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Abandoned Parrots

CINDA CHAVICH

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

July 31, 2007

COOMBS, B.C. - Max sits in the corner crooning I Left My Heart in San Francisco.

Ginny rips out her iridescent green and orange feathers, self-mutilating like the addicts in the crack house where she was rescued.

Peaches lost a wing but seems to have the run of the special needs unit, toddling around on her pigeon toes and chatting up anyone within earshot.

Parrots (including cockatoos, cockatiels, macaws and other exotic psittacines) are the hottest new pet for busy urbanites. In the United States, the number of pet birds quadrupled in the 1990s, to more than 40 million by some industry estimates. And bird sales continue to grow by an estimated 5 per cent a year.


Like other stressed birds at the World Parrot Refuge, Merlin, a Moluccan cockatoo, has plucked out some of his feathers. Being confined in a cage can lead parrots to self-mutilation and other abnormal behaviours. (Deddeda Stemler for The Globe and Mail)

But the dark side of the surge in popularity of pet parrots is an ever-growing population of abandoned birds.

"There has been an alarming increase in the number of displaced and unwanted birds in recent years," says Wendy Huntbatch, who runs the World Parrot Refuge in Coombs, B.C., on the east side of Vancouver Island, "because people have no idea how much time and energy it takes to care for these exotic wild animals."

Ms. Huntbatch provides homes for more than 500 abandoned and homeless birds at the refuge, the largest of its kind in the country, through her non-profit For the Love of Parrots Refuge Society.

With individual birds selling for up to $15,000, the trafficking of wild birds is on the rise, accounting for a significant part of the estimated $10-billion (U.S.) to $20-billion international exotic wildlife trade. According to the World Wildlife Fund, 94 of the world's 330 parrot species are threatened with extinction.

According to the Species Survival Network, a global coalition of wildlife conservation groups, the yellow-crested cockatoo of East Timor and Indonesia is close to extinction as a result of trapping and poaching for the pet trade, and the Spix's macaw of Brazil is already extinct in the wild. The popular African grey parrot is also a threatened species, and in Bolivia, the endangered red-fronted macaw is protected under a new conservation program.

Yet despite a European Union ban as of July 1 on the importation of wild-caught birds - a move triggered by fears of the spread of avian influenza - and a similar ban in the United States, Canada continues to allow wild parrots to be imported as pets.

"The U.S. has had legislation against the importation of wild-caught birds since 1992 - it's time for Canada to do the same," says Ms. Huntbatch, who is circulating a petition to stop the sale of wild parrots.

Few people understand the horrors of the wild bird trade, she says, or the long-term commitment of owning a parrot.

At the World Parrot Refuge, an educational facility open to tourists and school groups, the sad and graphic stories of more than 500 feathered residents - like Max, Ginny and Peaches - are told through interpretive panels and video presentations. The overriding message is this: Parrots are wild animals that deserve freedom, not caging as pets, and buying exotic birds threatens species in the wild.

Ms. Huntbatch thinks people continue to buy birds because of status, style and a misguided belief that a parrot is happy to live its life in a cage (making it a low-maintenance pet).

Parrots are actually social creatures and mate for life, so they can be extremely lonely without their flock. Birds need more than a perch and a cage - they need an aviary with room to fly. The stress of being confined in cage can lead to excessive screaming, self-mutilation and other abnormal behaviours. And parrots, whether huge macaws or small budgies, need special diets of fresh tropical fruit, seeds, nuts, vegetables and protein, plus lots of toys to attack and shred.

Many bird owners discover too late that birds are naturally extremely noisy and demanding. And unless you have the space to give them a life that mimics their wild habitat and the time to devote to their care, parrots can become neurotic and destructive. They can even be dangerous and unpredictable, able to lop off fingers with their strong beaks.

Add to that the fact that most parrots will live between 40 and 90 years, and even the most committed caretakers eventually must part with their birds.

Many pet parrots end up on the resale merry-go-round, passed from owner to owner, often neglected and abused. Since most animal shelters are not designed to care for birds, unwanted parrots often end up with small volunteer rescue groups or in foster homes.

According to bird experts, the "parrot displacement problem" is reaching epidemic proportions, yet there are few places for unwanted parrots. Across Canada, two bird rescue organizations folded this year because of a lack of funds and volunteers - Chaotic Exotics in Calgary and Wings of Hope, an Ontario-based parrot rescue group that had been operating for 13 years.

Some of the birds from these defunct groups ended up at Ms. Huntbatch's doorstep, the last resort for sick, difficult and aging parrots. Ms. Huntbatch, too, constantly faces financial crisis - last year Revenue Canada threatened to close down the refuge for $13,000 (Canadian) owing in back
taxes, and a recent massive storm ripped a section of the roof from the
Macaw House.

An outpouring of donations from local businesses, animal lovers and a Vancouver casino paid the tax bill and helped rebuild the damaged aviary, but Ms. Huntbatch says the non-profit society continues to struggle, counting on donations to keep it afloat.

"It costs a quarter million dollars a year to operate this place even with all of our volunteers," she says. "Labour is the most expensive, but the food is also an issue. ... Every three weeks we buy 750 pounds of nuts."

Inside the refuge's huge metal-clad buildings, birds are separated by species into colourful flocks. With its large indoor aviaries, each 27 metres long and filled with wooden perches, the refuge gives these intelligent birds a place to live in groups, as they do in nature, along with space to fly, healthy food and the care of knowledgeable staff and volunteers.

"I love this job - it's one of a kind," says David Dawson, wiring chunks of red-barked arbutus wood with colourful children's toys to create perches for the parrots. "They love to shred bright stuffed toys - it keeps their beak sharp and strong."

Ms. Huntbatch coos to Ester, a talkative bird being treated for cancer, and balances a massive blue macaw on her outstretched arm, its tail feathers almost grazing the ground.

Even extremely stressed and abused birds, some plucked almost naked when they arrive, can recover and lead a "normal" life here amid the security of the flock with proper food and medical care, Ms. Huntbatch says.

While the majority of birds sold in pet stores are captive-bred, conservationists say breeding parrots contributes to poaching, smuggling and the homeless parrot problem by feeding consumer demand.

The goal of the refuge, Ms. Huntbatch says, is to educate the public about the problems facing wild and pet parrots. It costs about $500 a year to house one parrot; the group is always looking for new ways to keep the refuge operating, from food and used-toy drives to "virtual adoption" schemes.

For now, they're getting by on a wing and a prayer.

For more information on the World Parrot Refuge, visit http://www.worldparrotrefuge.org .

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