Ask anyone in rescue what is the root cause of the overwhelming flood of unwanted companion parrots and they will very likely answer: BREEDERS! But rarely is there one evil entity that is entirely responsible for any problem. Life is far more complex than that.
I was once a part of this problem. I never had an unwanted bird, but I supported the pet industry that supported the breeders that supply the flow of newly weaned birds to anyone with cash to spend. I didn't realize that human nature would take the companion parrot trade down the same path that the bodies of countless dogs and cats has already paved.
Unlike cats or dogs, the lifespan of companion birds makes their situation even more grave. They often live for many decades. They may outlive loving and responsible owners and find themselves on the rocky shores of rescue and sanctuary. This makes overproduction for profit even more odious as it’s putting an enormous strain on those who serve this population of long-lived and complex companions.
What drives this relentless machine that churns out adorable babies that often end up unwanted in rescues and shelters if they are lucky and on death row if they are not so lucky? Two things: Ignorance and greed. Buyers who don’t understand the relationship between their purchase of a baby bird and those plucked and mutilated birds in a rescue. Breeders who have convinced themselves that somehow, because they are careful, their babies are immune to being ground up in the wheels of the pet industry and spit out as rescue fodder or shelter casualties.
And then there are some are just selfish uncaring humans producing a “product” without caring about what is going to happen in the future.
You might think some breeders keep track of their babies and make sure they all go to good, loving homes. Yes! Some try to do this. And often they try very hard. But once you sell (or even adopt, in the case of rescues) any animal to a person, they become legal property and that creature’s welfare is no longer in your control. It’s difficult to impossible for any breeder to maintain awareness of the lives of ALL the creatures they produce. I spoke at great length to the breeder whose birds produced one of the birds in our care, Lady Greyce. It was one of the very rare cases where the information actually managed to follow the bird, including hatch date and breeder’s name, so we were easily able to contact her. She’s a very nice woman who cared for her parent birds very well, and actually named each one (many breeder birds are never given names, only numbers – like a piece of inventory). She realized she was contributing to the numbers of parrots becoming unwanted and homeless, and voluntarily stopped breeding. At that point, she retired all of her parent birds to wonderful sanctuaries, and made sure they were provided for. She was shocked to find out the twisted and painful path the life of her baby had taken. Never even given a real name, called by her nickname from the breeder, “Baby Grey,” this little darling was owned by humans who abused her. She was exposed to anger and violence and learned foul language from one owner, only to be punished by the next owner by being sprayed with water “right between her eyes” when she repeated the things she learned. She was forced to endure bathing in a shower with Dawn dish soap, and was punished with sprays of water for other transgressions, so often that the mere sound of water spraying causes her to go into a blind panic and become aggressive to anyone near her.
Is this what this kind-hearted breeder wanted or expected for this darling little baby? Of course not! Fortunately, Lady Greyce found her way to Marden’s Ark with the help of Kathy and the Flockcall flock, and is in foster care with the perfect family, people who love her and let her be herself without any fear of punishment. They understand her scars and accept her behavior – even when that behavior is aggression born of her fears. Fellow Flockcall author and Marden’s Ark board member Krissi Geary-Boehm and her wonderful husband Thierry have brought much love and healing to this beautiful and highly intelligent little Congo African Grey. She was a ransom rescue that may have very well ended up bought by yet another abusive owner had fate not intervened in the form of Krissi going to the store where she was dumped – sold for cold hard cash as an “attraction” the store owner hoped would pull in business during a street festival. Her breeder was very happy to find we’d saved her and she was in good hands – but what about all the others?
It’s very easy to climb onto our high horses, to demonize and point fingers at these breeders and the store owners who enable them. Surely they all must know what they are doing! Some do, I am sure. Some convince themselves that because they are careful about who they sell to (and Greyce’s breeder was) it will insure a good life for the little ones they produce. Many make the choice to just not think about it.
But then we must look at the second part of the equation. If it is indeed greed of the breeders that propels this machine of suffering forward, then it is fueled by well-meaning bird lovers pouring their cash into the breeder’s engine. We drive the machine by providing the market. Every baby bird bought is a positive reinforcer. It causes the breeder to repeat the action (producing baby birds) that caused them to receive that reinforcement (cash).
But why then, do people continue to patronize stores and breeders? There are several reasons. Here are just a few of the big ones.
- Ignorance/bad information – There are many pervasive myths regarding babies of any species. Baby animals are said to be “easier to train” and in the case of birds, words like “imprinting” and “bonding” are tossed around by “experts.” The accepted-as-fact myth that dooms more baby birds is that a potential buyer must buy a hand-fed, hand-tame baby so that it bonds to them. Even worse – they are often told not to get another companion bird so that the single bird is forced to bond to the human caregiver. Or even worse than that, that a buyer needs to hand-feed a baby themselves. And the myth that a person must hand-feed their own bird in order to have the bird “imprinted” to view them as the natural parent is not only a lie, but is very dangerous. There are no hard facts on how many baby birds have been killed by inexperienced hand-feeders, but hand-feeding carries a significant risk of aspiration, leading to pneumonia and possibly death. Crop burns are also a potential complication. Handing someone a baby bird and expecting them to get the hang of hand-feeding immediately after being shown is a risk to the well-being of the bird. One of our sweetest birds was co-parented, meaning the parents fed her but we socialized her with us. And hand-feeding is hugely labor-intensive. Co-parenting not only leaves the hard work to the true parents, but the baby learns valuable information during this time and will be far more well-adjusted and confident because though they learn to enjoy their time with the humans they live with and they also know they are a BIRD! Trying to supplant the relationship between parent birds and their offspring results in confusion as the baby develops with behaviors that are not normal to a wild bird. I believe this identity crisis is an underlying cause in many problem behaviors I see in the hand-raised population as opposed to the wild-caught birds that know and understand fully that they are birds. It is also detrimental to the overall well-being of the birds because we set the relationship up for failure by virtue of the fact that we are not parrots. Because we can rarely meet the expectations they would normally set for bird flockmates, we can’t give them all that they need from the parent or mate that they come to view us as being. Most of us have jobs and family and lives. We go on vacations. We go on dates. All these things often occur in places where a bird isn’t welcome. The bird, expecting the object of his bonded affections to be there for him all the time – as a bird mate would be in nature – is heartbroken. This results in the issues commonly described in birds that are very bonded to their human flock members, such as screaming, plucking or even self-mutilation. We want them to love us, but when they unconditionally do, we break their little hearts. We may have the best of intentions, but life and reality often prevent us from being what they expect us to be: a full-time, together every waking minute type of love.
- Level of commitment - It will be extremely difficult to spend every moment, as their parrot mate would, with your bird. Even in the best of circumstances, times will come that will cause us to spend time apart. And there are those who don’t view the commitment with that much dedication. Many people buy a parrot for all the wrong reasons. They want something to talk and impress friends. They want to enjoy the attention they get when they walk around with a parrot on their shoulder. Or they decide they want them because they are “pretty.” When you begin a relationship – especially as complex and demanding as a parrot requires – on a shallow basis, it’s doomed to fail. Eventually, something will change. The parrot will bite or destroy things. The parrot will scream. The beautiful, attention-getting showpiece will pluck themselves bare. At that point, if the initial commitment wasn’t strong, the relationship fails. The bird was viewed as a “purchase”, “property” or a “thing.” You hear things like “I’m selling him for less than I paid for him” or “don’t lowball me, I know what these birds are worth.” Suddenly that bird is reduced to dollar signs with no thought to the fact that they are an intelligent creature with needs and feelings. Of course, in these situations, it’s always better to remove the bird from the situation because a commitment that is shallow means the “owner” will not be concerned with what’s best for the bird. Then again, even those who had great intentions and tried to make a serious commitment can find themselves faced with decisions. “I’m having a baby, I need to rehome my bird because I won’t have time for them.” Or “I got a new job and need to rehome my parrot.” Do people rehome one child when they have a second because “It’s not fair that I won’t have the time to spend with them”? Of course not! The bird, even though it may have been considered part of the family, is reduced to the status of a thing that can be relocated as a matter of what they believe (or have convinced themselves) is “doing the right thing” for the parrot. With education and support, we can teach these type of owners that, yes, it is possible to juggle babies, jobs, college and still have a successful relationship with our parrots! (See Lauren Smith Vazquez’s excellent article on keeping a parrot and having a baby here: http://flockcall.com/advocate-center/parrot-rescue-sanctuary-and-conservation/have-a-baby-keep-your-parrot/). Having and keeping a bird requires a huge level of commitment. Parrots are destructive. Messy. Loud. In order to successfully have a good relationship, you will need to accept them for who they are and love them in spite of it. In a world that seems to accept that “until death do us part” means “until I find someone I like better”, that kind of selfless commitment and devotion is not something that everyone is capable of. We must educate and assist those we can, and rescue birds from those who can’t keep that commitment.
- Laziness/Convenience - Why is it that the right thing to do is often the hardest? In running a sanctuary, we hear people complain about trying to “adopt, not shop.” The process to adopt is often long and convoluted. There are home visits, reference checks, sometimes even background checks – all before they are allowed to take home the bird they have decided they want. “Why go through all that when I can just go to (insert name of any store selling birds here) and pick a bird and walk out with it right now?” How do we answer that question? We really aren’t. We are addressing the level of commitment that goes along with acquiring a bird. Does it have to be instant gratification? Whose best interest does that serve? If a person isn’t willing to sacrifice some time and effort, they probably aren’t going to be able to put the time and effort into building a relationship with that parrot. So often I see someone that bought a bird, brought it home, and immediately began forcing the bird to step up or interact. Then they run to a bird lovers group to lament the bird biting them. Would you meet a person and take them home and expect them – not knowing you at all – to obey commands and let you put your hands on them wherever you’d like? If you have that “level of commitment” we’ve already discussed, it must include patience to allow the bird to build a relationship with you as you are building a relationship with them. In a world that’s losing its ability to understand the concept of delayed gratification, that’s not always easy to find.
The root of a plant is where the plant takes in the life-sustaining water and nutrients. The root of this problem is us. It is the consumers. We provided the cash that keeps the breeder machine alive. If you cut off the supply of water or the nutrients in the soil, a plant will die. When that flow of cash dries up, breeding will stop. It truly is that simple. So let’s go to the root of the problem, changing hearts and minds by busting myths and showing that any parrot can develop a strong, loving bond with the right amount of patience and love.
Hating breeders and demonizing them as our enemy, just because they were breeders, is detrimental to our mission of changing their hearts and minds. By viewing them as the enemy, we risk becoming disrespectful, and by using profanity towards them and being derogatory we insure we will not convince a breeder that what they are doing is wrong. We have to work together to fix what is so horribly broken.
Here’s a short list of things you can do to help change our world as it relates to parrots and their care:
- ADVOCATE! Be the voice, polite and respectful, for parrots in need.
- EDUCATE! Sometimes helping a person care for or keep their parrot is just a matter of simple education. I have a friend who works in a store and was approached by a young couple wanting to surrender birds they’d had for years. She asked a few questions and found that the problems that were forcing them to rehome their loved birds started when they brought home a new friend. She gave them tips on integrating the new member into the flock and by the time they left, they were happy because they’d decided to keep the birds and work through the problems. Education is powerful and can change and save lives!
- SUPPORT! Support organizations (like Flockcall) that provide advocacy, education and support to families with companion birds that may be experiencing rough times. Your support means more people helped, more birds saved, and more lives changed for the better!
- VOLUNTEER! Until the problem goes away, rescues will remain chronically over-full. The workload to care for a large number of parrots is staggering. Please find a local rescue or sanctuary and help them shoulder that load.
- LOVE! Love your birds and show them the respect and level of commitment they deserve as valued members of your family. Doing this will not only benefit them, but it will benefit you, because when love blossoms in a relationship, everyone thrives.
- JOIN US in our campaign to #GiveTheBarWings and help us make 2016 the Year of the Companion Parrot. We’re not going to just raise the bar on companion parrot care, we’re going to make it soar! Share with others the things you do to enrich and improve the lives of your feathered family members. Promote positive relationships between humans and parrots. Help us reach others with the message that parrots are intelligent, sentient, emotional beings worthy of our love and our respect. Help us promote adoption over purchase so we can tackle the problem of unwanted parrots on two fronts – stopping the purchases that encourage breeding and helping the parrots who have already been abandoned find love and new families.