New Mexico's Pet Resource SUMMER 2003



by Joanne Oliva-Purdy, Ph.D.

During fire season in New Mexico, it is important to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. To take pets along during an evacuation, advance preparation is vital. In addition to physical preparations, it’s important to prepare your pets behaviorally. Train your pet to do at least these two things: 1) come on command and 2) go in and out of a carrier or kennel. In an evacuation, you’ll need to do this fast. Since others may do the evacuation, train your pet to do this for other family members, or for neighbors, too.

Parrots are a specialty of mine. I’m particularly concerned that owners know how to prepare them for an emergency. Some parrots will not “step up” onto a hand or arm for anyone but their favorite person. Birds succumb to smoke inhalation faster than people. Training them to come out of their cages on a stick and into a carrier can save critical minutes.

You can teach your parrot (or cat or dog) to be comfortable in a carrier. If you calmly expose your pet to the carrier often enough, your pet will learn to accept being near the carrier. Or you can pair the carrier’s presence with something fun: a game, a toy, a treat — whatever works. Once the bird is comfortable playing around the carrier, you can put toys inside so the play can continue there. To get your parrot to stay inside with the treat, use sticky food, like a dollop of peanut butter or a toy tied inside.

Pets are often afraid of carriers because they only have bad experiences in them, like trips to the vet. Pairing a carrier with something fun will work with this and other fearful situations. The trick is to start the exposure at a level where your pet is comfortable and move it closer in steps small enough for the parrot to handle. Make a list of steps of exposure to the carrier, from no fear to very frightened. Move on to each step only after your parrot is comfortable with the previous one. If you go too fast, and the bird is fearful, back up and use smaller steps. A parrot not fearful of a carrier will warm up to the inside fairly fast … but be careful it doesn’t become a defended “nest box”!

Once you can move the bird in the carrier, make that rewarding by taking the bird to “fun places” like outdoors, or a friend’s house. If you do this often enough, the few times you need to do it for stressful reasons won’t make the carrier such a feared item.

“Stick training”, or training your parrot to step up onto and down off a stick promptly when you (and others) ask him to, is important for evacuations. Many people won’t put their hands in front of a large and powerful beak, but they will reach a stick into a cage to get a bird out. If you can train your bird to accept going in and out of the cage on a stick when you choose, it won’t be a struggle during an emergency and can make life easier the rest of the time.

Stick training is easy if your parrot is not afraid of the stick and is used to “stepping up.”

Put the stick where you would normally put your hand in front of the bird, ask him to step up and reward him when he does. Once your parrot gets good at this, the next step is to teach him to act quickly to get the treat. To do this, the parrot must step up right away. If not, remove the stick and the treat. This is harder if the bird is uncomfortable with a stick. You may need to teach it to be comfortable with the stick first, like with the carrier. If your parrot is used to stepping up onto your finger, you can put the stick next to your finger until he is used to stepping up on both. Next use just the stick. Do this in small steps and reward each time you get a response in the right direction. Once the stick training is successful, practice going in and out of the cage at random times with a treat inside the cage each time the parrot enters. The parrot will get used to being asked to do this at any time.

If your parrot bites when a hand enters the cage, you can still stick train. Parrots can be taught to accept hands near and in their cages and trained to step up onto a stick, even if they never learn to step up on hands.

Once your bird is stick trained and used to the carrier, you and others can practice quickly getting your parrot onto a stick and into a carrier from various places in the house. Take your parrot on short practice trips. In the event of a real emergency, a safe and expedient evacuation will be your reward for being prepared.

Joanne Oliva-Purdy, Ph.D., an applied animal behaviorist, specializes in zoo animals and companion birds and cats. She resides in Denver and visits Santa Fe frequently. For more information, see the Resources page at

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