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February 12, 2013

No-Fly Zone, Page 5: Virginia Sanctuary Helps Parrots Find Peace

Project Perry lets birds be birds

All Animals magazine, March/April 2013

  • Conures at Matt Smith's parrot sanctuary in Virginia.  Charles Bergman

Most fundamentally, the parrot sanctuary picture calls us to a rethinking of what it means to live with a captive parrot.

To see what this new attitude means, I visit Matt Smith at his Central Virginia Parrot Sanctuary in Louisa, Va.

He founded the facility, nicknamed Project Perry in honor of his first parrot, in 2004. Now in his mid-30s, he provides a home for about 150 birds. The highlight of his sanctuary is the aviary he’s built for African greys.

“I have a soft spot for them—their intelligence, maybe. Especially the old wild-caught breeder birds. They’ve been through so much.”

The aviary is about half a football field in size and home to 43 African greys.

“What parrots want,” he says, “is flight and flock—two things they’re denied as pets in most homes.”

In the evenings, we sit in the aviary amid the parrots. It’s full of plants and tree trunks. Two-thirds of these greys are old breeder birds, and many hang back in the corners, far away from us. “They’ve lived for decades in a little cage. They’re usually fearful of people.”

Soon a group approaches us. Chico flies down the path and lands on my shoulder. Dobbie, his brother, flies in too. They were left here by a couple who had to move back to Europe.

Stormy takes his usual place on Smith’s leg. He was an abuse case, left without food and water by his owners when they went for a week on vacation. His friend Max also arrives.

“Max is confused sexually,” Smith says.

"My Bird-Shaped Heart:" Read how a childhood pet inspired an HSUS staffer's career »

Jasmine waddles up to us. Before Project Perry, she was in a Virginia animal shelter and was going to be euthanized—a fate more common than we realize, says Smith.

CiCi and Chuck Chuck also waddle in for a visit. Stormy and Max hop onto my camera pack, nibbling the zippers. Others clamber up on my lap and arms.

“So we let the birds decide what they’re going to do,” I offer. “Our interactions are on their terms.”

“You hit the nail on the head,” Smith replies. “My whole philosophy is allowing birds to be birds. They are little people, yes. But they are not human.”

Smith has plans for more outdoor aviaries like this—one for Amazons, another for macaws—in which he tries to replicate as much as possible their lives in the wild.

“It helps reduce their destructive behavior for birds that are traumatized,” he says.

It’s a simple but profound and transformative idea: Let parrots be parrots.

Charles Bergman is a writer and photographer living in Washington state.

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