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.