New Mexico's Pet Resource WINTER 2003


FOR THE BIRDS

THE PROBLEM OF UNWANTED PARROTS

by Joanne Oliva-Purdy, Ph.D.

As an animal behaviorist with a specialty in birds, and a particular interest in the welfare of parrots (or psittacine birds,) what happens to unwanted captive parrots matters to me. Psittacine birds include the familiar, mostly green, Amazon parrots, but also macaws, cockatoos, cockatiels, parakeets (budgies and others), conures, African greys, parrotlets, and many others.

When I worked at the Bronx Zoo in the early 1990s, I occasionally took calls for the bird department. Many calls came from people who didn't want their parrots anymore (often because of behavior problems) and were sure the zoo would want such rare, expensive animals. They were disappointed to learn that zoos get many calls each week from people offering parrots and usually can't take the birds because parrots tend to destroy exhibits and need stronger cages than do other birds.

At that time there were no formal rescue organizations nearby. There were individuals who would try to find homes for parrots, and local bird clubs, which provided good information. Since then, parrot rescues have become more common. These include individuals with limited space for birds, people with sanctuaries in their homes, and organizations set up as non-profits with special facilities for birds that meet their specialized needs. There are important differences between a legitimate rescue operation and a "collector" or a breeder getting free birds.

Today, many small rescue organizations are under-funded and under-staffed. Often they are one-person operations with questionable conditions for the birds. They are not able to meet the demands for placement of unwanted parrots. As places of last resort, they may take in more parrots than they are able to adequately maintain. Sometimes rescuers have to give up their birds because of bankruptcy, eviction, or for breaking local sanitation, noise or animal care laws.

Legitimate rescue operations do not breed birds. They do not want to contribute to the problem they are trying to solve. They try to place birds that will make good companions, and often their programs have an education component. Most organizations screen potential adopters because the responsibility of having a parrot is not for everyone. Collectors and breeders who claim to be rescues may have overly stringent screening standards as an excuse for not adopting out the birds. This leads to overcrowding and conditions worsen. A legitimate rescue knows its limits, and will refuse birds if there is no room. For a good sanctuary, a solid long-term plan is necessary to assure that any bird accepted will be cared for during its lifetime.

Why is it so tough to own a parrot? A parrot is a wild animal with wild behavior. Importing them from the wild is illegal. Those bred in captivity are bred for beauty, not for docile behavior, and their wild behaviors are still intact. Those behaviors can worsen and be exaggerated if the birds' needs aren't met or if people don't know how to handle them.

Natural behaviors that can cause problems include screaming, biting, or chewing on just about anything. In addition, with improper care such as inadequate diet, too much stress, allergies and not enough attention, some captive parrots react by plucking or chewing their feathers until they end up looking like a plucked chicken.

Second, parrots live a long time. Smaller parrots may live up to 20 years, but some of the larger parrot species can live more than 60 years. People's lives change over time. Even if behavior problems don't appear, people often can't keep a bird for his entire life. If they can't find someone to foster the bird for a while, they have to give him up. Parrots often end up in numerous homes throughout their lives, yet many people looking for a pet parrot want a young chick. These factors result in many unwanted parrots.

It is difficult to find help for birds that develop behavior problems. Avian behaviorists like me are not well known. People turn to inadequately trained sales people at pet stores or veterinarians who may know very little about parrots or behavior. A lucky few find vets or pet stores that specialize in parrots. Breeders, rescuers, parrot books, print and online parrot magazines, and bird clubs are resources for support and information. The quality of information varies greatly. Beware of one-size-fits-all remedies or techniques that are abusive and make the problem worse. It takes a bit of research to find people with enough education and experience to analyze the situation, give a solution tailored to a particular bird and follow-up on the problem. After trying ineffective remedies, people may despair, feel there is nothing more to be done, and give up the bird.

How bad is the problem of unwanted parrots? There are no good statistics on the extent of the problem. Many birds are placed with friends, acquaintances or anyone who will take them. Others are placed in borderline rescue operations that don't keep good records. One organization that tries to work with various rescuers is the Avian Welfare Coalition (www.avianwelfare.org), a group of organizations interested in parrot welfare.

Three nationally known rescue organizations are located in the southwestern United States:

The Oasis Sanctuary in Cascabel, Arizona ( www.the-oasis.org) was incorporated in 1997. Executive director Sybil Erden said that as a sanctuary Oasis doesn't adopt out birds. They only accept birds that are not good candidates for adoption, such as those who have never been companion birds or have developed extreme behavior or physical problems. This is about 10% of the "approximately 500 birds a year that need immediate placement," said Erden. The remaining 90% of inquiries Oasis refers to other organizations or counsels the owners so they can keep their birds. Currently, Oasis houses about 400 birds.

The Gabriel Foundation® in Carbondale, Colorado (www.thegabrielfoundation.org), founded by Julie Weiss Murad, has a sanctuary program but also takes in adoptable birds. They have room for up to 250 parrots. Between February 1996 and 2001, they received over 400 birds. Of those, 300 were permanently placed in homes.

The Parrot Education & Adoption Center (PEAC) (www.peac.org) in San Diego, CA, was formed in 1996. Since then, they have taken in 285 birds. They do education and counseling to help parrots stay in their homes. They are not a sanctuary and only take birds that have been pets and can easily be placed in appropriate homes. PEAC only accepts birds when they have volunteer help available to properly care for them.

There is no easy answer to the problem of unwanted parrots, but there are steps that can help to alleviate the problem.

Birth control for companion birds: Although spaying and neutering programs are not feasible at this time because sterilization is a dangerous operation for birds, there are other, less permanent methods of birth control that are easier with birds than with cats and dogs.

Less large scale commercial breeding: Reduce the number of new chicks, pay more attention to their socialization, and educate caretakers so that the parrots are less likely to be given up because of behavior problems.

Less large scale commercial selling: Only sell parrots in specialty stores that screen clients and have well trained sales people. PetsMart does not sell dogs and cats, but showcases those available for adoption. The same policy needs to be in place for parrots.

What can individuals do? Do not buy or adopt on impulse. Research any species in which you are interested. Consider adopting from a rescue. Help support legitimate and responsible rescue and welfare organizations. Be suspicious of any that cannot clearly outline their plans and goals. Purchase your supplies in responsible specialty shops or use shops that only sell bird supplies, not live animals. If you are a bird owner, educate yourself about parrot care, both physical and psychological. Take the responsibility seriously. Remember, it may last your lifetime. And spread the word: there are already too many unwanted parrots in this country - do not make the problem worse.


We ought not to treat living creatures like shoes or household belongings, which when worn we throw away. -Plutarch

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