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Creating a Haven for Abused Pets: Protecting Polly

Alex is a blue and gold macaw. His owner, Claire Exten, volunteers at the Goruda Aviary in Poolesville, Maryland. The nonprofit sanctuary shelters abused and neglected parrots.  She has been volunteering at the aviary for about a year and a half. She explained that since working at the aviary, she has learned a lot about parrot behavior and nutrition. She has also improved her relationship with Alex. 

“We have a much better relationship. He’s more level-headed most of the time,” Exten said. “He still has his parrot days where he goes crazy; he’s still a macaw, but then when he does go off the deep end or whatever, I understand why. He’s just being a parrot.” 

Christopher Zeoli is the director of the Garuda Aviary. He says parrot owners are far more likely to abandon their birds rather than keep them for their entire lives. Like many parrot sanctuaries across the U.S., the Garuda Aviary started by accident. Zeoli and his mother adopted one parrot and started taking in other abandoned parrots. Before they knew it, they had a reputation. The birds started flocking in. 

According to Zeoli, 98 percent of parrots sold as pets come from abusive parrot mills. There parrots are squished in tiny cages, kept in total darkness and fed an unnaturally rich diet to induce breeding. The diet often leads to heart attacks and strokes. Through his work, Zeoli hopes to increase awareness about parrot welfare and conservation, helping people recognize that parrots are wild animals and do not belong in captivity. However, for those who insist on keeping the birds as pets, Zeoli wants to educate parrot owners about proper care. 

Approximately one-third of parrot species in the wild are endangered due to habitat destruction and the trade of wild-caught parrots, while millions of wild parrots kept as household pets are discarded. The Wild Bird Conservation Act was passed in 1992, banning the import of wild caught birds into the U.S. But illegal poaching and captive breeding of parrots for the pet trade have continued. 

Some argue that humane breeding of parrots in captivity reduced demand for illegally caught birds. However, Zeoli argues that because it is so difficult to get parrots to reproduce in captivity, it is impossible for breeders to treat parrots humanely and still run an economically viable breeding business. 

The natural lifespan of a parrot is between 50 and 90 years, and in the wild, they live in flocks and form intensely monogamous relationships with their mates. In captivity, they try to replicate these relationships with their owners. Parrots living with a human family may identify them as its flock, and in some situations, they will form a mate-like bond with one person, which can be very problematic. The parrot can become violently aggressive toward the person’s significant other or children.  

“He still has his parrot days where he goes crazy; he’s still a macaw, but then when he does go off the deep end or whatever, I understand why. He’s just being a parrot.”

Parrots exhibit remarkable intelligence. Irene Pepperberg, an adjunct professor of psychology at Brandeis University, proved that an African Gray parrots has intelligence levels similar to that of a human child. 

Parrots experience isolation in captivity and are not able to fly. They feel stress which leads to self-mutilation in the form of feather plucking, similar to human obsessive-compulsive disorders. 

In contrast to the media’s false image of the playful, friendly parrot, most parrot owners find their parrots difficult to manage due to their noise and aggression, and they give them up. Because of the intense bonds parrots form with their owners, transferring homes can be very traumatic. 

Zeoli hopes that the government  will put an end to the domestic breeding of parrots and that trade of wild-caught parrots will stop before all macaw species go extinct. He says that working at the aviary and seeing the trauma and suffering experienced by so many birds on a daily basis is “the most emotionally taxing thing I’ve ever done,” but that rehabilitating the parrots and making a difference in their lives makes it all worth it. •

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