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Exotic birds, owners often can't cope
By CAROL ROBIDOUX
NASHUA � Romeo is a lovable teenage parrot destined to spend the rest of his natural life � another 50 years or more � without the one thing he desperately needs: a home.
Why? Because he's plucked himself bald, a sign of stress in exotic birds, said Linda Wisner, director of Fauna Rescue, one of only a handful of bird rescuers in the state.
"He's the sweetest bird in the world, but nobody wants him because he's not pretty," Wisner said. "By the time a bird starts plucking, it's hard to bring him back."
Linda Wisner, founder of Fauna Rescue, above, serves as a perch for a female Goffins cockatoo. Below, she poses with Pacal, a 50-year-old blue and gold Macaw that has removed most of his own feathers. The Nashua rescue operation has about 50 birds in need of sanctuary." (DICK MORIN/UNION LEADER)
Romeo isn't the only bird with issues in Wisner's care. She has 50 birds � all living in foster homes � all likely to remain in limbo for one reason or another, Wisner said.
The biggest reason is that they are birds. Unlike their furrier, more domesticated canine and feline counterparts, birds aren't meant to live in captivity.
She has stopped taking in birds for lack of space and money to care for them.
"I'm turning away, on average, 25 birds a week," Wisner said. "These are wild animals. People don't think of them that way. Parrots can either be the best pet in the world, or your worst nightmare. For most, they're a nightmare."
Something she's learned the hard way.
Once a breeder of small birds, Wisner quickly discovered that for every person willing to shell out hundreds for an exotic bird, there were at least two others looking to get rid of one.
"I woke up one day and had 75 birds in my house � that's when I realized I had a problem. I had to give up my own pet birds to do the rescue because I didn't have the time to give them what they needed," Wisner said.
So far, Wisner has managed to place a fraction of her flock. She relies on a small army of volunteers who help with the care and feeding of a variety of birds � from parakeets and conures to Macaws and cockatoos � some highly social and adoptable, others angry and aloof.
Fauna Rescue became a nonprofit entity in 2000. Since then, Wisner has been working two part-time jobs to cover the cost of birdseed and veterinary bills � usually temporary work to allow her the flexibility to run a rescue service.
"I don't have a public facility � people expect a zoo-like setting when they hear about us. We'll bring a few into the office, but we can't have them in one place. Mainly it's an insurance issue � and I don't really have a big enough place," Wisner said.
The caged bird
Penny Bosley is a kindred spirit with fewer mouths to feed.
She's been operating Bad Boys Parrot Rescue in Keene for five or six years. Often she provides temporary care for people having second thoughts about keeping a bird.
"They're so cute when they're babies, but people don't realize the cost of keeping a bird over time," Bosley said. "And they're messy � birds throw their seeds on the floor. It's a lot of work. Sometimes people aren't sure, after they've gotten a bird. And sometimes, they just run into hard times and need a little help, so I'm here to help."
Some activists moving within animal rights circles would like to see an end to the breeding and sale of exotic birds. One huge step came for them in April.
After years of pressure from high-profile rescue groups and boycotts by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the PETCO chain of pet stores agreed to give up selling larger birds, admitting the average customer may be more a "beginning hobbyist" than one who is prepared for the long-term care of birds as pets.
Dave Betournay, shelter manager for Animal Rescue League of New Hampshire, said the PETCO decision signals that change within the bird-breeding industry is only a matter of time.
"People have no idea what they're getting into with a bird � the intelligence, the lifespan, the needs � it's a simple lack of forethought or planning that leads quickly to a lot of homeless birds," Betournay said.
People buy or adopt pets with certain expectations in mind, he said.
"They're never based in reality, though. Only very lucky people get everything they bargained for with a pet � even a dog or a cat. You start adopting something like a bird, a species so very different than our own, and then you expect to integrate it into a home without complications," Betournay said.
The sight of a solitary bird in a small cage strikes us as normal � until we see TV footage from some tropical locale of a flock of broad-winged crimson-and-teal Macaws in flight. Only then do we begin to grasp that there's something wrong with a caged bird in solitary confinement, Betournay said.
"It's completely our culture that's convinced us that this is what a parrot is � a bird on a perch, repeating phrases and pecking at seeds," Betournay said.
Do your homework
Ideally, people need to do their homework before investing in a bird as a pet, said Dr. Michael Dutton of Weare Animal Hospital, who specializes in large bird care.
"When people start talking about getting a bird, I tell them birds are not dogs and cats with feathers. Once you take them from a flock and put them into a household with people, you can cause a variety of behavioral problems," Dutton said.
His best advice for anyone is to start with some basic Internet research on birds. Find out specific information about diet and general behavioral traits of the bird you think you are interested in, Dutton said.
Birds of a Feather in Manchester is one of many avicultural clubs around that sponsor annual bird shows and hold monthly meetings � a good resource for anyone thinking about bird ownership, Dutton said.
He said the main reason a lot of birds wind up homeless is because people learn, too late, that birds aren't an appropriate fit for their lifestyle.
"People come in feeling embarrassed because their bird has plucked every feather off its body, and I have to tell them it's probably because you, as the owner, are doing something wrong," Dutton said. "Larger birds, for the vast majority of people, are the wrong pet.
"But from a practical standpoint, birds are one of the most popular pets in the world � I think they rank number one worldwide. So my job is to help maximize the quality of life for birds that are already pets," Dutton said.