In my travels and my work for The HSUS, I see the best and the worst of the human spirit. I have seen pigeon shoots, cockfighting operations, puppy mills, and many more manifestations of cruelty and greed firsthand. When I see these naked animal cruelty cases, it makes me shake my head in revulsion, but it almost always leaves me more resolute in my wish to eradicate them.
On the positive side, though, I also get to see The HSUS’s direct care work and its network of animal care centers, along with the fabulous efforts of local humane societies and sanctuaries throughout the nation. I’ve been to hundreds of sanctuaries and humane societies, and whenever I visit them I have an upwelling of profound appreciation for the self-sacrificing people who do this work. Meeting them and seeing them recharges me, and I’m grateful for that.
© The HSUS
Touring the parrot sanctuary with Executive Director Matt Smith.
It was that latter feeling that was with me all day on Saturday when I visited the Central Virginia Parrot Sanctuary, also known as Project Perry, in Louisa, Va. This parrot sanctuary—for the cast-offs and the cruelty cases of the burgeoning parrot trade—is the inspiration of Matt Smith, who personally helped to build almost all of the state-of-the-art aviaries at the sanctuary. Matt told me he’s committed to the project for his life, and he’s just 31 years old.
This is only the third year of existence for Project Perry, and each year, Matt and his team of board members and directors have added capacity, in order to care for more birds (their work was spotlighted last year in our Animal Sheltering magazine). They now have 125 rescued birds there. It is a tribute to what they’ve done that at Saturday’s ribbon cutting ceremony for the African Grey parrot aviary, there were leaders in attendance from other reputable parrot sanctuaries based in Alabama and Rhode Island. While there are thousands of reputable humane societies, there are but a handful of professional parrot sanctuaries, and my visit to this wonderful place, on this special occasion, was a reminder of the incredible need for such facilities, given the terrible circumstances of parrots in captivity in America.
Parrots—African Greys, cockatoos, macaws, conures, and many other species—are highly intelligent, social, and long-lived animals. Eventually, almost all of these birds are homeless at some point, because many of them can live 80 years. Very few people contemplate the long-term commitment required for their care, and the fact is, many of the birds outlive their original keepers. More often than not, too, people can’t deal with the noise, or the demanding nature of the animals, and they evict them, burdening sanctuaries, rescue and foster groups, and other caring individuals. We are living through a huge boom in unwanted parrots just now, and it’s reaching crisis proportions.
The captive setting is in almost all cases an entirely inadequate environment for these birds in terms of enrichment, and one can see the sad psychological toll from completely deficient care and housing and enrichment. I met one bird, a cockatoo named Callie, who had a beautiful, feathered head, but virtually no feathers below the neckline. She had plucked all of them out, a victim of an obsessive-compulsive disorder, and she also bore the scars from even more serious acts of self-mutilation. Matt tells me that it’s very difficult to reverse this behavior, and even if the bird can be turned around, it’s often too late since their constant plucking does follicle damage and prevents feather regeneration. The birds are truly victims of a trade that denies them the parental nurturing and socialization essential to normal development.
© Central Virginia Parrot Sanctuary
An African Grey parrot at Project Perry.
Parrots have the same brain-to-body mass ratio that humans do, and they are possessed with a remarkable intelligence. The New York Times ran two obituaries after Alex the African Grey parrot died a couple of years ago. Alex was capable of problem solving, counting, and many other amazing demonstrations of learning and intelligence.
Mira Tweti, in her pathbreaking and highly readable "Of Parrots and People," writes about birds in captivity either captured from the wild or raised on bird mills, the avian equivalent of puppy mills. After the Congress passed the Wild Bird Conservation Act in 1992, rightly banning the import of wild birds for the pet trade, the bird mill industry amped up dramatically. Some mills have thousands of birds, warehousing the animals on these mini-factory farms. Mira will be speaking about this important subject at the 2009 Taking Action for Animals conference, and I hope you will attend to learn about this and other animal protection issues.
If you know people interested in getting a parrot, urge them to go to a rescue group and not to a pet store. The rescues desperately need the space, and the birds need relief from impulse purchasers who may not realize the misery and suffering they are spawning with their purchasing practices.