Having been asked if I could shed some light on the differences in approach to parrot care in Europe versus the United States, I readily agreed to do so thinking "How hard can it be?". Nearly one week later, and countless restarts (not to mention the seemingly endless moments of staring blankly at a blank page), I think I have finally found some focus.
In reality, I am not so sure that the differences can be so easily delineated, but rather that the matter of perspective must be examined. While it is true that the approach to parrot care seems even less responsible here in Europe than in America, that quality sources for supplies geared towards enrichment, nutrition, and general care and keeping are sorely lacking, it would seem more a direct result of a general disregard of parrot (indeed, animals in general) needs for such things. Much of this, it would appear to me after nearly eight years of trying to force feed understanding down the throats of anyone who would listen here in my self-imposed exile (to limited, but sometimes surprisingly satisfying success) is a result of the matter of perspective. While much of my understanding of the reasoning behind these differences is purely conjecture based on what history I have at my disposal, I will nevertheless try to impart as objective a view as possible.
Since coming to Greece from the States to live back in 2009, I have seen our family grow in numbers I would never have anticipated before I began to settle in to the daily routines of life on a small Greek island. But as I began to learn my way around the customs and culture, I also began to take notice of the poor treatment of animals. Even the shelters being provided for a large stray cat and dog population (there are no shelters here for birds or other species besides the dogs and cats here in Greece of which I am aware, and apparently few in all of Europe) are little more than chain-linked outdoor kennels resembling refugee camps in a war-torn environment. There is no respite from the heat, little chance for meaningful interaction, and in most cases little chance of rescue. Of course there are caring and dedicated volunteers who try their best to provide what they can for the animals housed within, but with little by way of governmental support and no official animal welfare organization to rely on, it has to be enough just to keep the inmates fed and watered.
In such a political environment as that here in Greece, corruption does not leave an opportunity for Euros to fall easily into the hands of people who need it, and no chance such a windfall would ever reach our furred or feathered friends. What all of this means is that an opportunity for an enterprise such as a parrot sanctuary or rescue would need to rely solely upon the resources of people who care. While people who care are not in short supply, here in Greece people who care generally don't understand enough about birds to see the need for such an undertaking. This is where perspective comes in: the belief that a cage and some seed is enough, or the thinking that a bird cannot possibly be as intelligent or emotional as those of us here know them to truly be. The norm here is to put a bird in a small cage, throw in some seeds for sustenance, change the water occasionally and leave them out on the balcony. Of course there are those who understand and care enough to research, learn and improve the quality of life for those they have brought into their homes, but sadly they are the exception, and those condemned to a short unhappy life on the balcony are the rule. Cockatiels and budgies in canary cages, Amazons in cockatiel cages (you get the idea) without toys, proper food, standing idly throughout their lives on static diameter dowels to languish unloved and misunderstood: this is the normal treatment of a bird brought into a human home here in Greece.
When tending to the needs of parrots, many considerations must come into play, and from the human perspective throughout much of Europe, and the diminished view of a parrot's actual needs beyond the rudimentary, this perspective leaves a large gap in the arena of quality supplies. Even in the area of food, it is still believed by many that a simple seed diet is enough to sustain a parrot in a satisfactory way. While I know that there is much debate regarding the value of formulated pellets as part of a parrots diet, I personally prefer having them available as a supplement to the fresh fruits and vegetables I provide, with the hope of filling in gaps in nutrition. But here in Greece quality pellets are hard to come by, and most quality pellet manufacturers don't even ship to Greece. As a result, unless you are able to pay nearly twice the normal cost, the majority of pellets available here are low quality brands very heavy in fat content, and even those can be hard to locate. I remember a time when I lived in the States that going through the parrot food aisles of pet stores gave me pause to wonder whether pellets were anything more than another gimmick perpetrated by large corporations to wrest yet another dollar from the uniformed public. I have come a long way in both thinking and understanding since those days, and I firmly believe in the value of pellets as a small but important part of a domestic parrot's diet. As a result I spend the extra money on a quality brand available only through one source here in Greece (all of my parrots enjoy their pellets, both to eat as well as to drop on the floor for Dexter the rabbit to eat-he absolutely loves them!). That is not to say everyone must feed their fids pellets, but I believe the option itself can be important, if only in showing a growing desire to provide a better life for those kept in our care.
As far as I can ascertain, there are only two qualified avian vets in all of Greece, which presents a different and perhaps more frightening problem for anyone who wishes to care for a parrot in their home. As a result, one must often turn to online sources for help in diagnosing potential problems. All of us learn over time to do daily poop inspections for consistency, color, etc. as a first indication of possible problems, not to mention learning to watch for unusual behaviors, but what happens when a problem does arise? Fortunately for me, I have access to an avian vet in the States who can address concerns for me, and also the ear of one of the two avian vets here in Greece. So while a trip to a vet for me is not easily possible (the cost and time needed for the boat trip to the mainland forces me to seek help through other avenues wherever possible), what about those who don't have easy access to vets through office visit or by phone? Many will allow their birds to see a vet whose area of expertise may be farm animals and an occasional spay or neuter, which for me (as well as most of you reading this, I'm sure) is unacceptable. The fact is, the three vets available here on our island readily admit that their knowledge of avian health care is either sadly lacking or non-existent. That being the case throughout much of Greece, it means in most situations people here must learn to diagnose many things themselves, and perhaps more importantly to develop a social network of avian vets and knowledgeable advocates through the internet. While this can be a daunting task, it is possible, and I have aided others in doing so in the past, helping to bring solutions to pressing problems. But again perspective plays a part, as many here in the "Old World" aren't satisfied with the importance of such a care network, and even more have a tendency to wait until it is too late. The perspective is, sadly and too often, that there is little priority where a non-human life is concerned, and while I would argue vehemently to the contrary such vehemence is lost on a society that cannot see beyond the rigors of their own daily life to actually recognize the sacrifices made by the animals in our care.
In just the past few years, I have seen some improvement in the way things are viewed regarding animals and the care of them in our homes, but there is a long way to go, much responsibility to be accepted, and many changes of thinking in regards to the value of non-human life. There are those I have helped enlighten here on Syros, and I know of others on the mainland who also try to spread the word and help shape a better way of thinking, but it is not easy to overcome the "it's just an animal" mindset that is so deeply ingrained as a result of a long history of assumed superiority on the part of humans. Getting past the concept of animals as possessions is not easy for many, and putting a price on an animal too easily helps fortify the wrong mindset. In America, thought revolving around parrot care has been making huge advances over the past ten years, and social networking has made those advances even more easily accessible in the past few. In many large American cities there are clubs, support groups, expos and such geared towards parrot care and understanding, but here in Europe those things are all but absent. There are those who try to make a difference, and each day, one would hope, a new understanding begins to grow. Here there are too many breeders, and no rescues to handle the inevitable fallout as a result of trying to fulfill the supply of a demand which is, in most cases, ill-conceived, but I believe that with time and the continued efforts of those of us who educate and inform wherever possible these things will change.
Having said so much amounting to so little, I would like to sum up (and grant your eyes respite) by pointing out that both the U.S. as well as Europe (and the rest of the world) have a long way to go if we are going to show real responsibility for those in our care. I wish it were not so, but there is still so little we truly understand about our beautiful feathered friends, and so much we owe to them. I try everyday to give all I can, to try and create a balance where some degree of normalcy and pleasure is found by all, and while I know I can never replace the lifestyle they were originally intended by nature to enjoy, I hope that those in my care at least feel loved and part of a flock in which they find some happiness. I wish for all my family (furred and feathered) to have a safe place to land.