For thousands of years, parrots have been captured from the wild to be kept as pets. To millions of Americans who’ve never had a bird, it may seem little different than sharing a home with a dog or cat. But to the thousands of parrot sanctuary operators and private citizens with “rescue” birds, a wild parrot in a cage screams out for public discussion and re-examination.
These animals are difficult to handle, they are so long-lived that they typically outlive their owners, and their intelligence and emotional complexity may approach that of chimpanzees and dolphins. It is virtually impossible to give them a good life in most human settings. Parrots typically go through at least seven homes during their lives (which can extend past 80 years), with all of the feelings of trauma that accompany permanent separation from the people they’ve bonded with for years.
The documentary “Parrot Confidential” – which airs on NATURE Wednesday night on most PBS stations throughout the country – asks the public to re-envision parrots, and it questions the paradigm of captivity for these creatures. It’s our hope that “Parrot Confidential” does for the birds what “Blackfish” is now doing for orcas – delivering a wake-up message to a public not familiar with the hidden lives of creatures consigned to a life of captivity they were never meant for.
One of the easiest ways to get a sense of the captive parrot problem in this country is to take note of all the folks who have stepped up to fill the gap for abandoned, abused or neglected birds. After The HSUS helped ban the import of most wild-caught parrots in 1992, captive breeding surged, and “bird mills” developed, flooding the market with baby birds who, after reaching sexual maturity, can become a nightmare for unwitting owners. The next stop, after a cycle of unpredictable biting, screaming, and routine household messes, is relinquishment, and a swamping of the small network of parrot sanctuaries.
Matt Smith, executive director of The Central Virginia Parrot Sanctuary (or Project Perry) knows the story all too well. He gets hundreds of requests every year for help from beleaguered pet owners, as do the dozens of other sanctuary operators devoted to their care. I wrote about Matt’s remarkable efforts and leadership in this area in my book, “The Bond.” His compact, heavily wooded property in Louisa, Va., is home to several hundred unwanted parrots who live in state-of-the-art, thoughtfully planned outdoor aviaries. The birds spend their days among members of their own species, with access to nutritious food and natural enrichment opportunities, and have room to spread their wings and fly. Their lives are as close to wild as might be possible in a human setting. Once Matt and his team found them, often after terribly traumatic lives, their fortunes turned dramatically for the better.
An unknown number of others around the country – certainly in the millions, perhaps the tens of millions – live lonely, frustrated lives because of the great paradox of parrots: their high intelligence and sociability have always endeared them to people. But these very traits, and a biology that intends them for a life on the wing, make them fundamentally unsuitable as pets.
With growing awareness and attention to the problem, we can – and must – come to the aid of these amazing creatures in a meaningful way. The most important thing is not to buy birds from pet stores or directly from the bird mills. By doing so, you perpetuate the worst elements of this industry, consign birds to a life of trauma and loss, and probably contribute to the financial burden placed on the humane community and its network of sanctuaries.
If you don’t believe me, watch “Parrot Confidential” this Wednesday. The stories and images are undeniable. Go to www.humanesociety.org/parrots to learn more.