Knowing that I love to read, Jamie left some books for me that she had read while on the road. I want to share with you a thought provoking part of a forward (written by Stephen Fry) in one of those books titled “The Book Of Animal Ignorance – Everything You Think You Know Is Wrong” by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson:
“Animals all have this in common with one another: unlike humans they appear to spend every minute of every hour of every day of their lives being themselves. A tree frog (as far as we can ascertain) doesn’t wake up in the morning feeling guilty that it was a bad frog the night before, nor does it spend any time wishing it were a wallaby or a crane fly. It just gets on with the business of being a tree frog – a job it does suprememly well. We humans, well…we are never content, always guilty, and rarely that good at being what nature asked us to be – Homo sapiens.”
I read and reread that paragraph thinking about how much pressure we humans put on ourselves just to get through the day in the society we live in, and how uncomplicated, by comparison, it must be to be the tree frog as described above.
My thoughts quickly drifted to parrots and our relationship with them. I wondered how life with humans might clutter what should be a simple and unfettered existence for them. I wondered about the roles we might require them to play in our lives, the voids we might ask them to fill, and the unrealistic expectations we might place on them.
I was reminded of an older, childless couple I had met several years back. They had a moluccan cockatoo named Angel. They were utterly devoted to this bird and he clearly adored both of them. They made no secret of the fact that they considered Angel to be the child they were never able to have.
He had a custom built stainless steel cage, a huge playgym and more toys than he could go through in a life time. He was on a great diet and received regular vet care.
This bird wanted for nothing, and yet he was as bald as a Thanksgiving turkey. The couple were confused and distraught over this fact and asked me to come by to offer guidance.
I stayed for lunch and was amused that a place was set at the table for the bird. We had tuna fish sandwiches and Angel, who’d had a big, healthy breakfast was given a bowl of apple sauce…and a spoon. He held the utensil in one foot and delicately spooned the food into his mouth and, believe it or not, wiped his beak with a paper napkin when he was through, with a little urging.
We went to sit in the living room and Angel sat on the couch between the couple. At one point, Angel began to bite at the edge of the sofa cushion, and the woman gently removed him saying: “No, no, Angel. Good birds don’t eat the couch”. I thought to myself that, in a bird’s world, that is exactly what good birds do. She cradled the bird in her arms throughout most of the visit.
As the afternoon passed, what initially seemed like a charming relationship between two humans and a bird began to disturb me. It became clear to me what the problem was. They were trying to turn Angel into a child.
Toward the end of the visit, I had a very frank talk with them about Angel’s environment. I explained that parrots are essentially wild animals and have not been domesticated to live in human society like dogs, and that all they know how to do is be what they are. We can teach them tricks and gain “cooperation” from them to a certain extent, but to expect more from them is not only unfair, it is mentally and emotionally stunting.
I explained the habits of wild cockatoos, and their need to chew. I took them over to the cage and explained how the pristine condition of Angel’s toys told me that he had no idea how to play like a bird. He was being asked to filfill a need for them that a bird is not designed to do. I told them that in my estimation, Angel was plucking because he was not able to comfortably be a bird and didn’t know how to be a human. He was lost in the in-between.
They were shaken by what I said, though not upset. They tried to come up with reasons for their actions: “It’s what Angel wants. He gets upset when we do things differently.” I explained that it isn’t at all what Angel “wants”, but what he has come to expect. His life is so structured that when they would deviate from routine, it was unsettling for him. He wasn’t allowed to do the things that felt natural to him – he was merely conceding to their expectations.
I set them up with some reading material and asked them to consider what I had said and they promised me they would. I knew in my heart, though, that nothing would change because they liked their relationship with Angel as it was. They kept in touch for a while, and told me that they had taken Angel out in a carrier several times at my suggetion for a break in his routine. Eventually, we lost touch. It was a sad and unneccesary emotional struggle for this bird.
In the bird community, we spend a lot of time discussing how much more we can do for our parrots. Maybe we should be giving equal time to the problem of forcing our attentions on them, thereby squashing their nature. We want to include our birds in every aspect of our lives, and they enjoy being a part of it. It’s a great expereince for them, but just like we enjoy being home again after a vacation, your bird will enjoy going back to his life as a bird after a day in the human world.
We have to carefully examine our own intentions and be sure that the environment we set up for them is suited to their needs – not our own. We should no sooner expect human behaviors from our birds than we should expect our own children to lay eggs.
Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.