who went neurotic when he was surrendered. He was driving other foster homes crazy with his constant screaming, and in addition to all that I also started fostering a wild African Ringneck.
The more I learned about shelter operations, the angrier I became. It was all such a complicated mess. More and more birds came in while there were good parrots who had been in foster care for years. They weren’t getting adopted and they were developing problems in the chaos. Foster homes were bursting at the seams with dozens of parrots in each home. Nobody wanted to talk about this devastating catastrophe. They wanted to use volunteer homes as warehouse space for birds and expect us not to complain about paying for everything ourselves. They always did more and spent more than we could imagine, our work was thankless and never good enough.
I would think about Sebastian and my mind was temporarily cleared of these trauma-inducing thoughts. I had to get him out of there and I was going to put on a happy face no matter what.
February 22 I went down those steep steps and through the rickety old doorway that led me to my big red buddy. This time he had a bowl full of food and the man looked concerned.
“He hasn’t touched his food…..I don’t know what’s the matter with him.”
Sebastian was in a different cage now. The state inspector had been by for the yearly visit, perhaps she told him to make the change. Still, the new cage was hardly a step up from the old tiny one. He willingly stepped out of that cage and onto a perch for the man.
“Hold out your arm!”
I was nervous. He talked it up like this bird was so awful and now he was thrusting him into my arms.“You can pet him! He lets some people get all in there and scratch his head.”
Despite being in this dungeon with that man present, I felt nothing but indescribable joy. To finally hold Sebastian in my arms after all those tearful nights…words just don’t do it justice.
The man showed a softer side. I wouldn’t say it was huggy or emotional, or remotely indicative of someone who was [temporarily] leaving a pet they had for ten years, but it was softer. I could see how volunteers might be led on by these moments and feel the need to protect him, with hopes that he would suddenly become this person they imagine he could be. I, however, was not so easily romanced.
He drove Sebastian over to my house and let him out of the carrier. Suddenly I felt protective. I wanted him to feel safe and easy in the new environment.
“Give him the command! Tell him to step up!”
I pretty much ignored that and set the perch next to him, waiting for him to make the choice. Then I put him in his new cage, 78” tall and 46” wide, his old cage nearly fit inside twice.
“You’re going to have to be firm with him, he will be harder to control in a bigger cage. Do not underestimate this bird.”
I thought to myself, do not underestimate me.
Sebastian was finally in my home and I was so grateful for every moment we shared together. The first thing I did was take him to the vet. His nails were curling, his beak was overgrown, he had very foul-smelling excrement. The vet could feel his skeleton. I had to follow-up every month with the vet, getting him weighed and groomed until his feet and beak could function properly. He put me in touch with a special animal opthamologist and I made an appointment for July. It would take time to save money for that.
I was talking to another volunteer on the phone and she asked me how Sebastian was doing. I told her how I would hear him say things that sounded terrible. GET OVER THERE. GET OVER THERE. STEP UP. STEP UP.
“Did Mr. President tell you about how he rescued him?”
He did not.
Before he ever lived in a basement, Sebastian was violently abused. The first owner grabbed from his cage by his tail and flung into a dog crate. He shared the cage with a scarlet macaw named Happy who came along as well. They traveled away from that life with the man I was now dealing with.
“He said he felt like punching the guy in the face but he knew that he wouldn’t be able to get the birds out if he reacted harshly.”
Well…I guess for that moment he knew how I felt for the 5 months leading up to me re-rescuing him from this ‘rescue’. Happy got his happy ending, Sebastian seemed to have been lost in translation.
I spent time with him every day, building a bond and training in approximations. For the first two weeks he did nothing but eat, sleep, and drink. He wasn’t difficult to control; he was just terribly afraid and very easily startled with his disability. His body often trembled in the presence of other people. I trained him to target outside the cage and he was gaining some confidence, but then he would get nervous and inch all the way to one side of his T stand until he stepped into thin air on his blind side.
He wanted to be up high. He wanted to sit on top of his cage and never come down. I built a big jungle gym for him, arranged in a square so his disability wouldn’t get in the way. It braced against the ceiling so he could flap those glorious wings with all his might. Working with him on this stand every day changed his whole world. He developed confidence and became remarkably easy to train. I am so proud of him for how brave he has been.
The man never once asked me how he was doing. He had made comments to others about the environment I set up.
“He’s going to be spoiled and difficult to handle when he comes back”.
I wanted to ask about keeping him but I was so afraid. I’d tell him how Sebastian was doing and all he had to say was,
“He’s my bird. You can’t have him.”
It made me sick. I didn’t want to ask him until it felt absolutely right.
Caring for birds at home became my full-time occupation. I didn’t have time to help the president keep his basement clean every week. I went over about a month later and some unsettling information came to my attention. Other foster homes were in scary conditions, I overheard. Birds that were up for adoption had been dead for months. I was white as a ghost. I didn’t know these people. I could hardly help this guy, let alone a whole network of others just like him with basements full of birds like Sebastian. I felt horrified at the thought.
Foster homes weren’t given specific guidelines on cleaning and feeding. There were no limits, no standards, and no consequences. How could they enforce rules that were not in place? How could volunteers do home checks with the number of birds they each had to care for? Some of these people had 30 to 40 birds under their roof, in addition to children and jobs. This wasn’t fair to the birds, but it wasn’t fair to the people either. It wasn’t fair to their families and it made me really sad.
“What is on the home check sheet? How do you define clean water? How do people know what you expect of them?” I asked.
He wouldn’t give me a straight answer. Some people were “too anal” according to him. They didn’t know how to write standards because of….political reasons? It got personal because of the awful conditions? I didn’t know. But I knew who could define it for everyone: Kansas state laws.
I researched these laws and studied them like I was getting ready for the board exam. There were some really serious violations within this shelter, and foster homes had no idea what they were agreeing to. I spent months writing a proposal with solutions.
I went to help him clean again several weeks later. There was a noteworthy exchange that is still eery when I think of it. Every time I helped him clean I would bring a pad of recycled newsprint to line the cages. I never wanted to use that old newspaper he had because it harbors a mold that can cause aspergillus. I learned this from Irene Pepperberg when she spoke of Alex’s death in her memoir Alex and me.
I had been doing this for 6 months and he finally picked up my newsprint and commented,
“Wow this is handy. Fits right in the tray!”
I explained why I used it and immediately his demeanor changed, he put my newsprint down, and picked up his newspaper piles to continue lining the cage trays.
You see, he had wanted Irene Pepperberg to speak at an event for his shelter, but she charges a $4,000 fee. Much of that money benefits parrot conservation and scientific research. But he believes it is such an unreasonable amount of money, that he can’t stand to hear her name. Doesn’t matter that she changed the world’s perception of parrot intelligence and inspired people to raise the bar for parrot care and conservation all across the globe. He will spite her ‘outrageous’ fee by adamantly disregarding warnings about the potential deadliness of moldy old newspaper. Riiight.
“She overworked that bird you know. He started plucking.”
Meanwhile, not four feet behind him, an African grey sits in a dirty empty cage with no toys, in all the glory of her plucked chest and abdomen.
The next time I went into the basement was also my last. I was helping with an event at Mr. President’s house while he was at work. I smelled something wrong. It smelled like the rat house where I rescued the 19 little birds. I had to check. I didn’t want to but I had to.
The smell of rodent urine wafted in and out of my nose as I walked around, trying to find the origin. And something else I couldn’t put my finger on….fungus. There were piles of mold in the cage trays. Mold growing on the floor covering ⅓ of the cubic feet that I could see. Furry looking piles under the food bins. Roaches crawling in the food supply. Plants growing out of the mold. Ants crawling around the food debris caked with bird poop.
No wonder he had so many birds die down there. Now I understood why some of them would throw large volumes of their pellets into their tray, despite being hungry. The ones who ate all their pellets must have been the ones who died. Grain food becomes deadly when it harbors certain kinds of mold. When the air dries in the cold season, that mold powders into dust and they breathe it in. Bugs and rodents leave feces and urine everywhere they go. What would have happened if I didn’t help him that winter? And now I understand why there was such an unusual amount of dust. No precautions were taken during the summers and this must have happened over and over in cycles.
And the biggest irony of this?
He had once said something that chilled me to the bone.
“All those birds died and Sebastian is still here.”
Sebastian was the last one to be fed and I had even seen the man skip him because the bird was “too mean” to risk putting his arm in the cage. Mold and other contamination would be less present on food that is deeper in the bin. Sebastian was getting less food and the food he did get had less mold. Perhaps this monster gave Sebastian a terrible life for killing one of his only friendly birds, and his torturous treatment was the very thing that saved him.
One other volunteer was present and I showed her what I saw. I called the rescue adoptions coordinator. I sent her pictures of what I saw. I told her that he needed an intervention. I would help get every bird out of there ASAP, take care of them in my basement while he got a professional company to eradicate the mold and bugs, and we would have to get serious about what was going on in these other foster homes. She told me that if I were to take in any of those birds, I should not let a single cage from that environment enter my home. But she also began to worry. I told her I wrote a proposal and I was waiting to present it. She cut me off,
“We are doing EVERYTHING BY THE BOOKS, Caitlin. Do not use words like ‘law’ around the man. It will trigger him and he will shut down emotionally. He will not allow anyone down there anymore to check on those birds if you do that.”
I gave her an ultimatum: Help me get the birds out of there ASAP and make him do something different or I will report him. He is the president of this shelter and his actions are infecting the entire organization.
“Do you understand what that could do to the birds in this shelter?”
I did understand. But these people were made to believe that if the ring leader was shut down, all their birds would be taken away and euthanized. This is not the case but I could not waste any more time going in circles with her. She could look it up herself. She was choosing to believe this crazy man and stay ignorant. None of this was my problem anymore, I was done.
I ended up making a report. I used my proposal to cite all the laws; it was relatively easy to make sure the state would take immediate action since I had spent months doing all that work. The other volunteers helped him cover things up. The inspector didn’t enforce the laws he was still breaking. He passed inspection and got a stern talking to. For that entire week I could hardly sleep as my body surged with adrenaline. I was a victim of a heinous crime, years ago. I was suddenly triggered and afraid. My heart was constantly pounding. Then I got the text that I was dreading:
“I think its time for Sebastian to come home now.”
Copyright – 2014 – Parrot Earth – Rescues;Deplumed (Part Two) by Caitlin Rice