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?