Pinfeathers - The NEAR Blog

Observations about parrots and other exotic pet birds from the reference of the owners/operators of the Northeast Avian Rescue.

The Connecticut Breeder Tragedy - Part III

The details of this story are 100% true and in no way exaggerated for effect or with regard to the “feelings” of any party – including those of our own organization.  In other words, this is the story, warts and all.

The opinions expressed about the captive pet bird industry are mine.  As the reader, you are welcome to draw your own conclusions about the way this industry works and its effects.  Differences of opinion make the world go round and I welcome civilized debate.  I will not tolerate attacks though … So if you’re fixed for a fight, keep moving.  There’s nothing to see here.


PART 3 – Execution

So, we had seven very feral, unadoptable former breeder cockatoos that we couldn’t take care of on a long term/permanent basis.  With help, we lined up a great sanctuary that just so happened to be on the other end of the country, some three thousand miles away.  Believing then (as we do now) that the American Federation of Aviculture helped create the mess we inherited, we asked for their help in defraying the cost of our cross-country trek.  After a passel of drama and ugliness from the AFA (which came as no surprise), we came up with nothing.  Though it was the last thing we really wanted to do, we made a trip “back to the well” with our friends and donors.  Ultimately these folks, mostly strangers from all walks of life and locations came through in spades as they always do. 

Amazing to know that people with no skin in the game are so readily willing to help, while an organization seemingly purpose-built to step in on situations just like this one, simply turn their backs and walk away

But we’ve already spent enough time explaining the impotence of the American Federation of Aviculture when it comes to putting their money where their mouth is.  Folks can make their own decisions as to how worthless or worthwhile the AFA is to anyone other than those who support the reckless breeding of pet birds that will mostly end up unwanted and in need of rescue and those who line their pockets with the all-important cash.

From the local airport rental kiosk, we drove away in a brand-new Dodge Grand Caravan.  The thing only had 3,000 miles on it and, as we drove out of the airport lot, I wondered what they’d think when it came back in a week with the mileage tripled.  I had grilled the folks at Alamo at length to make sure “unlimited mileage” meant exactly what it said.  I thought, as a way of putting off the anxiety, we’d deal with the odometer when we got back.

We wanted to memorialize the trip on video, with the hopes that one day we’d stitch everything together and come up with a quick documentary about the journey.  The night before our departure I wired up the vehicle with Go-Pro video cameras and remote lavalier microphones.  Additionally, we set up other video and audio recording equipment, making the cockpit of the minivan look more like the set of a reality show than the driving end of a mercy mission.  I didn’t (and still don’t) know what we’d end up doing with the footage, but I wanted to get it – because you can’t do anything at all if you don’t have it to begin with!

Early in the morning of Monday, May 21 2018, with the birds packed up and comfortable, we were ready to head out.  The GPS pegged the trip at 39 hours -- a mind-boggling amount of time to reach a destination when you’re used to mostly tooling around town.  But as we rolled out of the driveway, we thought it couldn’t be all THAT bad.  Could it?

I should digress a little bit here to say that my wife and I have a relationship that I think a lot of people hope for, but few people ever cash in on.  We’ve been together for thirteen years and we’re still pretty much joined at the hip.  We work together, so we get up together, drive to the office together, have lunch together, drive home together and run the rescue together.  You’d think one of us would be contemplating an “accident” for the other, but the reality is we still enjoy spending all that time together and find a way to have “fun” in whatever we do.  We don’t fight – seldom even argue – and our partnership and ability to work together without friction has always been one of the keys to our happy relationship and has most certainly been one of the main keys to the success of Northeast Avian Rescue!  We weren’t looking forward to 39 hours of straight driving, but we were definitely looking forward to spending the week together … Another adventure.

For anyone who hasn’t driven from Albany to the Pennsylvania line on the New York State Thruway, I don’t recommend it.  This has to be the most boring six hours stretch of asphalt I have ever experienced in my life!  Six hours that feels like sixty.  A little more than 15% of the trip to Washington and by the time we saw the sign for the Pennsylvania border and the creepy little town of Conneaut, we were already whining, “Are we there yet?!”  It’s not that it’s ugly, it’s just … all the same.   You’d think driving through states like Iowa or North Dakota would be the hardest (and they’re none too easy …), but for me, that six hour stretch is a punishment and I was very happy to blow through the tip of Pennsylvania with eyes on Ohio beyond.

By the time the sun set we were driving past the Guaranteed Rate Field where the Chicago White Sox were playing a home game and it looked like the weather was not going to cooperate as the misty rain came down harder at times, making driving (and playing baseball) a challenge.  Chicago’s skyline is impressive and it would have been cool to gawk a little more, but the traffic was still heavy as we were coming off a Monday rush hour.  It wasn’t a good idea to be sight see, so we motored through the Windy City as quickly as possible with the traffic keeping me on my toes until at least a few miles past the exits for O’Hare airport.  By then the sun was down and the urban sprawl receded behind us.  Back to the open road.


We drove until about 11:30 PM, finding a rest stop in Interstate 94 in the Wisconsin Dells.  At this point we had been on the road nearly sixteen hours and had covered about a thousand miles.  We had stopped several times for food and gas, as well as to make sure the birds were comfortable and had all the food and water they needed.  While I am sure they were afraid, they were riding exceptionally well.  Throughout the day we had noted them curiously peeking out from behind their cage covers, alternatively watching us drive and watching the scenery go by.  I have to say, this could have been a completely different trip altogether if these cockatoos decided they didn’t like the car ride.  I still like to think they knew they were going somewhere better and that kept them quiet and content for the duration. 

Coming out of The Dells at about 4:00 in the morning there was a fair amount of traffic, but all tractor-trailers.  Within five miles we blew past a turn-around and I glimpsed a police car out of the corner of my eye.  I had the cruise control set for 80 and the speed limit was 70.  I thought I was safe, but within a few seconds, the world lit up and we were pulled to the side of the road.  The Wisconsin State Trooper came up the passenger side of the car and quickly raked his flashlight across all the cages in the back of the car.

“Where are you headed at this time of night?” He asked, after introducing himself.

“Actually,” I said, “We are headed to Seattle.”  I explained our mission, what we were doing and why.

“The reason I pulled you over,” he said after I completed my short story. “Is because I clocked you doing 80 in a 70 mile an hour zone.”  I sheepishly explained that we had just taken a rest stop and were trying to make up for lost time, which wasn’t really a guilded-in-gold truth, but at least was in the right neighborhood. 

The Trooper went on to tell us that we’d be heading through Minneapolis during rush hour and to expect heavy traffic at various points along the way.  I made a mental note of all of his advice, because it would be my first time through Minneapolis.  With rush hour traffic being a ubiquitous fact of life in all large cities, tips to escape unscathed should never be ignored!  After running through a short litany of traffic tips, he told us to watch our speed and have a safe trip.  With thanks, we headed on our way again with nothing more than a warning to heed.

As promised, the trip through Minneapolis was a snarl of traffic.  It wasn’t as bad as I had envisioned, but bad enough to have us happy to leave the city in our rear view.  I don’t think there was anything else of note in our trip through Minnesota, other than being chastised by a good friend who runs a rescue in the Minneapolis area for not stopping in for breakfast.  I passed on our regrets – it would have been nice to stop, and nicer to eat a meal, but I knew that if we stopped for even five minutes more than a quick bathroom or food break, the temptation to stay stopped would put a serious damper on our mission.  So, on we went.

The drive through North Dakota was pretty much the way everyone expects it to be.  A whole lot of nothing.  Straight lines, mostly flat farmland.  Interestingly, we did pass several small flocks of pelicans – a surprise to me as I had no idea North Dakota was their chosen breeding ground.  The only time I had ever seen (or heard of) pelicans was at the ocean.  I wished we could have gotten a couple pictures, but the more the hours passed, the more interested we were in getting to our destination. 

The only real excitement in North Dakota was another run-in with the law.  Going 83 in a 75 mile an hour zone, I passed the Trooper without much of a second thought – only eight miles an hour over the speed limit should be safe, right?  He tore out of the turn-around and quickly caught up, then paced me, about twenty-five feet or so behind our vehicle.  I had slowed to 75 and put the cruise control on, figuring he would run our plates and then pull us over.  The pacing went on for a mile or two, then he pulled slowly up alongside the Town & Country. 

What do you do in a situation like this?  A Highway Patrol vehicle running at exactly the same speed, directly alongside, neck and neck?  This went on for another mile at least before I finally looked over, forcing the friendliest smile I could muster.  If looks could have killed, I’d have had a grabber and landed wheels up alongside a most unfriendly stretch of North Dakota highway.  Apparently, my ticker is stronger than a dirty look and I continued driving.  The trooper took off like a rocket, disappearing momentarily over a rise.  When we crested the rise, he had already pulled into a turn-around and headed back in the other direction.  Drive the speed limit. Point taken. Cruise control engaged.

So, the rest of the trip through North Dakota was mostly uneventful.  During our frequent stops for restroom and snacks, the ‘toos were fed and watered as well as checked over to make sure everything was comfortable.  They much preferred being covered to being harassed in any way, shape or form, so we had to balance the desire to make sure they were as comfortable as possible with not actually bothering them to find out whether they were as comfortable as possible.  Not exactly the best balance in the world, but good enough.  For the birds, all was well and as calm as could be expected. 

One thing to recommend, if you ever find yourself trekking through North Dakota, is the Painted Canyon area.  Amazingly, the flat farmland gives way to buttes and desert inhospitality in almost literally the blink of an eye.  One second everything is more or less lush, flat and green.  The next minute it’s craggy, dry and rapidly browning.  It’s almost like we crossed a line.  On this side, soybeans and timothy grass as far as the eye can see.  On the other, something out of a Spaghetti Western. 

Amazing, this country!


We managed to make it as far as Billings, Montana before considering our second rest break.  The city of Billings is surrounded by some amazingly beautiful scenery, but the city itself seems like it has fallen on some pretty hard times.  I don’t know why it surprised me so much to see homelessness and panhandling seemingly on every street corner, but it was everywhere.   You think of Big Sky Country as being made up of self-sustaining cowboy types on horses and endless ranches.  But here, nearly every intersection had at least one person holding a sign for handouts.  The number of shopping carts filled with peoples’ worldly belongings parked outside the supermarket where we stopped for ice and supplies was sobering.  We grabbed what we needed at the grocery, then across the street for fast food before jumping right back onto the highway.  The state of the city was a factor in beating a hasty retreat,  but an even bigger consideration was the wall of angry, black clouds gathering to the North and West.  I had heard stories about Rocky Mountain thunder storms and I wasn’t exactly excited about driving through one.

The weather maps on our phones showed a pretty nasty storm passing just North of Billings.  That one wasn’t of concern.  But the REALLY nasty one about ten miles West had me worried.  Based on the doppler radar, we had a few miles of halfway decent weather and then we’d be driving right through the center of a storm that looked like “end times” with its swath of bright reds and browns.  On top of the storm, the sun had already disappeared behind the mountains and night approached.

 By the time we headed into the front of the storm, the sky was black and headlights were a must.  I was able to get one of the GoPro cameras turned around to record what we were seeing.  There really was no choice but to keep going – to barrel right through the storm to the next rest area.  There were no exits coming up to turn around or hunker down and stopping on the highway just wasn’t an option.

When it hit, the storm came on with a vengeance.  The lightning kept us in almost constant bedazzlement and we could feel the thunder more than hear it.   Rain pelted so hard that the wipers were no match for the deluge and a few wind gusts felt like they might push the van right off the highway.  Our only saving grace was that traffic was light.  We wended our way through an unfamiliar interstate, our speeds down to 20 mph and less at times, as the storm raged on.  The birds remained silent throughout – from where we sat, it seemed the thunder storm was no more or less stressful to them than the rest of the ride.  I had been concerned about how they would handle the noise, but at least as far as we could tell, the cacophony neither added or subtracted any discomfort they might have felt.  We played soft music in the hopes that it would soothe their jangled nerves.  It helped ours.

Coming out the other side of the tempest, the rain continued at a medium pace – hard enough to keep the wipers on a constant sweep, but not so hard as to keep us from being able to see where we were going.  We carried on like this for another handful of miles until we stopped at first rest area West of Billings.  Enough was enough – it was time for a little shut-eye.


I can’t say I had ever had the desire to sleep in a highway rest area prior to our epic trip to the West.  There was more than a tiny bit of trepidation about whether we would be bothered by passers-by – you hear some pretty crazy stuff on the news sometimes.  Luckily though, our experiences were peaceful and benign.   We left the rest area in Central Montana around 3:00 in the morning, after sleeping a little bit longer than we had originally set out to.  While I can’t say I felt necessarily rested, I wasn’t as dog-tired as I had been and was ready to move on.  Jill was able to continue her slumber as I drove on, listening to a talk show and trying to eat up as many miles as possible before sunrise.

Daybreak had us passing through Missoula after some of the most breathtaking scenery I’ve ever witnessed. I only wonder what I missed in the hours before sunrise.  The passageway through some of the notches carved into the Rockies are really something to see – and something I hope we’ll be able to return to check out at our leisure, when we don’t have a carload of cockatoos in need of sanctuary!

A short time later after passing Missoula, we finally said goodbye to Montana.  Thirteen hours of travel to get through one state!  To me, that’s just a mind-boggling thing … Driving across New York takes about five hours and it seems like a lifetime.  To have to double that and then nearly halve it again, that’s a lot of road – and a whole lot of beautiful nothing to drive through.

Idaho wasn’t a big change of pace – view-wise – from Montana; a whole lot of mountains and a whole lot of trees.  We had seen so many antelope by this point we stopped trying to count.  Jill had spotted a bobcat sitting at the roadside and an elk in a far-distant field.  Together, we witnessed a trio of bald eagles settling on the carcass of a dead deer.  This wasn’t nearly the amount of wildlife I had expected, but there was certainly enough to keep us scanning the roadsides whenever possible. 

By lunchtime we rolled into Coeur d’Alene and made a quick stop to freshen the birds’ food and water as well as to grab a quick bite to keep us going for the last leg of the trip.  Shortly after heading back onto the highway we crossed the border into Washington State and made a quick venture through Spokane.  You kind of roll out of a mountain and into a relatively urban area – it seems almost surreal to go from “nowhere” to “somewhere” in such a short distance, but before we knew it, we were back to
“nowhere” again and traveling across the flat plains of Eastern Washington.

The one cool thing about driving across Interstate 90 in Washington is the initiative taken by the State to label the crops planted in the sprawling farmland abutting the highway.  The signs have been there since the 1980’s and they’re maintained by a chemical company and a regional Rotary Club.  Especially in the early months of the growing season, it’s impossible to tell one green field from another, so the signs showing “corn,” “peas,” “potatoes” and about a dozen or more other crops helped pass the time as we traversed yet another big state.  Before we knew it, the plains gave way to mountains and we headed into the Cascades.

On the other side of the Cascades, after the breathtaking beauty of the Snoqualmie Pass, we started to get a little giddy about the epic trip finally coming to an end.  As if they could feel our giddiness, the birds suddenly woke up as well.  As we hit the notorious Seattle traffic, making our way from the old familiar Interstate 90 to head up I-5, the birds commenced screaming.  The ruckus only lasted for about four or five minutes, but it gave us pause to thank our lucky stars … because that avalanche of noise could have been with us the entire 3,000 mile trip, but we had really lucked out with the birds being mostly silent throughout.  They, like us, must’ve known the trip was coming to an end.

The actual destination was about an hour North of Seattle, near the little town of Stanwick Washington.  Thanks to the GPS, we landed at the back door of the estate around 5:00 PM local time.  We were met at the gate by Lori Rutledge, who runs the sanctuary.  She was very congenial and helpful as we got our bearings and prepared to make the delivery we had come all this way for.

As the crates came out of the vehicle, the reaction of the birds was priceless.  All were noticeably excited, but the biggest reaction was from the two wild-caught Umbrellas, who had ALWAYS cowered and panicked whenever anyone showed any sign of interest in them previously.  They were hanging from the side of the crate, flapping with excitement and calling out to the birds they could hear inside the sanctuary in the distance.  They were suddenly and completely oblivious to the humans standing within inches of them – they were laser-focused on their surroundings and overwhelmed with excitement.  To be sure, all seven of the birds showed a level of excitement that finally overrode the fear they had had to live with for the entire time they had been in our care – maybe for their entire lives.  They were, indeed, home … and very happy to be there. 

Exhausted as we were, our hearts were lightened by the reaction of the birds.  As we left the Cockatoo Sanctuary behind, there was no question in our minds that the trip had been a RESOUNDING success!


Jill and I immediately checked into a hotel, had a quick dinner and fell into bed before the sun set.  Twelve hours later we awoke.  I can’t say for sure we were refreshed – that didn’t happen until several days after we made it back to New York, but we were at least somewhat rested and ready to start the long trip home.


It was relatively late in the afternoon on the second day of our trip back to New York that Lori Rutledge called to give us an update on how her new guests were faring.  While they still had a long road ahead, of quarantine and proper observation and care to ensure they were introduced into the colony of cockatoos in the sanctuary that would be the best fit, Lori marveled at how excited they all seemed to be in the new surroundings – especially the wild caught pair of umbrellas.   While she usually had great concern over ensuring umbrellas were properly matched with groups they could get along with, the wide-eyed excitement of this pair gave her great hope that they would thrive no matter which group they were introduced into.  Furthermore, Lori was practically gushing when she informed me about the lonely Bare-eyed cockatoo and his adventures thus far.  As it turned out, there was another lone Bare-eyed cockatoo in quarantine at the same time.  The two seemed to be interested in each other through the cages.  Lori observed this and ultimately decided to throw caution to the wind, introducing the two.  Our lonely, thoroughly stressed bird went immediately to the other one, burying his head into the feathers on her chest.  Without missing a beat, the other bird, a total stranger, began preening the top of his head, as though they were long lost friends, reunited at last.

What more could you ask for?

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The Connecticut Breeder Tragedy Part II (Planning)

The details of this story are 100% true and in no way exaggerated for effect or with regard to the “feelings” of any party – including those of our own organization.  In other words, this is the story, warts and all.

The opinions expressed about the captive pet bird industry are mine.  As the reader, you are welcome to draw your own conclusions about the way this industry works and its effects.  Differences of opinion make the world go round and I welcome civilized debate.  I will not tolerate attacks though … So if you’re fixed for a fight, keep moving.  There’s nothing to see here.


PART 2 – Planning

Thirteen frightened, mostly feral birds landed in our lap at once.  Our quarantine space went from empty to near capacity in one fell swoop.  At first blush, the potential for rehabilitation and rehoming on any of these birds was in serious doubt – even for the friendly Umbrella Cockatoo who had been paired with a very feral, wild caught partner who didn’t tolerate any kind of access to the cage, let alone direct interaction. 

The two hybrid macaws, a Miligold (Military/Blue and Gold) and Harlequin (Blue and Gold/Greenwing) were scared out of their minds, but tightly bonded to each other.  Anytime I or any of our volunteers came too close, or opened the cage door, they screamed as though someone was trying to kill them (which they probably thought we were).  They both had closed bands on their legs, but the band was about the only thing about these birds that suggested they had ever had direct human interaction – at least POSITIVE direct human interaction anyway.

The pair of Blue and Gold macaws was definitely frightened, but less averse to humans than the other two.  The owner had mentioned they had been hand raised and “might have been siblings.”  The fact that he bought them to breed, even suspecting they might be related, added even more evidence to the cadre against the ethical and psychological make-up of the previous owner.  One macaw was less afraid than the other and while I was eventually able to get both of them to step up on my arm on various occasions, they definitely acted as though their compliance was purely coerced.  They knew how, but that didn’t mean they wanted to do it!  But in a situation such as this, any positive signs are welcome signs and we did not take for granted the suspicion that this pair might actually be adoptable.

Another pair of Umbrellas (the parents of the three deformed offspring) were the most feral.  Both had open bands on their ankles, compelling evidence that they were wild caught.  This pair’s behavior was much more indicative of what we expect to see with breeder birds.  They had never known any compassion from humans, in fact had never known anything ABOUT humans except that the two-legged, wingless creatures brought them food and water and, tragically, took their babies away from them.  Their fear was so thick you could almost cut it with a knife.  I quickly found that even eye contact led to a complete meltdown.  Cage cleaning was so stressful for them, I often feared they wouldn’t survive the near-physical interaction of me breaching the inside of the cage, even to change papers.  They were never aggressive in any way, just fearful … constantly, palpably horrified.  Eventually, a NEAR volunteer got one to take an almond from her fingers once.  To this day, I still consider that to be a nearly Earth-moving leap of faith for the birds, who wanted NOTHING to do with humans whatsoever.

The Bare-eyed cockatoo did not look well. A veterinary screening showed her to be underweight and malnourished, with very little musculature, due to a long term lack of exercise and lack of proper food.  She, like the feral pair of Umbrellas, was ridiculously afraid of any human interaction.  The weakness in her feet (suspected to be arthritis) caused her to often fall off her perch whenever she felt threatened – which was almost always.  A couple times, during cage cleaning, she fell off her perch and right out of the front of the cage.  Unlike the U2 pair however, when faced with fight or flight, she fought.  If you’ve never been bitten by a cockatoo, I don’t recommend it.  Of the five or six bites that might have warranted a trip to the Emergency Room, every single one of them were from cockatoos.  For this frightened Bare-eyed baby, toweling was required for every physical interaction.  She was thin and in horrible shape, but she could move quickly and bite hard!  She had been caged by herself in the breeder house and we were told that this was because she did not get along well with the other birds (I never found out whether the guy had once had pairs of the smaller cockatoos or whether he thought he could hybridize them).  Not wanting to rock the boat after losing three already, we kept the co-habitation as it had been when we found them.

The one remaining offspring of the Umbrella pair was in a cage by herself as well.  She was extremely timid, but far less so than most of the rest.  In an attempt to keep her from hurting herself (remember the deformed feet), we kept her in the smallest cage, but hoped her slightly less fearful demeanor would be enough to get her rehabilitated and out with our volunteers for exercise and direct interaction.  Aside from the other overly friendly cockatoo, this one seemed to hold the most hope for adoption placement, but our initial impression was that progress would come only with a significant amount of effort.

Finally, the three small cockatoos (Goffins, Lesser Sulfur and Ducorps) were caged together in a large enclosure we had typically used for macaws.  Like the rest, these three were ridiculously afraid and wanted absolutely nothing to do with anyone who entered the room.  Approaching their enclosure resulted in a meltdown every time.  The only thing I thought was worth noting from the start was that the Ducorps, unlike the other two, seemed to want to challenge anyone who stuck their hands in the cage.  He’d stand his ground – if only for a second – then back down and cower in the corner with his cage mates.  Given the fact he was in nearly perfect feather and the other two were pretty shabby, I immediately assumed he was a late addition to the group and that perhaps he had had some greater level of human interaction in his life than most of the rest.

Now, what to do with these guys?


In the avian rescue business, we deal a lot with generalities, so let’s be up front and get something straight about this next bit before going on.  NEAR is not like a “typical” rescue, which consists of a network of foster homes and animals distributed more or less equally among them.  NEAR is an actual animal shelter. The birds surrendered to our organization are housed in a central location and we seldom use foster homes for any reason other than to occasionally provide special one-on-one attention for particularly difficult birds.  For the most part (or “generally”), we are a temporary stopping place for birds – a bridge if you will between one home and the next.  Our hope is that our adoption/re-homing process will result in a permanent placement and that is what we strive for.  While we never use the term, “forever home,” we are especially sensitive to avoiding the possibility of having birds bounce around from home to home after their initial intake at the shelter. 

A sanctuary on the other hand is an organization which, for the most part, provides a permanent shelter for their animals.  While many sanctuaries carry out some adoption services, most of the birds entering a sanctuary facility will spend the rest of their lives there – with specialized care and, usually, the ability to hang out and live in flocks with other birds.

While there are a number of birds we consider permanent residents at the NEAR shelter, most usually due to chronic health or behavior issues, we are not a sanctuary.  We rely on the adoption process to keep a flow of birds coming in and going out of the rescue.  Generally speaking, the more birds we can adopt, the more birds we can accept for surrender.  Our greatest fear is a sudden influx of difficult birds that will need long-term rehabilitation before they can be safely adopted.  In a case like this one with the Connecticut breeder birds, all the rehabilitation in the world would likely not have a significant impact on most of the birds’ adoptability (or lack thereof).  So, with sixteen really “hard case” birds coming into the rescue and taking up seven cages out of our limited inventory for a very long-term period, you can imagine we were quite concerned about what we would do going forward.

Again, generally speaking, we always try to avoid bringing breeder birds into the rescue because, as in this situation, we know precious real estate (cages) are going to be tied up for a long time – maybe permanently.  Of course, we’ll love and care for the birds no matter what their background and disposition, but let’s face it … every cage we fill with a bird that might never leave is a cage we cannot use for socialized birds with the potential for a bright new future with a qualified, loving and responsible family. The conundrum is real; every time we find ourselves in a long term or permanent situation, we must take pause and weigh the very serious implications of what we’re doing and how it will impact our ability to accomplish our basic mission.

No doubt there are cases where former breeder birds are brought around and socialized, we’ve seen it happen.  But far too often the “happy ending” scenario for a breeder bird in a shelter like ours is a pipe dream, rife with risks that are completely outside our (and our birds’) control.  The amount of time and one-on-one attention required to even hope for a good outcome, when compared against the availability of qualified staff to handle the work, may or may not yield results, but WILL take away from the time that could be spent with other, more manageable birds.  None of this is to say that breeder birds aren’t worthy, but resources being what they are, somewhere along the line we have to make some hard choices in order to balance what we wish we could do with what reality dishes us.

The obvious option for the Connecticut birds was a sanctuary.  As stated above, sanctuaries are fundamentally different from rescues.  Whereas a rescue cycles birds in and out, reusing cages and enclosures time and time again, a sanctuary builds an enclosure, fills an enclosure and then starts looking for a place to build another enclosure.  Eventually, every sanctuary runs out of room.  Sanctuaries have tremendous limitations – space, help and, of course, the all-important MONEY!

An open-door sanctuary never stays open-door for long – and just about all of them are at or beyond capacity.  While there are bird sanctuaries all over the country, most of them cater to more than just parrots and pet birds.  And there are phonies and bad actors out there too – many more than there should be, so care and caution are common buzzwords for potential clients of the sanctuary world.  You don’t have to be a crook to screw things up either.  No matter how well intentioned you are, your organization is doomed to fail if you don’t have the know-how to run a business.  Too many big-hearted people have opened rescues and sanctuaries without a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of – apparently believing fate or some Deus ex Machina will save the day.  The reality is that there usually is no God in the rescue machine and when an organization goes down in flames, the already battered lives of many animals are disrupted anew. 

We knew we didn’t have the resources to try and “tame” these birds – especially the wild-caught umbrellas.  I had never seen a captive animal so afraid of humans that even eye contact spawned a meltdown.  These birds would literally freak out to the point of bashing themselves against the cage bars, screaming and trying to do literally anything to get away – but there was nowhere to get to.  Cleaning cages was a nightmare.  It was sad beyond words to see these birds so terrified they couldn’t even move.  They just stood there, entire bodies quivering, mouths agape, waiting to die.  Nothing I could ever do would convince them that I wasn’t going to even try to touch them, let alone hurt them.  Such is the hellish life of a breeder bird.


I should take a moment to talk about our very good friends Marc Johnson and Karen Windsor.  Marc and Karen are the founders of Foster Parrots & The New England Exotic Wildlife Sanctuary in Southwest Rhode Island.  Jill and I came to know Marc and Karen through another dear friend, Liz Bertang who was the founder of the (now sadly defunct) Wilton Parrot Rescue in Connecticut.  Liz became our mentor when we first entered the rescue fray via another Upstate New York organization.  She so graciously opened her home and let us pick her brain for hours and hours about every aspect of properly running a rescue.  We will never be able to repay her for the amazing advice and support she provided when we were just getting our feet wet.  We owe a huge part of our continued success to Liz, because she opened critical doors we would have never thought to knock on.

When we founded NEAR, in addition to the ongoing support from Liz Bertang, we also came under the wing (no pun intended) of Marc and Karen.  I often refer to them as our Beatles – because we look up to them as pioneers in the industry.  Our devotion to them, the cause and their friendship is nearly cult-like in its fervor.  When I have a problem I can’t figure out, I’m either on the phone or dropping an email to Karen and I know she and Marc will always have an answer.  So of course, Karen was the first person I called for advice on the Connecticut Breeder birds. 

My call wasn’t a plea for her to open the doors of Foster Parrots to these birds – I knew instinctively that just wasn’t going to happen.  Like most other parrot sanctuaries, Foster Parrots is up to their eyeballs in cockatoos … actually, they’re up to their eyeballs in EVERYTHING, to the point that they are forced to turn away nearly a thousand sanctuary requests every year.  This is just a staggering statistic!  But I knew if anybody was going to have a line on a legitimate sanctuary with capacity to spare, it would be her.

I don’t specifically remember if I called Karen or sent an email, but I asked for some advice on reputable sanctuaries for cockatoos.  Her response was a bit chilling – there are plenty of reputable sanctuaries out there, but few have room for ANY birds and even fewer will take cockatoos.  Great.  I’ve got a roomful of unadoptable cockatoos – this is just what I wanted to hear! 

Thankfully though, Karen Windsor had more to say – she went on to inform me of the one possible stand-out sanctuary in Washington State.  Karen informed me this sanctuary, aptly named The Cockatoo Sanctuary, accepted new birds by species and as space allowed.  She was pretty sure they had announced a temporary moratorium on Umbrella Cockatoos, but it was worth looking into.  The best part was that Karen and Marc had been there and could vouch for the sanctuary and its owner, Lori Rutledge.

This sanctuary seemed like a long shot, but I had been through the sanctuary search about a year previous to this whole thing when we were asked to try and save a 35 year-old Moluccan Cockatoo Breeder from euthanasia at the Erie County SPCA.  They were not set up for birds at all and this one, who had to be caged in a semi-common area, was not very nice.  They had to worry about the fact nobody wanted him and that he might hurt a visitor to the center, thus opening the organization up to a lawsuit.  In trying to help this bird, “King Tut,” I found out first hand that most organizations either wouldn’t accept cockatoos or just couldn’t accept ANY birds because they, like Foster Parrots, were already filled to overflowing.  That previous situation was a nail-biter.  We ultimately found a spot for King Tut at a wonderful sanctuary in Georgia (a video diary of the volunteers who made the trip from New York is on our Facebook page!) and euthanasia was thankfully averted.

Unfortunately, the sanctuary in Georgia had reached capacity when the Connecticut Breeders rolled in and all the other sanctuaries I had reached out to when working to place Tut were full as well.  Making the call to a place across the country seemed as good a next step as any. The worst thing they could do is say, “No.”

But the stars must’ve aligned, because the answer was, “Yes.”  Yes for all seven birds!


The typical way to get seven birds across the country would be by flying them there.  Aside from the fact that I’m not really excited about the prospect of putting pets of any kind in the cargo hold of an airplane unless you absolutely have to, the cost of doing this for seven birds, even assuming the airline gave us a discount for being a non-profit shelter rescue, was pretty significant.  For one thing, since we do not fly birds in or out of our shelter on a typical basis (ie: we have never done it before), we don’t have any FAA approved carriers.  These carriers, aside from not being tremendously cockatoo proof, are not cheap for even one, let alone seven.  Then, depending on how much the airline would ultimately charge us, the cost of transport would likely be significant.  I didn’t relish the run-around I’d get in trying to contact the airlines, begging for a break in price, so when my wife suggested we drive them out to Washington State, I decided to at least start looking down that path.  Aside from being a potentially less expensive option, it would avoid us having to throw caution to the wind, giving a bunch of overworked, under paid and disgruntled baggage handlers carte blanche to lay hands on our precious cargo.

As it turned out, the vehicle we used for our own rescue, a Yukon XL, was getting a little long in the tooth.  Paid for, we were determined to drive it until it stopped moving for good, and then walk away to the next vehicle.  We did NOT however, relish the idea of walking away to the next vehicle somewhere halfway between New York and Seattle!  Add to the mechanical concerns the fact that the beast only got 15 miles to the gallon, all the utility of cavernous space kind of diminished its value.  So, we started looking for a rental car.

Just about every rental company advertises unlimited miles with their rentals.  But just about every rental company, in their fine print, finds a way to circumvent or outright change the meaning of “unlimited,” leaving renters with a potentially massive bill if they happen to take a vehicle on a cross-country joy ride similar to the one we faced.  Just reading the complaints of former renters was enough to make us do some serious research in order to find one that truly embraced the meaning of the word “unlimited.”  Finally, after a lot of fits and starts, we settled on Alamo, which happened to have an office at our local airport.  The cost of the rental for eight days would be about $600.00.  We put gas at about another $400.00.  So just for the car we were already at a grand, but we had conservatively judged the cost to fly them out to Washington to be about twice that, so we were still on the savings side of spending.

The plan was to drive, more or less, straight out there.  GPS put it at a 39 hour trip.  We would have to stop a couple times at least to rest, but those pauses in the travel could be at rest stops and we could conceivably make it in less than 48 hours.  As it was, we had planned to leave first thing Monday morning.  With that departure time in mind, driving straight through would get us to our destination at around 11:30 Tuesday night.  Since we were pretty sure the sanctuary wouldn’t be excited to receive feral birds at the crack of Midnight, we were able to add some wiggle room for rest in the hopes we wouldn’t be total zombies by the time we rolled out of the Cascade Mountains and into the Seattle area. 

With the itinerary and mode of travel more or less sewn up, the next big hurdle was figuring out how to pay for the trip.  We’ve been tremendously lucky in the five years since NEAR was founded, because the shelter has been financially self-sustaining since the thirteenth month.  We have been no stranger to paying out of pocket for many things in our rescue “careers,” but the public generosity we have received in the form of donations has been mind-blowing.  Nothing was going to keep us from getting these seven birds to a place where they could safely live out the rest of their lives without fear of human oppression.   They had been through enough darkness to last a thousand lifetimes.  If finding the light meant paying for the whole thing out of our own pocket, we were willing to do that.  But then I was struck with an idea.


There is this National organization called American Federation of Aviculture (AFA).  Among other things, this organization touts itself as a concerned party in the conservation and protection of parrots and other exotic birds, which is all well and good, but to many of us who go beyond talking the talk – the “boots on the ground” that are actually doing something to make a difference in the EPIDEMIC of unwanted, abused and neglected birds … many of us see the AFA as something else altogether.

When it comes to protecting the interest of breeders and insuring that ANYONE with the desire to make a buck through breeding, regardless of the MASSIVE overflow of unwanted birds and the ongoing impact on rescues and sanctuaries, the AFA is the most powerful lobbying force in the country.  No matter what this organization does (or claims to do) on behalf of conservation, their supposed altruism is more than eradicated by their refusal to support regulation or limitations in the bird breeding arena.  I have personally witnessed AFA talking heads misrepresent the numbers and negative impact of unfettered breeding and I absolutely believe they are willing to say or do ANYTHING to protect the cash cow. 

As we saw when we came to the breeder home in Connecticut, the man spoke highly of AFA and credited their assistance and advice with his “success” in bringing together the birds.  Though the man ultimately admitted his foray into breeding for profit was a mistake, he had nothing but great things to say about AFA and their enabling attitude – the attitude that imprisoned sixteen birds, some more than two decades, in a hell you’d have to see to be able to imagine. 


I wholly believe that the general and specific attitudes and policies espoused by the AFA led to the disgusting conditions we found in that Connecticut home. In concentrating on this individual case, I don’t even want to think about how many thousands of other homes, just like this one and worse, are out there yet to be discovered.   Think about the Weston, Connecticut case from 2016.  Unlike our situation, the guilty party in this event, Daniel Kopulos was one of the most respected people in Aviculture (previously the Executive Director of the Animal Preservation Alliance).  We have friends who knew and even worked with this man – everyone was shocked to know he could be involved in such a sick, disgusting travesty … but he was – and of course the AFA never made a peep about it.

Believing that the AFA, directly or indirectly, helped pave the way for these orphaned birds to become unwitting pawns in a failed money-making scheme, I came to the conclusion that, since they had a hand in causing the problem, they should have a hand in fixing it.  I wrote a letter to the AFA President (Jamie Whittaker), as well as the Northeast Director (Concetta Ferragamo) and others.  In the interest of full disclosure, this is the letter I wrote:


Good morning AFA officials:

 My name is Robert Lewis and I am co-founder of Northeast Avian Rescue which is based in Upstate New York.  While my frustration and unease at the state of captive parrot breeding in the United States will likely overflow at times in this email, I hope you understand that I am coming to you out of an overriding concern for the well-being of parrots and pet birds.  While my words may come across as disrespectful, it is not my intent to start a fight or harbor discontent between our organizations.  I often don’t understand what you do and why you do it, but until and unless the laws change, you have every right to continue doing it.


Approximately eight weeks ago, we were called to a home in Southern Connecticut where nine birds were to be surrendered due to their owner’s failing health.  Upon arriving, it was revealed that the nine birds were actually sixteen. To top it off, we also discovered that these birds were almost all current or former breeders and completely unsocialized.  This revelation put us into a bind right off the bat, because we are a rescue, not a sanctuary.  When we receive unadoptable birds, the cages they occupy cannot be used to help the birds we can rehabilitate and adopt.  As you can guess, this is an unsustainable problem!


The birds were at death’s door – while the owner had Zupreem pellets for his “pet” African Gray parrot, the rest of the birds were fed Blue Seal avian pellets designed for ducks, geese and other outdoor fowl.  Many of the open bags showed signs of insect infestation. 


Subsequent to our pick up, three of the birds died, with necropsy showing extreme malnutrition.  It was strongly suggested that the stress of being removed from the home, combined with malnutrition to the point of organ failure, led to heart arrhythmia and death for at least one of the three.


So, among these birds, we have seven cockatoos that are mostly wild-caught, feral and completely unadoptable (three Umbrellas, a Bare-eyed, Sulfur Crest, Goffins and Ducorps).  As it turns out, it is almost impossible to find sanctuaries for cockatoos in the US, as almost all are at or past capacity for these notoriously difficult birds which were oh-so-cute (and profitable) as babies.  The cockatoo problem in this country is absolutely disgusting, but breeders just keep cranking them out – the dollar outweighs common sense and conscience every time.  But I digress …


Thanks to some great advice from a Sanctuary Director friend, I was able to find an organization in Washington State which, while mostly closed to surrenders from the public, is willing to take all seven birds.  Now though, our rescue will be forced to bear the cost of transporting the cockatoos to the sanctuary.  These costs, depending on the mode of transportation, will not be trivial. This is where I believe the AFA, as the voice and bully pulpit for breeders (failed and successful alike), should step up and help.  The gentleman who surrendered the birds, now deceased and therefore unable to provide financial assistance, mentioned your organization several times while we removed the birds from his home.  He credited the AFA with giving him “knowledge and support” when he started out some twenty-plus years ago.  When pressed however, he admitted the utter failure of his scheme – only three offspring came of the experiment … three umbrella cockatoos with severe foot and other deformities (yes, we got these birds too!).


While I have little more than his word to go on and certainly wouldn’t make a case against AFA from his casual references to your organization, the fact that you overtly support the captive avian breeding industry and vehemently oppose any  attempts to curtail or regulate it, I do believe there’s a pretty compelling case that your organization shares culpability in this and other failed “basement breeding” operations.  You’re all about making sure any Joe Millionaire can get a business up and running, but where are you when it all falls apart and the remnants end up in the hands of small-budgeted, overloaded rescues like ours?


What do we do when we reap what you sow?

The law is on your side – your conscience is the only thing people like myself can attempt to manipulate in order to make a plea for help in an untenable situation.  My suggestion:  The AFA should write a check to our organization, helping at least to defray the costs of getting these poor birds into sanctuary where they can live out their lives as “normally” as living 9,000 miles away from their native habitat (where they should have been left alone), will allow.  Maybe you have money set aside for situations like this … maybe you don’t.  Perhaps it would be appropriate to pass a hat the next time you’re all sequestered together.  How you do it is up to you.  But the bottom line though, whether you agree or not, is that you share responsibility for this problem and you should share responsibility for solving it.


We will be mounting a publicity campaign to raise funds for the cross-country transport.  That campaign will include several press releases which will go out to all the media outlets in New York and New England. References to the AFA will factor prominently in these press releases.  It is completely up to you as to whether the references highlight your organization turning a deaf ear to our plight, or helping us to do the right thing.  At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter one way or the other how the press releases read – my sole intent is to ensure these birds receive the BEST POSSIBLE CARE FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES.


Checks can be mailed to the address below. We also accept PayPal via our website and Social Media.  You can also contact me by phone or email at your discretion.


The ball is in your court.



Now, this isn’t the most warm and fuzzy note I’ve ever written.  I tried to keep only to the facts and leave emotion out of it, but the more I wrote, the more pissed off I became … because I just had a funny feeling my plea was going to be rebuffed, if answered at all.  Sure enough, the next day I received the response below from Ms. Ferragamo:


Dear Robert,

I think there's some serious confusion going on. AFA is an educational organization representing all facets of Aviculture (the keeping and caring of birds)  Which includes pet owners, sanctuaries, rescues, shelters, breeders, exhibitions, show, free flight, manufacturers,  Zoos, veterinarians...

Not sure why you would think that a national educational organization is somehow tied solely to breeding. Not sure where that could have even come from. It doesn't make a bit of sense. AFA offers fantastic courses called the Fundamentals of Aviculture too and numerous other educational programs. 

Maybe you are mixing AFA up with some other organization. 

AFA main pillars are education, conservation, legislative awareness and disaster relief.

AFA also offers CEUs for professional certifications and recertifications veterinarians, vet technician and behavior consultants.


Concetta Ferragamo 

Northeastern regional director 

Sent from my Verizon, Samsung Galaxy smartphone 


Under other circumstances, I might have found this off-handed cell phone response hilarious.  “Who, us?  You must have us confused with somebody else, because look at all the wonderful things we do!”  But unfortunately, I found it anything but funny and my reply memorialized my lack of humor:


Ah, Concetta …  I had wondered why the delay in response.  Clearly now I understand you needed to take the time to polish your halo.

I probably should be more insulted than I am at your passive-aggressive assertion that I don’t know who I am talking to or what I am talking about.  You know, as I grow older, I do worry about dementia, but my friends and family assure me I still have enough presence of mind to know double talk when I see it. 


Your cutting and pasting of the AFA’s lawyerly parsing of words certainly does paint the AFA as a matronly, nurturing organization that would never put the interests of the captive bird breeding industry ahead of the horrors the industry reaps, year over year, upon the animals you claim to love and care for so much.  But those of us left to clean up the mess your organization helps create know better.


I can cut and paste too.  From the AFA website:



“The American Federation of Aviculture (AFA) is a nonprofit national organization established in 1974, whose purpose is to represent all aspects of aviculture and to educate the public about keeping and breeding birds in captivity.”


Okay, taking this statement at face value, I ask you – Where was the AFA’s “pillar of education” when the gentleman in question below was wantonly mixing chickens and cockatoos into his dark, never cleaned “breeding room,” (what the rest of us would call a “basement”), trying to force wild caught and recently acquired socialized birds to breed, feeding them outdoor duck and fowl food which had virtually none of the formulation necessary for the health and well-being of his parrot species?  Where were the AFA scholars and teachers when the three offspring that actually did come from this psittacine labor camp were not given proper perches (or any at all) and developed life-long deformities of the feet?  I would think that with your glowing, spotless record of educating in “all aspects of aviculture,” the AFA would have brought all sorts of help to bear.  But you didn’t.

You might say, “Bob, how could we know this was happening?” And that might be a fair question, except that the man couldn’t say enough about how helpful the AFA was in guiding him along the way when he first got started as a breeder.  Seems to be a disconnect there. At least I think so, but you’ll probably have an answer locked and loaded for this one, an answer that will, in its attempt to make me look stupid or perhaps senile, completely exonerate the AFA of culpability in any way for the frightening number of abused, neglected, abandoned and otherwise unwanted parrots and pet birds in shelters, rescues and sanctuaries today.


In your “you must have our saintly organization mixed up with somebody else,” response, you completely ignored the problem which created the need for the email in the first place!  I wonder, which AFA main pillar promotes the complete disregard of the dark underbelly of parrot breeding and ownership?  You were so busy spit-polishing your mission statement that you couldn’t have been bothered with the plight of these birds.  Disgraceful.


So let me ask you … How much time, money or attention has AFA donated to rescues, sanctuaries and shelters for the life-long care of the tens of thousands of birds that end up in need of it on an annual basis?  Based on the rescues and sanctuaries I work with on a daily basis, I’m guessing that number is at or approaching zero.  Probably though, rather than answer this question, you will deflect by setting me straight on the numbers … or deny how every single reputable rescue, shelter and sanctuary for parrots and pet birds in the US is overflowing with birds, mostly bred by the breeders you support and “educate.”  The truth ruins your narrative.


And while I’m on the subject, which AFA main pillar were you bracing yourself against when you took to your contact list a few years ago and sent text blasts out to God only knows how many people suggesting what a disgrace the documentary “Parrot Confidential” was and how it was simply a ploy for certain people involved to “make more money?”  I don’t know how in the world I ended up on your contact list, but when I replied with a counter argument, I was promptly and permanently removed from the list (and yes, I still have those text messages and freely shared them with the individuals you derided in your attempt to discredit them and the film).  Which pillar, Concetta?  Is that education?  Is that how you and yours help with conservation?


If your idea of conservation is flooding the market with birds few want or can handle after they reach puberty, then you’re doing a stellar job!  I remember how you personally stood before me and a small group of people you addressed several years ago … how you said with a straight face that there are no “birdy-mill” breeder establishments in the US, even though there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Which AFA main pillar promotes this kind of distortion of the truth?


It was suggested that I turn my email into an open letter to the breeding industry and I’m going to do just that.  But I’m going to go one step further … I’m also going to share the letter and your response with my rescue and sanctuary colleagues throughout the country.  Perhaps you’ll be interested in their input.  If it turns out that I really am losing my mind and I happen to be the only person out there who sees you in the light I have cast, I will man up and share that too – with apologies.  But based on what I know, even before sharing this thread with anyone, I’m pretty sure the can of worms has been inexorably opened.


In hindsight, you’ll likely come to the eventual conclusion that it would have been easier, more honest and straightforward to just skip the holier than thou elevator speech and simply say, “The AFA is not interested in helping you at this time.”  It wouldn’t have changed my stance, but it would have shut me up.


I’ll be in touch.



Why am I publishing this chain of communication in its entirety? Because I want whoever reads this to see both ends of this “conversation” so that they can judge for themselves.  I am all about transparency and I’m willing to accept the possibility I’m wrong on all of this – but anyone who wants to go down that road had better have some powerful evidence!

So, as you might guess, Ms. Ferragamo did reply to my second, significantly more frustrated email.  As you might also guess, her response did little to diffuse the situation:


Hi Robert,

I am only able to read the first few sentences of this email. My phone is a pain in the butt with opening emails. 

You mentioned something about a delayed response. Yikes. Sorry about that. I responded as soon as I read it. I apologize if there were days in between. I am on the road a lot and don't get to my emails as quickly as I used to.

I assume you are inquiring about funds to help with shipping the birds. AFA is a 501 c 3 and that type of org has to stay within its mission and bylaws. As far as I know. no money is allocated for this. However,  AFA does have quite a few sanctuaries, rescues and shelters as members. I would be happy to ask them on your behalf if they could help you out in any way. No breeding so don't worry about that. I understand.

Another way AFA  can help and still stay within it's mission and bylaws is to help you when you run promotions or fundraisers. Fundraisers are a blast!!! I would definitely be happy to help you with stuff like that. I love doing those. AFA has a huge presence at Parrot Festival in Houston, Texas for the National Parrot Rescue and Preservation Foundation. That's an amazing 3 day event. All sorts of speakers, vendors and fundraising. 

Many AFA officers do presentations for other rescues too such as the Gabriel Foundation, Lancaster Bird Rescue, Phoenix Landing and many others.

As I mentioned before, AFA represents all facets of aviculture. Personally, I have been involved with rehab and rehoming for well over ten years. I don't charge adoption fees either. I took part  in rehoming when I had my stores too. It's very close to my heart. I know it can be very emotional and heartbreaking at times so I applaud those that do their part. 

I can also help with behavioral consulting if you'd like. I am an International Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. AFA is limited in what is allowed but I can certainly help in one way or another. 

If you are going to hold any type of event I would be happy to help. We could probably get Patricia Sund to hold a CHOP competition (huge draw and a blast) too.

I hope I answered whatever it was that you may have said in your newest email.

I'm not a fan of focusing on what can't be done especially if there are other things that I can (yes) and still stay within our mission and by laws.

I will not contact the affiliated sanctuaries, rescues, or shelters until you give me the go ahead. Just in case you're already starting some sort of money raising campaign I don't want to step on any toes.

Since I'm having a difficult time opening emails from my phone it might be easier to text me going forward, 603 540 6151

Take care and thank you for doing all that you do for the birds. 


How blissfully convenient that she couldn’t open anything but the first couple lines of my email!  How blissfully convenient that in this day and age where there is a computer attached to just about EVERYTHING we use and deal with on a daily basis, she apparently can only use her phone to handle AFA business.  How blissfully convenient that throughout this entire charade, NOBODY else from AFA even bothered to speak – either to bail her out, stand up for the organization or <gasp> help. 

Of course, a great example of her obfuscation (or outright lying, depending on how you look at it) is her mentioning that as a 501(c)(3), AFA is poverty stricken and “no money is allocated for this.”  Huh?  No money is allocated for what?  If she could only read the first two lines of my email, then how could she know what “this,” this is?  Caught … red-handed!

In absolutely ignoring the entire situation for the second time, she towed the “company line” by deflecting about all the great fun AFA could bring us with a fundraiser and maybe some behavioral training.  At least a couple gift certificates for Mc Donald’s French fries would have had some actual value …

I did a bit of research about AFA’s financial standing before sending my next and final missive to the AFA officials:


To answer your question, my original inquiry was seeking funds to help with transportation of the birds.  As was clearly indicated in my first email, we already have a sanctuary which has agreed to take all seven of the cockatoos.  The sanctuary is in the Seattle, Washington area, which means that we must either arrange for air transit or a road trip to get them there. 

We, like you, are a 501(c)(3) and have the same limitations of mission and bylaws.  But as an organization dedicated to birds, we don’t even have to consult these documents to know how to proceed.  Whether or not you have money allocated for such a purpose – based on AFA’s 2016 990 return, the $120,000+ cash on hand should make a decision like this pretty trivial – if AFA actually cared to help solve the problem.

We are not trying to drain your organization’s cash – NEAR would have been thrilled with a $500 pledge of assistance.  This would have gone a long way toward defraying the cost of this transport – and toward putting some teeth into AFA’s claims of being all about the birds.  Never minding the fact that AFA clearly SHOULD have a program in place to help failed breeders find permanent homes for their birds, it shouldn’t take an act of Congress to come up with one, or to simply consider it a charitable contribution … or do AFA’s bylaws prohibit that too?


The rest of this email is, with all due respect, deflection and platitudes which have nothing to do with the matter at hand.  Frankly, I’m appalled that any rescue or sanctuary would have anything to do with ANY organization that actively supports captive bird breeding for the pet trade.  The hypocrisy of such a relationship would be tantamount to a vegan activist group advertising pork as the “Other White Meat.”  And to that point, any reasonable person who has performed rescue and re-homing services (without regard to your “no-fee” comment) would RUN from an organization that supports captive breeding for the pet trade.  They certainly wouldn’t hold a named position with such a group.  But again, I digress.


Finally, if your main mission is “education” (as stated on your most recent tax return) you are failing MISERABLY.  If you took the bird knowledge demonstrated in every commercial pet store we have visited and combined it with the knowledge demonstrated by about 90% of the people who have surrendered birds to our rescue, you’d still have plenty of room in that thimble to stuff a check into. 


Unless the AFA is willing to write a check to offset some of our transport costs for these poor, lifelong neglected animals, then I believe we have discussed this point to its illogical conclusion.  I know I’ve had enough passive aggressive denial and self-congratulatory deflection.  The rift between our organizations will not be mended – you will continue supporting the captive breeding of pet birds and DISASTER the flooded market subjects these animals to … We’ll continue cleaning up the mess you so conveniently ignore and/or deny.  If necessary, every penny of the cost to relocate these birds will come out of our own personal checking account … because it’s the right thing to do for these birds who have lived for 21 years in confinement and have never even seen the light of day, let alone felt the cool breeze of fresh air on a summer afternoon.


I wasn’t expecting honesty from AFA, that ship has sailed.  But I was hoping for compassion.  Shame on me. Fail.



This email went unanswered.  The result of my attempt to hold AFA accountable for a mess they at least share culpability in creating, netted a great big ZERO dollars, ZERO support and NOTHING but deflection from an organization that’s supposedly all about helping the birds.

As an aside, I contacted each one of the organizations Ms. Ferragamo mentioned as “partnering” with the AFA.  I told them my situation and promised I would neither argue or judge any of them, but that I really wanted to understand how a rescue/sanctuary organization could hold court with a group who, almost single handedly, GUARANTEES we will never get the upper hand on the epidemic we’re trying to curb. 

The only organization to respond, the Gabriel Foundation, stated that they would be happy to discuss at some future point in time, but must’ve thought better of it, because I have never heard from them again.  I’m not going to cast aspersions on the Gabriel Foundation or any of the others.  I believe them to be fellow soldiers in our war against abuse, neglect and apathy toward parrots and pet birds … but I’d sure like to know how they can be champions of rescue and yet associate with an organization which, as part of its main mission, ensures the war we soldier on in will never end.

Of course, I’m not telling you what to think.  Just because I find this organization to be a thinly disguised front for lobbying in favor of unfettered bird breeding practices doesn’t mean you shouldn’t draw your own conclusions.   All I know is that the conversation associated with my plea to them for help went EXACTLY as memorialized above.  Not one word was added, deleted or changed … I find them to be a disgraceful organization with a clear agenda to support the majority of their members – BREEDERS.  They would much rather put bucks in the pockets of their subscribers than actually put their money where their mouth is in supporting all the “pillars” of their so-called charity.


With the AFA discussion in the books, yielding NOTHING, the next step - short of paying for the entire mission out of our own pocket - was to see if we could drum up some support from the friends and followers of NEAR.  A GoFundMe page was set up with a target of $800.00.  This goal was set to mostly offset the cost of the vehicle rental and fuel.  If we could obtain that amount of assistance, or some percentage thereof, we’d happily cover the rest ourselves.  We run fundraisers a few times a year and have done so, like every other charity, since our inception.  But I still dislike asking people for money.  Everyone has their own crosses to bear in this world – bills come due, things need doing … having an organization begging for money, even a few times a year, has to get old after a while.  We appreciate the public generosity more than anyone will ever know, but we always worry that our next ask will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

In this case though, we needn’t have worried.  We hit the $800.00 target, if I remember correctly, within the first 48 hours.  People came out of the woodwork with money and well wishes – more than happy to help make a better life for these seven birds.  I look back on the fundraising now and think about how simple and straightforward it was.  If we had needed twice as much, I have no doubt we’d have hit that target too, and in the same amount of time.  Our friends and followers are just THAT generous with their hard-earned cash.  They’ve made no “corporate pledge” to do anything, but they willingly lay their cash on the line every time.  The supposed bird protection group with their haughty “four pillars” and their $120k cash on hand burning a hole in their pocket … they couldn’t be bothered.  In a word, our friends ROCK!


So, the plan was afoot.  Drive the birds cross-country, as quickly, gently and stress-free as possible, and get them into their new, permanent home.  Planning the trip and fighting with the AFA was the easy part.  Now it was time to hit the road.

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Connecticut Breeder Bird Tragedy - Part I (Surrender)

This blog post has been a long time coming – partly due to the rigors of running a large and geometrically growing avian shelter, partly because the subject matter and details are unpleasant and controversial. 

For the sake of our readers, I’m breaking this story into three parts, “Surrender,” “Plan,” and “Execute.” Each piece of the story will be published first on our website, then shared to our social media platforms.

The details of this story are 100% true and in no way exaggerated for effect or with regard to the “feelings” of any party – including those of our own organization.  In other words, this is the story, warts and all.

The opinions expressed about the captive pet bird industry are mine.  As the reader, you are welcome to draw your own conclusions about the way this industry works and its effects.  Differences of opinion make the world go round and I welcome civilized debate.  I will not tolerate attacks though … So if you’re fixed for a fight, keep moving.  There’s nothing to see here.


PART 1 – Surrender

Let’s start at the beginning. As winter finally showed signs of loosening its icy grip on the Northeast in March of 2018, an animal control officer from a small town in Southwest Connecticut made a cold call to Northeast Avian Rescue (NEAR) on our Facebook page.  She had been dispatched to a home in her community where several large birds were being kept in very cramped, not-so-sanitary conditions and their owner, recently diagnosed with lung cancer, faced chemotherapy and radiation which would significantly alter his immune system, tossing the future of his birds into complete uncertainty.  The ACO called upon us, as many do, with a plea to help remove the birds before the owner took extreme actions to remove them himself.

Our initial understanding was that there was a total of nine birds -- macaws and cockatoos, sharing a rather dusty, unclean room in the small home.  An assortment of photos accompanied the Facebook message, clearly showing that the conditions were not good for the birds, regardless of the health concerns of their owner. 

We accepted the call to action and planned our trip to Connecticut.


The morning of our arrival was spectacular.  The remaining snow on the ground melted before our eyes and despite the sober reason for our trip, we were glad to be out of the house.  I don’t know for sure what inspired us to bring extra carriers – I think it was because we assumed none of the birds would travel well together and that we should plan for a crate each – but when we arrived, after a few minutes of introductory small talk, we were informed that the nine birds we came to rescue was actually a total of sixteen.  As the reporting ACO officer arrived, the homeowner’s briefing continued.  The birds had accumulated over the better part of twenty years, as the man researched and ultimately plunged into the “lucrative business of aviculture.”  In other words, the birds were breeders – former breeders to be exact, because the business venture had been a complete failure, yielding three Umbrella Cockatoo offspring, each with deformed feet and beak, along with God only knew what other maladies.

We went through the usual questions:

What breeds of birds are they?  Twelve cockatoos and four macaws.  Awesome!

What is their disposition?  One of the cockatoos is pretty friendly, the others are not friendly at all.  Perfect!

What are they eating?  Almost entirely a pelleted diet.  Well, at least that much is hopeful, right?

Have any of them seen a veterinarian?  No...  I almost didn’t need to ask that question.

The owner was clearly upset about relinquishing his birds.  At times he was tearful, at times defiant.  But he admitted between mood swings that he knew it was all for the best.  He expressed a certain amount of remorse for his unsuccessful dalliance into breeding, but insisted the birds had been well taken care of, even though he had had to relegate the task to his wife in recent months, due to his illness.  He seemed confident that the birds could be socialized and had potential for rehoming.  We, knowing how breeder birds are kept as feral as absolutely possible to ensure the best “yield,” were not nearly as optimistic.  In fact, though my wife and I hadn’t had an opportunity to speak, we were equally horrified at the specter of bringing twice as many birds back to the rescue as we expected.

Even with the plethora of information on the Internet warning all the uninitiated of the horrors of owning cockatoos, they remain one of the most popular breeds of parrots, which scares the hell out of us for their future vis a vis rescue/rehoming.  Add to their popularity the fact that most rescues will not willingly accept cockatoos (don’t even get me started on the apparent cherry-picking mentality of many avian rescues!), the future of these poor animals looks much worse than the present, which is already pretty damned scary!


The “bird room” made us do a double-take.  The cages were all homemade and not any too sturdily.  The birds inside, largely a hot mess.  A pair of blue and gold macaws looked beautiful, but on approach, suffered a total meltdown, throwing themselves at the opposite side of the cage as though we were coming to kill rather than save them. 

A quick count showed ten birds in total – the aforementioned macaws, three umbrella cockatoos hanging from the side of the cage and looking, literally, as though their feet were on backward; a Bare-eyed Cockatoo and Medium Sulfur Crested Cockatoo caged by themselves; and the last cage holding a lesser Sulfer Crest, Ducorps and Goffins Cockatoo.  The Ducorps looked like he had just come off a parrot calendar – gorgeous – but the other two looked like their feathers had been run through a wood chipper.

“Where are the rest?” I asked and the owner mentioned the basement.  As we headed out of the room, I noticed a small sack of Zupreem Natural pellets on a stand by the door.  Good.  Beneath it though, was a couple huge bags of Blue Seal outdoor avian pellets.  My heart sank.

“Who eats these?” I asked, hoping for to hear the man say, "What are they doing here, they should be out in the chicken coop!"  Instead, the answer was, “Those are the pellets.  For my birds.”


“But what about the Zupreem?”

“That’s for our Gray.”  Gray?  What Gray? “We’re keeping that one.”  His wife said, matter of fact. 

I hoped the look on my face didn’t belie my sudden desire to throttle the man who had made it a point to stress how well his birds were being taken care of. 

To the basement, where the horror began in earnest.


The darkness and pallor of dust and dank, dirty cellar met us at the top of the steps.  Before we got halfway to the landing, a pair of Umbrella Cockatoos (the parents of the three miscreant offspring upstairs) began thrashing in their cage.  As our eyes became adjusted to the very low light, we noted a total of three cages.  One contained another pair of Umbrella Cockatoos and the other a pair of hybrid macaws, in very poor feather. 

The owner opened one of the cages, ostensibly to show me the “friendly” cockatoo.  I put my hand out in a tentative gesture and it leapt/flew onto my shoulder – generally not the preferred first step with a strange, potentially feral parrot.  But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, reflecting on the many bad cockatoo bites I’ve sustained over the years, freaking out at such an unexpected gesture only makes matters worse.  As the ‘too molded itself to the side of my face and neck, making “kissy face” in my left ear, I relaxed a little.  She seemed ecstatic to be out of the cage ... I wasn’t going to rock the boat.  Throughout our time inside the house, most of the photos taken show this bird glued to my shoulder.  I briefly fretted about what might happen when I had to extricate her, but she complied gently and without complaint.

As I contemplated the loss of my left ear to the friendly Umbrella, her cage mate made a run for it, flying over the furnace and AC equipment, to the other side of the basement.  The owner made his way around one side of the equipment and I around the other.  A good portion of the rest of the basement was an open air chicken coop, with an indeterminate number of chickens running around, essentially uncaged.  As I reflected momentarily on the mélange of irritants and virulent particles inhaled with my every breath, I also thought – hey, how come these chickens get to be free, but the parrots imrprisoned in these dirty, home-made cages (with one perch, one nest box, ZERO toys or enrichment)?  

I never got an answer to that one.

We eventually wrangled the escaped Umbrella Cockatoo, placing it into one of our transfer cages (a large, metal dog enclosure).  It was, I think, at this time we put the friendly female in with her ‘mate.’  I had a feeling getting the other pair of cockatoos and the macaws out of their cages was not going to be pretty and I certainly didn’t want to see the one friendly bird in the pack get hurt, no matter how starved for love and attention she was at that moment.

Removing the four remaining ‘basement birds’ was not an easy task, but went largely without drama.  With their emotions amped up to “11,” and with extremely cramped access to the inside of their cages, I fully expected to suffer some pretty nasty bites that day.  Somehow though, I managed to get out of there unscathed.  I’m still not sure how I pulled that one off. 

We ended up packing away seven crates: two for the macaw pairs, one for the three offspring Umbrellas (with the foot deformities), one for the bonded Sulfur/Ducorps/Goffins combo and one each for the Bare-eyed and Medium Sulfer Crest.

The man broke down, tears flowing, as we made for our departure.  I wanted to feel sorry for him.  I think he truly believed he was a champion of bird keeping. His grief as he watched the birds going away … it was real.  But between the filthy conditions in the basement and his bullshit pride in letting us know they were on a “pelleted diet” were enough to keep my disgust on a slow simmer – enough to make me want to get the hell out of there before the guy changed his mind.


The trip back to the shelter was exceptionally quiet and, at least to our thinking, uneventful.  The birds, shell-shocked from being yanked from their familiar, if filthy, environment, were mostly silent.  Shortly before arriving home there was a brief tumult in the far back – a brief barking yelp and some quick movement.  The noise was, for large parrots, half-hearted and brief.  We commented as we backed into the driveway, several volunteers waiting to help us unload, that it was one of the quietest rescues we had ever performed.

As the volunteers removed the crates, bringing them to the basement quarantine room for triage, our social media expert, camera in hand, caught the action on video and transmitted to the world via Facebook Live.  The video is still archived on the NEAR Facebook page and has garnered over 17,000 views – our most popular post to date.

Once the crates were downstairs, we went to work trying to figure out the caging strategy.  The most obvious and sensible way to cage the birds was in the same combos as the home from which they came.  We already knew who got along with each other and who didn’t.  While there may have been some angles the previous owner hadn’t considered, under the stressful circumstances, we weren’t about to experiment with the living arrangements!  As we strategized, one of the volunteers came into he room and informed Jill of a problem outside, where the birds were staged.  Jill left the room momentarily, but quickly returned.  I could tell from the look on her face there was a problem.

“The ones with the bad feet,” She began in a whisper, so as not to cause a commotion. “I think one of them is hurt.  There is a lot of blood.”  

I followed her out of the room.  At the threshold, our media expert was filming a “macro shot” of all the crates.  I whispered in her ear, “Don’t film the crates up close for a minute.”  She nodded, moving upstairs to take the increasing number of viewers on a virtual tour of the shelter.

We went to the crate with the three “babies,” the offspring of the feral cockatoo pair (which we had been told at the home, was wild caught and lifelong breeders).  As I opened the door, it was immediately apparent that one of the birds had caught its foot in the blanket on the bottom of the crate and had somehow wrapped it into a knot.   One of the others, the smallest one which, from the looks of its feathers, had clearly been bullied by the other two, sat shivering in the corner with several wounds and dried blood congealing around the wings and chest.  The third cockatoo lay face down, dead. 

“What in the world happened here?”  As I attempted to gently check the dead cockatoo for injuries, the one with its foot caught began screaming and flopping around, getting even more caught up in the towel.  Between the two of us, my wife and I managed to get this bird out of the cage and started untangling the towel.  As it turned out, given it was a ‘junk towel,’ it had a small hole in it.  Somehow the cockatoo stepped into this hole.  With the foot deformity, getting out of that hole became a challenge.  The more she fought, the worse it got. Eventually, we surmised, this bird began to believe it was being attacked.  “Fight or flight” mode kicked in and, since there was no place to go, the fight was on.

Believing its own sibling to be responsible for whatever was trying to kill him from the foot up, he struck out at the other two.  Later, we figured this happened shortly before we arrived home, when we heard the couple furtive yelps that we thought were typical “scared cockatoo” noise.  The blind fear of impending doom drove this bird to fight for its life … and the results were devastating.

The loss of the cockatoo put a pall on the rest of the evening.  The other cockatoo (the smaller, bullied one) had injuries to the chest, under the wing and on the face.  None of the injuries appeared too serious, and certainly not life-threatening.  The next morning however, this bird was clearly on the decline.  While there was no further bleeding and the wounds were clean, the condition of the smaller cockatoo was not good.  Being that it was Sunday, there was not much we could do but wait until the next morning to get him into one of the local veterinarians.  In our area, there are no avian vets available on Sundays and the only help the 24 hour emergency vet will provide is to euthanize.

By Monday morning, the little guy was in dire shape.  We managed to shoe-horn ourselves into an appointment with our wonderful local avian clinic, but an hour before our allotted time, the second cockatoo succumbed.  We didn’t order a necropsy.  In hindsight, I wish we had – but at the time we were convinced that the cause of death was the wounds sustained during the fight in the crate.  It wasn’t until a couple days later when the lone sulfur crest was found deceased in his cage that we became alarmed.  This bird was immediately brought in for analysis and necropsy.

The results of the necropsy were compelling.  The papillae were not only white, but also showed signs of pus discharge.  Choanal health (or lack thereof) is one of the clearest, easiest to read signs of malnutrition.  In this case, with the abnormally shaped and colored papillae AND the pus, along with the body and feather condition, it was clear this bird was in advanced stages of malnutrition.  This already sorry state of affairs, combined with the stress of being forcibly removed from its cage and brought to new and frightening surroundings, was more than the little fella could take.  When informed of the Blue Seal fowl pellet diet the parrot had been on for God only knows how long, the veterinarian was even more convinced in the validity of the results of her analysis -- likely a stress-borne cardiac or other organ failure brought on by extreme deficiencies in critical vitamins and minerals.

“It’s a wonder any of them are still alive.”  She said.  Indeed.  But alive they were … THIRTEEN birds that had been placed, against their will, into a nightmare breeding environment by a man who thought he was an expert, but knew absolutely NOTHING about what he was doing.

And now we had to figure out what to do with them.

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The Queens Hotel Rescue

In the rescue game, there are good days and bad days, and you rarely plan for which days are going to go which way. Dealing with people who want to argue the policies or question the reasons for having them in the first place ... it's a pretty constant drone and it can really get old after a while. Sometimes it feels like a pretty thankless job and we wonder why we even bother. 

But when the mood gets dark, sometimes all it takes is one quick kick in the ass to remind us of why we're here. One quick kick in the ass to remind us that it's all worthwhile after all.

And here's one:

We got a call last week from a small, independent hotel in Queens, NY. The story, one rescues hear more than they want to ... A bunch of birds ("A Blue Macaw, African Gray, Mexican Pinch Amazon and between 20 and 50 parakeets"), need to be removed from the hotel immediately. Why? Because they are disruptive and they attract pests.

So we contacted the hotel and let them know that we will make room for these birds in the rescue immediately. Question: When can you get the birds to us? Answer: It would be inconvenient for us to come up there, you should come here.

It would have been easy to explain the inconvenience of leaving the rescue for the day and driving 130 miles in each direction in order to right the wrong they had committed in having parrots become residents in a hotel in the first place. But of course, we made plans to visit Queens on our Sunday rather than spend the day scouting land for our new rescue facility.

At the hotel, sporting a garish collection of every kind of Central and Eastern Asian bric-a-brac you could possibly think of (including a wall mounted aquarium that completely surrounds the "cage" window in the lobby, all but obscuring it from anyone walking in for the first time), we were met with a couple very helpful hotel employees and escorted to:


Yes, that's right. The birds were being housed on the roof of the hotel. The "room" they were in had a roof over it, but was open on two sides. The birds were, for all intents and purposes, open to the elements. Given that the helpers could speak almost no English, it was impossible to determine how long they had been up there. There were no pigeons or vermin to be seen upon our arrival, but it didn't take a lot of imagination to think of what these birds had seen or been subjected to while on the roof, even if it was only for a few days.

The macaw, in great feather aside from a feather trim -- no, not the wing feathers, but the TAIL FEATHERS -- allowed himself to be pet on the head, but would not step up. The only sign of neglect was a badly misshapen lower beak that can easily be repaired over time. He didn't fight when he was toweled and was easily placed into a crate.

The gray, friendly to a fault, stepped right up on the man's arm. I asked if he could fly and the man said, "No." (We found out later he was actually fully flighted!!!) He also went into a crate without event.

The Amazon, a Mexican Redhead ("Pinch" must've been a Freudian slip from the person filling out the form, because that bird wants nothing more than to pinch off a little bit of flesh!) had to be toweled, but did not fight. He too was placed in a crate.

Then came the parakeets. Fourteen in total, so that was one blessing -- it wasn't 50. But they were in cages that could not be easily moved, and where would we move them? We were on the roof! After some thought, we decided to remove dishes and go at them from the food doors. My arm barely fit through the door, but that was good -- nobody getting out around that! The first cage, smaller, was easy to empty -- half the birds successfully crated. The second cage was bigger, what we commonly refer to as a "cockatiel flight cage." With the help of one man on the other side, Jill on the back and the other helper on the front, they kind of waved them in my direction and I grabbed them where I could. Brilliant!

Brilliant, that is, until one of the helpers decided to open the front of the cage to grab one himself -- apparently I wasn't doing it fast enough. While every one of these feral 'keets tried to take a mouthful of flesh on the way into the crate, I let them bite and got them into safety. The helper ... not so much. As soon as he got one of the parakeets out of the cage, it bit him -- and he let go of it. Away it went. I couldn't tell whether Jill was having a stroke or going into a homicidal rage, but we started chasing this bird around the tiny "enclosure." Almost had him several times, but eventually he got out onto the open roof. We thought all was lost for this little guy until finally, exhausted by his ordeal and weak from the CRAP he had been fed for his whole life, he let himself be caught. SUCCESS!!!

So we got the rest of the 'keets and got the hell out of there. Once home, we set the birds up in our quarantine room, which thankfully had been empty, so no re-starting quarantine for the birds already there. Once they were all safe and sound (with the macaw and Amazon immediately going for the pellets in their bowls - YAY!), we took a step back to survey the day's work.

This pain in the ass was the KICK in the ass I needed to remember why we are here and why what we do is more important. Had we not gotten them, they would have either been sold or given away to the first derelict to pass the hotel or, worse, would have been set free, to their unquestionable demise. We changed the course of their destiny. We RESCUED them.

We saved seventeen precious lives on Sunday. THAT is why we do this. Let's face it: 90% of the birds coming into the rescue are simply changing hands. Someone either doesn't want to, or can't, keep them any more. No drama, no big story to tell. But occasionally we have to get out there and do something that, if we don't, could spell a horrible future or even death for these glorious, beautiful and spectacular animals. At times like these, we earn our namesake, for we are a RESCUE.

Yeah, I'm tooting our horn today. I think we earned it. These birds might be able to "talk," but in most circumstances they have no voice, be it not for organizations like ours. The Queens Hotel Birds will have a bright future and NEAR will strive forward, waiting for our next call to duty.

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