She embodied all the magic and the misery of modern parrots.
Sofia popped off her perch, climbed up my arm, and leaned into my face. A Moluccan cockatoo, among the world’s most stunning birds, Sofia’s most distinctive feature is her huge round head—big, white, and inviting as a fluffy pillow. She fanned her crest in a spectacular blush of pink, coral, and salmon.
I looked into Sofia’s black eyes and held her close. As she dropped her head and burrowed in tight, I was overcome by the intimacy of the moment, like cuddling a baby.
“They can really turn on the charm,” says Betsy Lott, smiling.
That combination of beauty and charm has helped make parrots like Sofia the fourth most popular pet in America—behind only dogs, cats, and the ubiquitous freshwater fishes.
But there’s a dark side to our passion for parrots, and Sofia embodied that too. Once an elegant bird in white feathers, she’s now a tattered beauty, her feathers ragged and her chest plucked bare, showing a big patch of wrinkled pewter gray skin.
Sofia’s good friend and perch mate, Mango, wears a cone-shaped collar to keep her from even more aggressive self-mutilation. Only captive parrots pluck and wound themselves like this.
The owners of these parrots finally gave up on them and placed them in Mollywood, Lott’s home-based organization for surrendered parrots. (The name refers to Moluccan cockatoos, one of the most spectacular—and difficult to care for—of all parrot species.) They’re two of about 350 parrots she and her husband tend to just outside of Bellingham, Wash., near the Canadian border.
Sofia and Mango represent a category of parrot that’s grown over the last 20 years: the unwanted, abandoned, and disposable bird. In 1992, the Wild Bird Conservation Act made it illegal to import most wild-caught parrots into the United States. While a victory for wildlife conservation, it fueled a captive breeding boom of unprecedented proportions.
Once, parrots were icons of the tropical good life. Now they have morphed into figures of increasing controversy and crisis. The truth is, most pet parrots are only a few generations removed from the wild, and few owners are prepared to fulfill even their most basic instincts: flying, flocking, and finding mates. These highly social creatures are usually kept alone and rarely allowed to fly—many parrots’ wings are clipped. Often their relatively small cages have little in the way of stimulation and “enrichment,” or toys. For an animal as emotionally complex as a chimpanzee or dolphin, it amounts to an unimaginably bleak existence. In fact, parrot advocate Mira Tweti estimates that some 75 percent of birds “live a life of abuse or neglect.”
With no outlet for the chronic frustration of living in an environment expressly unsuited to them, these intelligent creatures often develop destructive behaviors like screaming, aggression to their owners, and the self-mutilation that Sofia and Mango have displayed.
Understandably, all of this takes a toll on birds’ owners. Often the human caretakers feel out of their depth, similarly frustrated, and even guilty about the daily trial of living with an animal who is traumatized and psychologically damaged—and who may outlive them by decades.
Some resort to confining their birds to the closet, basement, or garage, where the dark silences them and hides the mess. Other owners simply unload their high-maintenance charges with friends or family members (many parrots pass through multiple homes in their lifetimes) or at places like Mollywood, which have sprouted up like mushrooms in response to the fallout.
“People just don’t realize what they’re getting into,” Lott says.
This is the paradox of parrots. We love them for being like us, for talking like us, and for bonding with us. But then we find ourselves unprepared for the challenges they present in our busy lives.
The problem is so large that Tweti, Lott and other rescuers, and organizations such as The HSUS don’t recommend parrots as pets in the first place. Because they are so long-lived, there will likely be a need for responsible, carefully vetted home care for many birds for many years. But the best situation for most, these groups maintain, is an accredited sanctuary environment.
Sofia nudges me with her head, and I rub the back of her neck. She’s one of many such parrots—literally hundreds—I’ve met in rescues and sanctuaries around the country. They became my inspiration to try to figure out what’s really happening to their kind and what that means for our rapidly changing relationship. What is clear is that there’s misery in parrot land.
While I soak up the love from Sofia, several other parrots in the house start screaming. I can barely hear Lott.
“These parrots are like people—like children,” she says. “It’s like adopting a 2-year-old special needs child. One that will never grow up.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“There are so many parrots out there, I just don’t like adding birds to the marketplace,” says E. B. Cravens. One of the most respected parrot breeders in the world, he lives on the Big Island of Hawaii. He’s explaining why he’s largely quit the business.
Cravens writes frequently on parrots and their care. He has great insight into their nature. I wanted to talk to him about the psychology of parrots—especially the babies and parents in big breeding operations.
“Absolutely, they are factory farms, pumping out parrots. There are also conscientious breeders, and lots have stopped breeding too, like me.” At captive breeding’s height, he says, maybe 750,000 parrots per year were being produced in the United States. Now that number is maybe 100,000 per year as people learn more and more about how difficult parrots can be in the home.
He speaks slowly. His voice is gravelly, resonating with thoughtful wisdom. The marketplace for parrots has slowed, he says, and that has weeded out a lot of breeders. But he is concerned about the effects of the factory farming system on the parrots themselves.
“All these parrots, the babies, they’re orphans,” he says. “My breeder friends hate it when I say this. But that’s what they are, orphans.”
Cravens has been letting his own parrot-parents follow their “strongest impulse”: raising their offspring themselves. Baby parrots need closeness. In the wild, they’ll spend months and months in constant contact with their parents. But in a factory-style breeding operation, they never see their parents or are removed early on to be raised by people. The result is young parrots who don’t know who they are, who spend their lives in a no-birds land between human and animal.
At first, the young parrots are cuddly and affectionate. “People are smitten,” Cravens says. “They think, ‘Oh, this parrot really loves me, just like a baby.’ And you want to be loved like that. But the truth is, it’s just lonely. It’s needy.”
In a few years the parrot hits puberty and develops intense needs for bonding with a mate. “It gets sexual, and the problems really begin. It may attach to one person in the family and grow hostile to others. It may even bite or attack others. … The parrots become dysfunctional because they have not been allowed to have a childhood.”
The owners of Santa Barbara Bird Farm in California, Phoebe Linden and her husband have not bred parrots in 11 years, out of concern for what breeding does to the birds’ mental health.
“There are so many crazy, whacked-out parrots,” she says, emotion filling her voice. “Every domestically raised bird is traumatized. To some extent all are. Some birds respond to trauma, like some people, and have no effects. Some drag their trauma around with them all their lives.”
She adds, “We don’t have a parrot problem in the country. The parrots are not the problem. The problem is people. Too often, they want the parrots to be decorations. Or they don’t focus enough on the parrots’ needs.”
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.
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.