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February 12, 2013

No-Fly Zone, Page 2: "A Tsunami of Unwanted, Disposable Parrots"

The explosion in breeding leads to explosion in abandonment

All Animals magazine, March/April 2013

  • Short on space and resources, parrot sanctuaries must regularly say no to owners seeking to surrender high-maintenance birds. Meredith Lee/For The HSUS

Parrots make people crazy. For some they become a kind of addiction. Other animals command similarly devoted constituencies. What’s unique about parrots, though, is how contentious parrot people can be—about topics ranging from the basics (how many captive parrots are in the pet trade) to the more understandably debated: what parrots need, the scope of the problems they face, even whether there’s a problem at all. The fiercest battles are among self-professed parrot lovers.

There are about 350 species of parrots—the psittacines, a sprawling group of birds that includes huge macaws and cockatoos, Amazons and African grey parrots, conures, and smaller cockatiels and budgies (sometimes known as parakeets). Nearly a third of the species are endangered or threatened in the wild, in large measure because we’ve wanted them for pets.

But despite their popularity, it is difficult to get uncontested, reliable statistics about captive parrots in the U.S.

For example, while a 2012 survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association found about 8.3 million birds in 3.7 million homes, a 2010 survey by the American Pet Products Association found nearly twice that number: 16.2 million birds in 5.7 million U.S. homes.

Neither survey counted parrots in sanctuaries, shelters, breeding facilities, and zoos, likely numbering millions more. But every rescuer I spoke with testifies to a growing problem that has yet to be quantified.

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Karen Windsor and Marc Johnson run Foster Parrots in Rhode Island, one of the oldest captive parrot sanctuaries in the country. “We’re experiencing a failure of parrots as pets,” says Windsor. “Every sanctuary turns down birds every day. You hear every reason and excuse from owners. You bet it’s a crisis.”

Denise Kelly, president of the Avian Welfare Coalition—an advocacy group based in New York City—points out that the industry is largely unregulated and statistics are matters of speculation. “I have witnessed the growing problem of unwanted parrots,” she says. “Here’s what we know. We’re experiencing a hidden crisis of parrot ownership. All these unwanted birds need advocates.”

Tweti, author of Of Parrots and People and an expert on parrot welfare, predicts a “tsunami of unwanted, disposable parrots” yet to come from the millions of sales over the last three decades, since parrots often live as long as people.

My own anecdotal evidence also hinted at the scope of the problem. In western Washington, where I live, it took little effort to find five organizations that accept surrendered parrots:

  • Mollywood Avian Sanctuary, Bellingham: 350 parrots
  • Cockatoo Rescue and Sanctuary, Stanwood: 450
  • Macaw Rescue and Sanctuary, Carnation: 300
  • Zazu’s House, Woodinville: 150
  • Good Fox Birdie Haven, Auburn: 80

This totals 1,330 abandoned, relinquished, or otherwise homeless parrots in one state, actually in just half of one state.

How many smart, sensitive, wounded birds does it take to make a crisis? Clearly these “little people”—a common epithet for them—are suffering. Each of these birds has her own sad story. Each abandoned and neglected parrot is a tragedy. James Gilardi, a biologist and executive director of the World Parrot Trust conservation group, says he wouldn’t describe parrot relinquishment as a crisis—“we’re talking about maybe less than 1 percent of parrots getting rehomed”—but he doesn’t dispute that captive birds suffer. “It’s rare to encounter a bird in captivity in this country that does not need better care. It’s a horrible situation that most birds live in.”

The contours of this controversy are often mapped as sanctuary people versus breeders. To try to get to the bottom of the matter, I visited one of the most famous—and according to some, notorious—parrot breeders in the country: Howard Voren.

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