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February 12, 2013

No-Fly Zone, Page 3: Inside a Parrot Mill

Mass production means packed cages, motherless chicks, and storage bin nests

All Animals magazine, March/April 2013

Now in his mid-60s and nearing retirement, Voren has sensitive pink skin, his hair is gray and thinning, and his eyes are piercingly smart. I met him at his home in Loxahatchee, Fla.—once the epicenter of the U.S. parrot business—where his 10-acre breeding facility is hidden behind fences on the outskirts of Palm Beach.

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Voren has been a national leader in captive breeding for more than three decades. He was a top importer of wild-caught parrots when it was legal, and he developed many of the breeding techniques that made mass production of parrots possible and profitable. And he’s an outspoken partisan in the parrot wars. Crisis? “That’s just a bunch of fat ladies in polyester suits who call themselves animal behaviorists,” he says. “I call them ARFs—Animal Rights Fanatics.”

I wanted to learn from Voren how commercial breeders produce their chicks, how the birds are treated in the process, and how he feels about his animals. He has a large personality, leaning in close to make his points. I was surprised to learn that he sees himself as the misunderstood, slightly alienated hero of parrot conservation.

“I’m the pioneer,” he says. “I wrote the book on hand-rearing and hand-feeding of parrots. I showed how to mass-produce them, how to do it. It’s always the pioneers who take all the arrows.”

He began his business more than 30 years ago when he went to Honduras and South America with a copy of Forshaw’s Parrots of the World. “It was my shopping list,” he says. “Once I brought in 500 yellow-naped Amazons. I brought in probably the largest shipment of hyacinth macaws to the United States. My memory is 50.” Voren sold the macaws for $20,000 per pair (legal then) and used the money to set up shop, importing other birds to supply the breeding stock.

Since then, Voren says he has produced about 30,000 parrots—1,000 per year.

I ask him about Tweti’s characterization that virtually all parrot breeding facilities are parrot mills.

He objects vehemently.

I wonder if he realized that he'd just compared his breeding parrots to slaves.

“There are some sketchy breeders,” he tells me. “They may have parrots in deplorable conditions. There’s lots of backyard breeders, hobbyists. But they all go out of business. The nature of parrots won’t allow it. Parrots in mills will die. If you run a facility that’s awful, the parrots won’t reproduce. Those breeders will go by the wayside. As Charlton Heston said, ‘Egypt was not built by starving slaves.’ ”

I wondered if he realized that he’d just compared his breeding parrots to slaves.

After several hours of talking, Voren shows me his facilities.

Out back, we walk through long rows of hundreds of cages, wire rectangles elevated off the ground. Each cage is perhaps 3 x 3 x 4 feet (large by some standards) and holds a breeding pair. No toys. No distractions. On the wooden back of the nest box in each cage, inky notes track every egg laid that season. The eggs are removed as they are laid. The babies never see their parents: Voren experimented with real chickens as brooding birds but found it more efficient to invent an “artificial chicken” device to heat and hatch the eggs.

Voren tells me his goal is to be able to completely control the birds and their breeding process. “If I’m successful, I can make them breed whenever I want or turn them off with a snap of the finger.”

“Do you have personal relationships with your parrots?” I ask.

“I’m a capitalist,” he says. “I’m in business. No personal relationship with the parrots.” He pauses. “That maybe gives the wrong impression. It’s just that you can’t have a personal relationship with 1,500 adult birds.”

The old breeder parrots are sold at auction. “When a pair reaches the end of their productivity, they go to a broker,” he says, “to be sold to other breeders. Only not with my name on them.”

We enter a room in a long, low building. It’s windowless. A woman from Honduras is working with baby parrots inside, feeding them, I think. This is where the hatched birds come to be raised and weaned, where they learn to feed themselves.

Stacked wire cages line two of the walls. They are full of green nanday and fiery-orange sun conures—small long-tailed parrots originally from South America. They’re increasingly popular as the market for larger birds declines.

"I'm a capitalist. I'm in business. No personal relationships with the parrots."

From a bank of shelves, Voren pulls out one of many plastic storage containers, the kind you can buy at Home Depot. He opens the top, revealing 16 baby conures, some nearly covered in green feathers, others still mostly naked. They stand in a layer of wood shavings and sawdust, craning to look up at me. Voren is proud of them, likening the container to their early life in a hole in a tree in the forest.

Voren says he feels no moral dilemma about any part of his operation. On the contrary, he believes it contributes to conservation, since by knowing parrots in the home we’ll be motivated to save parrots in the wild. (Many advocates feel otherwise, noting it’s the pet trade that contributed to wild birds’ decline.)

Is it a parrot mill? Certainly the whole point is to pump out large numbers of baby parrots. Some call this system “poultry farming.”

Population biologist Paul Reillo, founder of the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation and expert on the endangered imperial parrot on the Caribbean island of Dominica, put it this way: “The factory farming of parrots is a form of engineering and selection. I have a lot of respect for Howard’s technical innovations. We’ve learned a lot from him. But these parrots have no life besides food and a nest box. They’re breeding machines. It’s no life for a thinking animal.”

The image of the baby parrots in the plastic storage boxes has stayed with me. They were not so much parrots as products. Not so much babies as profits with feathers.

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