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February 12, 2013

My Bird-Shaped Heart

Love for a childhood pet sets an advocate on her life's path

All Animals magazine, March/April 2013

  • Birdie, a cockatiel who changed everything. Katie Carrus/The HSUS

by Katie Carrus

I am not a crazy bird lady. Swear. I own zero embroidered parrot sweaters (a forearm tattoo with an excerpt of a Mary Oliver poem about crows is as far as I’ll go). My hair is kempt (OK, during a business meeting I did spot a small feather where it shouldn’t have been, but only once). I have successful romantic relationships, and I have never dressed up my bird in a costume or walked him in a stroller (we use a backpack with a perch and screened front for summer hikes, thank you very much).

Oh no. I am a crazy bird lady. Wait—I can explain. Like a lot of kids in America, I grew up with pets. My family had the occasional gerbil or parakeet, but dogs and cats were our mainstay. Then for my 10th birthday, my dad gave me this neat little gray bird who dug shiny things and, in my young mind, was a major step up from the parakeets we’d had. Slightly bigger and boasting a curved fan of feathers atop her head, this, my friends, was a proper bird. Of course I named her Birdie (remember: I was 10).

Those who know birds know that cockatiels are ubiquitous in the pet trade: popular for their mild manners, relatively low noise level (I said relative—we’re talking parrots here), and also relative domesticity (due to their longer time in captivity). This cockatiel did not disappoint. Social and cuddly, with just enough spunk and attitude to make her real, Birdie was my baby.

We grew up together. Whenever I was home, she was out of her cage. She was my constant companion through homework, birthday parties, childhood disappointments, and dreams for the future. Birds are incredibly smart and emotionally complex, so it was easy to bond with her.

But as is common with kids, my schedule got progressively busier. After-school activities sometimes kept me away until late at night. Weekends I might spend an entire day out. And every time I came back, Birdie was waiting for me. She never got angry at me for fully living my life while she waited in that cage to live hers.

I wouldn’t question this until college, when something clicked and she took on more importance to me. I’d always loved her, but I started considering her interests beyond being my pet. I noticed how happy she was being out of the cage, flying around, interacting with me and others in my life. And I newly appreciated the unconditional love she brought to my days, in that way that only animals can do.

I guess it’s natural in college to challenge everything you once believed to be true. Combine this with the related “What should I do with my life?” question, and my relationship with this single cockatiel led to curiosity about all birds. Clearly I couldn’t land my dream job of kissing them all day (yes, you could kiss Birdie). But I could see what other birds were up against and if I could help.

What I found was fodder for 500 lifetimes. I learned about factory farms, where billions of chickens are intensively confined, living harsh lives from beginning to end. They could all be Birdie, I thought. I changed my eating habits and resolved to work toward ending animal abuse in industrial agriculture. And I learned about parrots. That they’re wild animals, that what endears them to us (their smarts, their hearts) are the very things that almost guarantee their needs will never be fully met in a human home. And that though I was just a kid—and we just didn’t know better—it was so unfair to keep my childhood companion in a cage so often, all those years.

Birdie was sweet-natured enough to forgive me, every time. And as restrictive as her life was, she was luckier than many other birds. My avian birthday gift died in 2006 after sharing her life with me for 16 years. My gift to her is to work to make things better for captive parrots. I don’t think I’m any different than the millions of Americans whose lives have been forever changed by an animal. Mine just happened to have feathers—that, OK, occasionally wind up in my hair. In a meeting. At work.

Editorial director of humanesociety.org, Katie Carrus lives with a rambunctious rescued Senegal parrot, Squirrelly.

Have the iPad? Watch Katie Carrus's visit to Project Perry. Search for "All Animals" magazine in the App Store. 

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