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A Promise Is Made
A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage
—WILLIAM BLAKE, “Auguries of Innocence”
On Christmas Eve in 1987, a bird’s screams echoed through the canyons of the Beverly Hills neighborhood of Trousdale Estates. The sound was a high-pitched, warbling wail, like a woman in agony, and it went on for hours. In the bird’s native land, 8,200 miles away, the cry would enable wild parrots to alert each other through dense rainforest to predators circling in the sky or crouching in the trees. In Trousdale Estates, a neighborhood full of multi-million-dollar homes carefully arranged on the hillsides, the sound reverberated through the otherwise peaceful and empty streets. This was the kind of place where celebrities and millionaires enjoyed the views of Los Angeles from their private pools, not where wild animals screamed for hours.
Neighbors called the police and animal rescue groups.
Animal Control contacted a friend of mine who worked with one of the animal rescue groups. She said she needed to find a foster home quickly, and she knew I loved birds.
“Do you think you can take in a parrot?” she asked. “If we don’t move right away, Animal Control will take it. We need help tonight.”
I was in the middle of studying for the Psychology Licensing Exam. Our professors warned us not to take on any additional responsibilities, and they told dire stories about low pass rates. This wasn’t the time for weddings, pregnancies, or new jobs. It was Christmas Eve, though. Everyone else was going to take a break. I could help, I thought.
“I’ll keep it until we can find it a good home,” I said.
When we arrived that evening, Animal Control officers escorted us into the mansion. It was for sale, unfurnished, and our footsteps echoed through the empty rooms. The house spread out from an airy central atrium. The walls were painted a light peach, and tall potted palms decorated the space. In a cage at the center of the atrium was a single Moluccan cockatoo. Nearly two feet long, she had pink feathers, and when she raised her crest, it was a rich salmon color. Her colors complemented the cool pastels and whites of the home. The owners thought the bird’s beauty would help them sell the house quickly.
For the bird, there was nothing beautiful about the space. There were no toys, no mirror or bell, nothing to stimulate and entertain her. No fruit or vegetables to pique her interest. No voices, bird or human, to comfort her. She was utterly alone. Her droppings had piled up like a pyramid to perch level.
Her cage had several locks, and she’d managed to open most of them. She couldn’t get out, but I could see there was an intelligent mind trapped in that cage.
My heart quickened when I saw the seed bowl full of empty hulls. I examined her keel, the breastbone that typically gets fattened up in chickens, and saw the sharp bone protruding from her chest. She didn’t have an ounce of fat. When Animal Control contacted the owners, they claimed they were sending their chauffeur about once a week to replenish her seed bowl. It is tragically easy to starve a parrot to death, because they eat only the insides of seeds, leaving the nutritionally valueless hulls behind. To the untrained eye, such as that of a chauffeur hired to drive a car, it can appear as though the seed bowl is still full when only empty hulls remain.
I’d seen people make this mistake before with parrots. One woman told me she had asked her children to feed her bird while she was away. She called daily to remind them to check his food. “Don’t worry. His bowl is full!” the children told her. That bird died an appalling death, even with people to care for him. Now I was seeing another animal who had been abandoned and starved, even while surrounded by vast wealth.
I looked from her keel to her eyes. There was fear there; she didn’t understand that we were there to help. There was also hope. Maybe, at last, someone had come to keep her company and rescue her. Mostly, though, I saw pain. I felt as if I were looking directly into a tortured soul. Those eyes seemed to be crying out to me.
I can’t explain it. I felt an immediate bond with this bird. I knew then that this rescue was going to take more than a few hours.
“I promise,” I said, “to find you a good home. I promise to make you happy.”
But what makes a parrot happy? Far too few pet owners know the answer to that question. Owning a bird is seductive, but people often don’t consider the difficulties of keeping an exotic animal. They want to care for and love a beautiful creature, but unless they understand the commitment involved, they can end up doing more harm than good.
I knew the damage humans could inflict, but still, I could relate to wanting a bird. I always enjoyed being in their presence, but I had vowed years ago not to be a part of the animal trade. Here, though, was an animal not in a pet shop but left alone in a house for sale, because she complemented the decor. Here was an animal who needed me.
And this parrot was not your average pet—not just because she had the intelligence to pick locks. Her pink feathers were the color I’d painted my bedroom as a child. I wasn’t immune to the seduction of a parrot’s beauty. She was tall with a broad chest. Her large black eyes were surrounded by circles of blue. And she was hungry and afraid.
I realized I needed to learn what it would take to do right by this bird. She had never asked to be brought to this hemisphere, this continent. She had not asked to be isolated in a human world. I promised her she would have a permanent home.
I took her in. I gave her a human name, Sammy, short for Salmon, in honor of her beautiful salmon-colored crest. I had to learn how to provide the care she needed. And what I discovered ended up helping many others, parrot and human alike. Though I had no way of knowing it at the time, Sammy would lead me to a career of helping veterans find their way to healing. She wouldn’t be a distraction from my Psychology Licensing Exam; she would utterly change my views about my profession. And, perhaps most of all, Sammy would help me find my way to a life of love and service.
* * *
I wanted to understand where this bird had come from. I felt that if I knew her history, I’d know better how to care for her now. So I researched Sammy’s roots. I wasn’t there when Sammy was a baby, but I can imagine her early life because it’s the story of millions of birds wrenched from their homes in the wild.
With a likely birth year of 1977, based on the date of her importation, Sammy was wild-caught as a fledgling in the Moluccas, a mountainous Indonesian archipelago made up of over a thousand islands. Most are covered with rainforest or plantations heavy with the scents of clove and nutmeg. The archipelago teems with abundant and often unique animal life: nocturnal marsupials, civets, wild pigs, and hundreds of species of birds, including the Moluccan cockatoo. While her parents guarded her and searched their island for food, little Sammy was sheltered in the safety of their nest, a hollow in a tree lined with leaves and sticks to cradle her. The nest was fifteen to a hundred feet from the ground, a snug and carefully constructed sanctuary.
On the day she was captured, Sammy awoke nestled next to her brother. She was just a baby. She felt warm, comfortable, and only half-awake. It was mostly dark in the nest, a space just large enough for the young birds and their parents to snuggle together. The light that filtered through the twigs and the small opening was tinged with green from the thick forest canopy. It was early, but the air was already moist and warm. The sounds of the rainforest were muffled by the nest, but she could still make out the chattering of the forest animals. Most of Sammy’s feathers had come out of their hard sheaths, and she was soft and fuzzy. So was her brother.
Baby cockatoos in the wild generally do not leave their nests until they are about twelve weeks old, so this small space was the only world Sammy had ever known.
When she’d first opened her eyes, weeks ago, she’d seen her mother and father, and she’d felt immediate comfort and calm. This feeling is a result of imprinting, though Sammy didn’t know that. She just knew she trusted this constant presence in her life: feeding her, grooming her, warming her when night came. She had grown in her parents’ care from a tiny, featherless, sightless hatchling into a strong young bird.
Her brother lay by her side, her parents brought food, and when she awoke each morning to the chatter of her flock, her body felt a little stronger. Soon she’d step outside and spread her wings for the first time. She’d hop from branch to branch, watching and learning from her flock, stretching her boundaries until, with practice, she, too, would begin to fly. When she could keep up with the flock, her parents would wean her, and she’d fly for miles searching for nuts, roots, and fruit.
Her immediate family was part of a larger flock. The calls of her flockmates near the nest were familiar. Their sounds meant safety. Development threatens many of the natural areas in the islands, but Sammy didn’t know about the changes going on around her. She was far from the ground and its worries.
This day, though, something was wrong. She was hungry, and her parents were gone. Her father hadn’t come back from foraging. There was no one to chew up seeds of fruit and carefully feed them to her. Her mother, who had been near her every moment she’d been conscious, had left as well.
She heard a horrible screech near the nest, sharp and loud to begin with, then weakening to a wail. Sammy was accustomed to cries warning of predators in the air or on the ground. This sound was different, a shriek of pure pain followed by despair. It sounded like Sammy’s older sister. Why was her sister screaming like that? What was happening? Sammy crept toward the back of the nest. An uncontrollable shaking spread through her body. She shuddered.
The noise Sammy heard was the sound of a flockmate being fastened to a tree. When hunters take parrots from the wild, the first step is often securing a fledgling to a tree branch, either with rope or, to make the cries even louder, with nails. The tiny bird’s distress call can be heard for miles around, drawing in her flockmates. The hunters count on the flock gathering together in one place, making the parrots easier to capture.
Sammy heard a mad cacophony near the nest; whatever had caused the first outcry was not going away. When Moluccan cockatoos notice a flockmate in trouble, they rush to the sound. The flock gathers together to deter predators. Their best defense is as a group.
Hunters and poachers commonly cut down trees with nests, blighting the forest. Sammy felt a rumbling, and the nest, the entire tree, began to shake. She had never experienced anything like it. To her, the nest meant safety, comfort, family. It swayed only when the wind and rain shook the tree. How could it be moving like this, as if the entire earth were trembling? The air was filled with a thick, unnatural stench, and tendrils of black smoke from a big machine made their way into the nest. She huddled, tucked her head, and shut her eyes.
Then came the sickening fall. Time seemed to stop as she felt her home crash down. The boom shook the forest.
After the flock came to the rescue, hunters threw a net over the birds. If the parents are present—and they usually are, as Moluccan cockatoos commonly mate for life and raise offspring together—poachers capture them, too. Adult parrots can be quite fierce; their beaks can exert a force of five hundred pounds per square inch and they will fight sometimes to the death for their babies.
Sammy heard dozens of parrots screaming, but she couldn’t tell them apart in the chaos. The nest had broken open in the fall, and the bright light, Sammy’s first view of the open sky, blinded her. She tried to crawl under the nest. She cried for her parents, but no birds flew to her.
Something pulled her from her nest, a strong, foreign grip. Sammy thrashed and bit but couldn’t free herself from the grasp. She tumbled into an enclosure. She couldn’t see in the darkness. Her flockmates were all around her, packed tightly together. But there was no comfort here. Most of the birds screamed, but some were quiet. Some didn’t move at all.
Where were her parents? Where were her brother and sister? Sammy shook and cried out. She felt something placed inside her beak and very soon afterward her body grew heavy, her eyes closed. Sammy lost consciousness and didn’t feel anything else for a long time.
She was now part of the wild-bird trade.
* * *
Over 50 percent of birds caught in the wild will die during either their capture or transport to market. Importers care little about the lives lost, as long as their profits remain high. Dead birds are an acceptable cost of doing business.
As in many exchanges between the West and the developing world, wealthy countries benefit far more from the trade than poor ones. Local areas suffer deforestation and loss of native species. A small fraction of the money made from the trade goes to the locals; most ends up in the hands of westerners. Once the trees and wildlife are gone, the locals no longer have a source of income.
The captured birds are kept in tiny cages in the marketplaces of cities such as Ambon and Jakarta. Conditions vary, but it’s not unusual for the birds to be left in unshaded boxes without food or water. The cages are rarely cleaned, leading to the spread of disease among birds already weakened by the rigors of capture and transport. Wildlife traders, often tied to the worldwide drug and weapons trades, purchase the birds in the market. Drugs, weapons, and wildlife are among the top criminal trades on the planet, and the skills and criminal networks needed for one type of illegal smuggling are easily employed in another. The crucial difference is that animals are living, unwilling participants.
To keep the birds quiet during shipment—typically to the United States and Europe—smugglers use drugs and/or restraints. Thankfully, bringing wild-caught birds into the United States became illegal in the 1980s and in Europe it became illegal in 2006, but, regrettably, that ban never entirely stopped this highly lucrative trade. Crammed into poorly ventilated suitcases or stuffed into pipes to keep them hidden, innumerable birds die during shipment. They succumb to heat, crowding, hunger, and lack of air. They also die from the vodka forced down their throats to keep them sedated or from the curare intended to keep them immobile.
An American, whom I will call Robert Barnes, was the most notorious exotic-animal trader during the time Sammy was imported to the United States. When he was not traversing the Southern Hemisphere furthering the bird trade, Robert Barnes lived in Los Angeles. He offered ten times a typical annual salary to indigenous people for the safe capture of native birds. To people struggling to feed their families, the money was probably inducement enough, but he also offered baseless promises of a fabulous future for these animals in America. Locals were aware of the effects of habitat loss and deforestation, and they often thought they’d be helping the birds by sending them away.
One great hope for the future of wild birds is that these very same poachers, those people who are trying to make a living to support their families, are now being taught how to use their skills to create an ecotourism industry in their native lands. Former poachers are now becoming experts on parrot behavior. Organizations like the Indonesian Parrot Project, Wild Planet Adventures, and the World Parrot Trust are helping local people build an economy based on protecting their native wildlife instead of capturing and selling it. Now, instead of climbing trees to poach parrot nests, native people are climbing them to build blinds and pulley systems to hoist tourists high into the tree canopy to see the species endemic to those areas. Maybe such a program could have saved Sammy.
When Robert Barnes was importing birds, a legal trade at the time, the next step after transport was entering a quarantine station. Today, quarantine still exists for those birds imported legally or seized during customs inspections. Of those parrots who survive both capture and transport, 25 percent die while in quarantine facilities. Quarantine is designed so that if an animal has a disease it will be detected during the thirty-day hold period. The animals are placed in relatively small, closed boxes. Unlike conventional cages, which at least allow in sound and air, these boxes are meant to completely cut off the parrots, and potential contagions, from the rest of the holding facility. The concern is the spread of disease within the facility and out into the general population; the comfort and safety of individual birds are secondary. Even food and water come in through special openings, not by hand, to prevent the escape of pathogens. These conditions mean the parrots receive no stimulation and certainly no comfort during the quarantine period. It’s hardly a way for already weakened social animals to regain their health.
After leaving quarantine, a bird’s chances of finding a safe, permanent place to live are not great. Of the 30 to 60 million parrots in captivity (no one knows the exact number), very few find their way to a forever home. I have met many dedicated, loving people capable of providing a comfortable life for the parrots in their care. They number in the hundreds, and I’m certain there are thousands more, but are there millions? Untrained bird owners usually mean well, but many aren’t prepared for the work and attention they must devote to their pets. Parrots aren’t domesticated animals, so being neat, tidy, and quiet isn’t in their nature. As flock animals, they need companionship—more companionship than busy families can usually give.
Even if parrots find satisfactory homes, those homes are rarely permanent. Once people discover what owning a parrot entails, they often pass their bird on to another owner. In addition, people’s lives change, and sometimes they may no longer be able to adequately care for their birds, or their birds might outlive them. Longevity is species-dependent, but can be as much as sixty to ninety years in some species, like cockatoos.
We don’t treat other domestic animals in the same way. We would never expect dogs or cats to have ten to twenty homes in their lifetimes. One thing that invariably can bring people to tears—I know I cry when I hear such stories—is when an older dog or cat is dumped at the shelter after living all his life with one family. “He’s making a mess too often in the house now,” the owners say, and the shelter worker nods with coached sympathy. The dog’s eyes are full of dissipating hope and mounting fear as the family retreats to its car. I have worked alongside many of these shelter personnel while doing rescue work, and they have told me they long to cry out, “He is part of your family. What are you thinking?” Tens of thousands of elderly companion animals are destroyed each year at shelters after their humans abandon them.
Unlike those elderly dogs, who usually lose their families only once, parrots, with their long life spans, may experience this wrenching move multiple times. People aren’t as familiar with birds; they just don’t understand them in the same way they understand dogs and cats. After all, we’ve been living with dogs and cats for thousands of years. Many dogs have been bred to be perpetual puppies, needy and loving, with wagging tails. We breed out the assertive, aggressive behaviors as much as possible. Even domestic cats, seemingly more independent, have smaller brains and fewer aggressive behaviors than their wild cousins.
Parrots have agency and act autonomously. Their motivation is to please themselves, not us. Parrots forage for food and discard it on the ground, heedless of carpets and mess. They build elaborate nests (if no other suitable materials are available, they’ll destroy the furniture to do so). They call out and stretch their wings in elaborate courtship rituals. Their behaviors may be fascinating to study, but they’re foreign to us, and often annoy the people the birds live with. When parrots are rehomed, most people don’t cry; they think someone is just passing on a loud, annoying creature.
Sammy was a survivor. She made it through the capture process. She made it through the long journey across the Pacific. She made it through quarantine. If her flock had twenty birds, it’s likely five to seven survived. Whether it was because she was young, had a greater determination to live, or was genetically stronger, somehow, against the odds, she made it. She wouldn’t be so lucky when it came to finding a forever home.
I discovered from my research that Robert Barnes, the notorious trader, picked up Sammy after she made it out of quarantine. He sold her to an eighty-year-old woman for five thousand dollars. Given that Sammy was young and could potentially live another seventy years, an elderly person hardly seems like a good fit.
Young Sammy learned to speak like an elderly woman, and for the rest of her life her voice carried the tremulous quality of an older person’s speech. When she yelled, “C’mere,” she sounded like a grandmother trying to lure a reluctant child into a big hug. Language theorists describe early critical periods for the development of language, and when Sammy learned to speak from her first owner, she was young enough to be the developmental equivalent of a human child learning her first language.
Parrots actively use language to express themselves, much as humans do, and they have a well-developed communication system. So when parrots learn human words they reuse them in context, similar to how chimpanzees and gorillas who have been taught American Sign Language employ human words. Both birds and primates create resourceful combinations to get their points across. “You tickle” is a common phrase across species.
I don’t know what kind of home Sammy had with that elderly woman. I hope it was a nurturing one. But, inevitably, upon her owner’s death, Sammy went to live with a new person, this time a police officer. He might have been the one to teach her to say “C’mere, give me a beer,” though I’ll never know. Sammy was with him only one year before the officer committed suicide. Although I have no idea what kind of life Sammy had with this man, I do know he made no provision for the bird or for the scores of fish found in a large tank in his deserted house. As is often the case when owners die, no family member wanted the responsibility of a bird. Sammy ended up back with Robert Barnes, because of the leg-band registration from quarantine. He was perfectly willing to pick her up and sell her to someone else.
Sammy was about nine years old when she reached her next home in Pacific Palisades, the tony coastal town near Los Angeles. The couple who bought her were friends of Barnes and saw her as an opportunity for breeding; a manageable female Moluccan cockatoo can bring in tens of thousands of dollars annually just by laying two clutches of eggs a year, typically two eggs to a clutch. This was not a “birdie mill,” a place where, as in puppy mills, the miserable conditions too often produce birds who are sick and weak and who die soon after being brought home. This was a clean home overlooking the ocean. But the back room was stacked from floor to ceiling with cages. Birds of all ages lived packed together: mature breeders, hatchlings, weanlings, and fledglings. A feathered gold mine.
Sammy didn’t go the route of becoming a breeding hen, the term for any female bird. Instead, she came into my life because a family in Beverly Hills took a vacation to Hawaii. In many warm places around the world, sidewalk vendors place parrots on tourists’ shoulders, then snap a photo of the laughter, and maybe the fear, that follows. I have observed this practice many times on trips to Hawaii and Key West. Tourists see the beautiful parrots, but they don’t understand how those birds suffer in the heat day after day, and they don’t know that the birds often aren’t fed until late at night to prevent them from defecating on tourists’ shoulders. The tourists fall in love with the birds, or at least the image they have of them from that family trip. The children (or husband, in the case of the family from Beverly Hills) beg for a bird when they get home, and the family gets a pet. This particular family approached the small-time breeders in Pacific Palisades, and that’s where they met Sammy. That captivating bird was just the touch their home needed. She even matched the furniture! They had no idea what they were getting into. They didn’t know their adorable pink bird came complete with the messiness, loudness, and destructiveness of a wild animal.
The breeders wanted to keep Sammy for the income she could bring in, and initially refused to sell her. The family raised their offer. The breeders knew Sammy would be a source of money for years and refused again. Finally, the family offered enough money that the breeders gave in. Sammy was sold to her second-to-last home. She lived there a little less than a year. I saw her living situation firsthand when Sammy called out to me on that Christmas Eve, and it was no place for a social, clever, sentient being.
Until she came to live with me, Sammy had been without a flock, lonely, flightless, and essentially in solitary confinement. For ten years, she had suffered.
I had just finished graduate school, and I hadn’t even started my practice. I had promised myself no pets while I was still living a student’s lifestyle. But I felt a strong bond with Sammy.
I said I would find her a good home; I just didn’t realize it would be mine. I couldn’t change Sammy’s past, but I could make sure the rest of her life was happy. “Don’t worry, baby,” I said, stroking her feathers. “From now on, everything is going to be okay.”
Copyright © 2018 by Lorin Lindner