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Commentary :: Organizing : Politics
20 Jan 2004
By Karen Lee

It had been a long time since she last saw the sun, or had felt the warmth of it on her back. It had been a long time since she last felt the joy of sunlight swell in her heart. But she knew the sun was still there. A soft glow of sunlight illuminated a distant corner of the darkness beyond her crate. It would fade in and out to tell her that another day had come and then gone again. So many days. So many years. Lola did not know how many. Time had lost its meaning to her.

If only she could lift her wings. If only she could stretch and climb. She could not. The walls of her crate were very close. It was difficult just to turn around.

She could hear the sound of their foot steps above her. The heavy steps of the Man, the quick and running steps of the Children. Lola both feared and prayed that those footsteps would descend the stairs and bring the people to her. She hated them, but she needed them. They terrified her, but she was so alone.

She hoped they would remember to feed her today. Please please please feed me. I am so hungry. Her water dish had not been refreshed for two days. Though she tried to be careful she had toppled most of it on the first day, and it had soaked her feet and the bottom of her crate, caked with excrement. But she had had a good, long drink when the water was fresh. It would sustain her. Lola closed her eyes and dreamt of water, cool, clean and plentiful. So much water she dared to bathe. She would scoop some up in her giant beak and let it trickle out the sides of her mouth, running cold down her neck. Water would soak her red feathers and make them clean again, smooth again. Water would clean away the dirt and the over abundant smells. Water would wash away her anguish.

There was a pain in her head. It had started small, like it always did, a throbbing pressure right behind the empty socket of her left eye. The pressure was building. Lola put her head down, resting her beak on the smelly floor of her crate as she waited. Soon it would explode and the blinding flash of white light in her head would steal away her senses and her understanding, take her reeling, across time and space. She would drift on and on until, finally, she would come crashing back into her battered body, now gripped to the core by invisible hands, clenching her, hurting her, shaking her. She would be exhausted when it was done. It was always this way.

And then the rain would come. Her seizures seemed always to coincide with the rain.

Her life had not always been so wretched. She had memories that she would return to each day. Closing her eyes, she could recede into her mind and be back there again. She could almost feel the warmth of that world wash over her, the comfort of knowing that all was as it should be, and that every day would be the same as every other day. Best of all was the sense of being complete as she basked in the companionship of her best friend, Bob, who was just like her. He took care of her – he was braver than she, you see. Fearless. She adored him. He would cozy up to her and fuss over her feathers. How she missed the gentle scratch of his beak on her skin. How she missed his songs and the purr deep in his throat that was so comforting to her. She missed the scent of Bob.

The old woman would attend to them every day and she was very kind. She had long soft hair that the color had faded from, but the blue of her gentle eyes was still brilliant. Her voice was guttural and soothing, and Lola liked it best when she sang to them, which she did so very often, and she would perform silly dances for their amusement, though her bones, Lola could tell, were not limber. For many years she had cared for them both. And then, one day, she did not come. They waited for her. It was so unlike her not to greet them along with the earliest light of the day. They called for her again and again, but there was no reply. Their bowls sat unattended, with what was left of yesterday’s nuts and greens growing evermore tired, and yesterday’s water not tasting as sweet. They waited, so sure the old woman would come. She always came.

But not this time.

Lola had never known that her life could change in a snap, but it did on that day. All the confidence she had had, knowing that her place in the world was secure and constant, and all the trust she had felt in the order of things and in the kindness of people were shattered on that day. There were strangers in the house, confusion and turmoil. She and Bob huddled together and shivered as strange lights seemed to spin through their room, and people walked about with heavy feet and glaring eyes. Hands grabbed at them, unfamiliar and ugly. Unimaginable terror gripped her to the core when she and Bob were plucked from their happy world and shoved miserably into a crate. Bob tried so hard to fight! He lunged and bit with his strong beak, but the people were big. They were stronger than Bob. Lola kept thinking that the old woman would come and make this all stop. She did not come. There were no kind eyes or familiar smiles, just incredible confusion and a sense of dread as she and Bob were transported away from their home.

The last time Lola remembered feeling safe was the last time she fondly watched the old woman walk away from her and Bob. The old woman had looked back over her shoulder, smiling gently as she said the words, “Good night, my sweet loves.” Lola had snuggled a little closer to Bob, feeling the warmth of Bob, and the warmth of the words of the old woman. She never knew what the words meant, but she could feel what they meant. Lola had then tucked her beak under one wing and, closing her eyes, had slipped into sleep

She never felt safe again after that.

Lola and Bob found themselves in a new and terrible place. The people were not kind. They spoke in unfriendly voices and poked them with sticks. They fed Lola and Bob small seeds; there was no warm food, no oatmeal slightly sweetened with honey. There were no greens or soft beans. Sometimes there was no water. Lola would call for the old woman, and the people would scream at her and throw things at the cage. The Children were unruly, running and yelling and tumbling about in reckless ways that were frightening. The Man and the Woman would yell at the Children and yell at each other. Lola and Bob would cower in the farthest back corner of their cage, wishing they could melt through the bars and slip away, far away. They could not. There was no way to escape. Inevitably, the rage in the house would be turned toward Lola and Bob, and objects would crash against the cage bars like missiles. The people would look at Lola and Bob and say words like, “Stupid birds.” Lola did not know what the words meant, but she could feel what they meant.

Lola opened her eye. Her only eye. She smelled the odor of damp stone and cold. She smelled mold and the caked excrement that covered the bottom of her crate and clung to her broken feet and to her feathers. She had been dozing, or perhaps the lightning in her head had propelled her away again. She was alone once more in the dusky cellar. Bob was not there to huddle with her in terror, and that was the worst part of it all. Not the lightening in her head or the pain of her fractured feet. Not that one eye was gone or that her wings had been broken. But that she had to face her terror alone, and Bob was not there. No one was there.

Suddenly above her Lola could hear the sound that gripped her with such fear that she felt she could not breathe. The running scamper of the feet. Every feather on Lola’s body stood on end and her blood ran cold with dread. The barking hit her aching head like a barrage of bullets.

The barking of the dog.

Lola began to cry – quietly to herself. She did not want them to hear. She did not want them to come and kick her crate like they sometimes did. She did not want the dog to come.

She tried to push the memory back, but it came. She could not stop it, for it was tied inextricably to the sound of the dog, barking, running, claws tearing at the floor. Lola began to shake.

They were out of their cage; the door had simply opened. Lola felt the thrill and the fear of their freedom. If they tried, she knew, they could find their way back home. The old woman would cry to see them again. She would sing to them again and perform her silly dances. She would offer warm and delicious foods, and never forget to give them water. Lola was looking at Bob. She did not hear the scampering feet. She only saw the expression of Bob, his widened eyes as his feathers sprung up. Only for an instant did she hear the low growl and smell the terrible breath before she was ripped away from Bob with such force that she thought her neck would snap. The terrible jaws held her and she was shaken with incredible violence. Razor teeth pierced her legs and wings. The teeth threw her and caught her and pierced her again. Bob flew at the dog and clamped down with his strong beak. Lola could hear the screams. The screams of the dog and the screams of Bob. She felt herself fall to the floor. The last thing she saw was Bob in the jaws of the dog.

Lola opened her eyes and lifted her head. The memory left her, and she shifted her weight off her throbbing leg, leaning into the side of her crate. The barking of the dog had stopped. Above her she could hear the heavy footsteps of men, and she could hear the banter of their gruff voices as they tossed their words back and forth. She jumped as she heard the cellar door open. She could not see with her eye through the hard wall of her crate, but she could hear the heavy footsteps bringing the men closer to her. Suddenly there was a face peering in at her. It was a face she did not know. She hissed at it. Her feathers all stood on end, making her look bigger, she hoped. Making her look fierce.

“I don’t know why you’d want it,” said the Man Lola knew. “It’s worthless”.

“Maybe there’s something I can do for it,” said the stranger, still examining her through the metal bars. “Does it bite?”

“Oh yeah,” said the Man. “And it’s loud, too. If it makes too much noise just give the crate a good kick. That usually shuts it up.”

This is the story of Lola, a Greenwing macaw who arrived at Foster Parrots in March of 2002. The details of her story are based in what few facts we know, and a great deal of speculation derived from Lola’s physical and emotional condition upon her arrival at our sanctuary. Lola’s original rescuer, a “friend” of the family that had imprisoned her, stated that Lola had been kept in a small crate in their basement “for years”. We cannot possibly know exactly how many years that might mean.

In true “underground railroad” fashion, Lola was liberated from her imprisonment and delivered from one compassionate individual to another until she arrived, third hand, at Foster Parrots. Malnourished and significantly under weight, she greedily devoured the food we offered her. She was starving, and seemed to fear that food would not soon be made available to her again. She had no tail feathers at all. She had suffered broken bones in her wings and toes that had never received medical attention and were not properly set. Lola was missing her left eye. The bald spot on top of her head and the apparent indentation in her skull indicated that there had been a significant skull injury. She suffers from periodic seizures, which are evidence of brain trauma and permanent brain damage.

While it is possible that Lola’s injuries were inflicted by humans, it is disturbing to imagine people capable of such cruelty. The nature of her injuries actually seem more indicative of a dog attack. However, this speculation does not exonerate her abusers, as it seems clear that, rather than getting Lola medical attention after she was so badly injured, these people instead cast this broken animal into a crate and delegated her to the basement as “damaged goods”. They did not value her life and they lacked the compassion to take responsibility for what happened to her.

We think that, at some time in her life, Lola was well cared for by someone who loved and valued her. Although she cannot now accept casual, physical affection, she is nonetheless a very gentle bird and will readily step up to be helped in and out of her cage. She clings to some shred of trust that she perhaps had in ample supply once upon a time. We also feel quite certain that she had a macaw companion at some time in her life, and that her relationship with this other bird was deeply imbedded in her soul, for when we have introduced her to other macaws she becomes highly animated and exuberant, greeting them enthusiastically with many hellos. Her obvious desire for the company of a macaw urged us to find her one. “Cuddly Boy”, a large and handsome harlequin macaw, was chosen from our existing flock and brought to live in my office as Lola’s companion.

Lola received a veterinary examination and disease testing within days of her arrival at Foster Parrots. Aside from her physical injuries and malnutrition she was determined to be relatively healthy and disease free. However, the attending vet recommended euthanasia, for Lola’s permanent disabilities appeared to be overwhelming. We did not feel that euthanasia was an option. Subsequent to the veterinarian’s recommendation, many visitors to Foster Parrots who met Lola would ask us why, in a case like this, we would not consider euthanasia. It seems that many people would opt to “humanely dispose” of a special needs animal rather than commit to the care required to help that animal progress. It was easy for us to see, however, that Lola was not yet done with her life. Given her ordeal, she obviously had a great deal of inner strength and the will to live. What she needed was a chance.

More than a year after she was brought to our sanctuary, Lola is thriving. Always dignified, she exhibits a certain spunk in spite of her disabilities. Her seizures, though, continue to be a concern, and we have linked the frequency and severity of her seizures with changes in the weather. Approaching low pressure fronts and rainy periods seem to trigger predictable episodes. Very often, during these times, she will put her head down, resting on her beak. We can tell she has a headache, and that an explosion is imminent. Lola, normally, is a very quiet bird. The only times she uses her voice is when she is saying “Hello”, or when she is about to seizure. The yells before a seizure are unmistakable. We will rush to catch her before she falls, then we will sit and cradle her through her shuddering and yelling until the seizure has subsided, and she can find her way back to herself. It is only while she is recovering from a seizure that she will allow herself to be held and caressed, and then she seems to absolutely revel in it. We will gently stroke and comb our fingers through the feathers on her head and neck and around her face, as well as down her back and wings. She enjoys this loving contact tremendously, however, we must always be careful to keep a moving hand to her blind side. If she can see a hand coming with her one eye, she jumps in fear. As careful as we are to be soft and consistent in our strokes, sometimes she flinches at a touch. We reach beneath her to massage her leg and foot, which will be rigid and tightly balled. After a time, though, the foot will begin to relax. The limbering of her foot is the biggest indication that her seizure is fully passed, and that she can perch again. However, we will often sit with her for a very long time while Lola soaks up the love she cannot usually allow herself to accept.

It is easy for us to choose the most tragic of stories in order to demonstrate the commonplace suffering of captive parrots, but the truth is – Lola’s life is no longer tragic. She lives now in a sheltered environment and enjoys the love and protection not only of the sanctuary staff, but of countless people nationwide who have read about her and can feel her deep within their hearts. Lola is safe now. Fresh food fills her bowl every day. There is ample water to drink and to bathe in. She has the friendship of compassionate people and the companionship of another macaw. She knows, once again, that every day will be the same as every other day, and that she will be cared for.

The real tragic stories are those that surround the countless parrots that continue to languish alone in small cages in peoples’ homes, or in their basements or garages. The tragedy lies in the fact that their lives will never change. They will not be rescued and liberated from their misery. Their loneliness and their suffering are more subtle, so we fail to notice. We are insensitive – or perhaps merely uneducated - to the fact that, because parrots are keenly intelligent, highly social and active animals, we sentence them to lives of social isolation, psychological deprivation and physical atrophy when we confine them. We do not recognize neglect or disinterest as forms of abuse. But they are.

Undeniably, there are many conscientious, compassionate people who love their parrots and care for them impeccably. However, the life spans of our parrots, very often, will exceed our own by far. It is hard to imagine something sadder than an animal once surrounded by love and the security of a caring family, suddenly cast into a life of hostility, neglect and abuse. This is what we believe happened to Lola.

As we continue to breed and produce parrots for the pet market, what we are discovering is that the vast majority of parrots will fail to meet our expectations as “acceptable pets”. Many transform into unmanageable and unpredictably violent creatures once they reach sexual maturity. Others, simply by virtue of their natural, wild behaviors ( i.e. screaming, biting, chewing, messiness), will eventually be banished from our lives. It has been estimated that 780,000 parrots will be seeking new homes and/or facing euthanasia each year in the United States. Who will be there to give these birds a second chance?

For more information and volunteer opportunities, contact Karen Lee at Foster Parrots, 781-878-3733 or Karen (at)
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