My family has been discussing how long my sons and I can expect to live. I have to plan for another 50 years but realistically, I’m probably only good for about 40 more.
Here’s why: If our family of four (plus our dog, who has to pass muster) here in Chicago can successfully pass the extremely rigorous screening, application and training process to adopt a certain blue and gold macaw — who is about 12 and expected to live until approximately 2065 — my future grandchildren will be seeing to its relative comfort.
How did I fall into the heart-wrenching rabbit hole of traveling to the exotic bird sanctuaries of the Midwest, trying to find a parrot physically and mentally healthy enough to adopt?
Why have I spent countless hours of the past few weeks filling out applications lengthier than those I completed for graduate school, finding appropriate personal references to cite and budgeting a minimum of $1,000 (just for starters) for adoption fees and a proper cage for a 2-foot-tall bird with the intelligence of a toddler and a wingspan of nearly 4 feet?
I'll save that for last.
For now, let me tell you that visiting bird sanctuaries where large, ultra-smart exotics go (if they’re lucky) after being discarded for not living up to the expectations that people get from watching trained animals on TV and in movies is absolutely soul-crushing.
You see birds that have been terribly abused and are being nursed back to health by dedicated volunteers. You see parrots that look like whole chickens from the grocery store because in their depression and anxiety, they’ve plucked themselves bald. In some cases, they’ve gouged themselves with their immensely strong beaks the way some humans cut themselves to relieve psychological pain.
A Wisconsin sanctuary pointed me to a PBS documentary from 2013, “Parrot Confidential,” which details the multibillion-dollar business that is the poaching or breeding of exotic birds.
According to the film, produced and written by Allison Argo, the Wild Bird Conservation Act took effect in 1992 to protect exotic bird species from being imported into this country. As an unintended consequence, poachers in the warm-climate U.S. states where many parrots travel to nest, and domestic breeders, started making big bucks from pumping out baby birds.
These animals are impossible to re-integrate into the wild because they don’t know how to survive. They suffer from having to be caged — generally alone even though in their habitats they are extremely social and mate for life — for up to 100 years, depending on the type of bird.
The irony is that as sanctuaries across the country are overloaded with discarded birds, nearly one-third of all parrot species are at risk of extinction.
Unlike dogs, which have been domesticated for thousands of years, macaws, cockatoos and the other exotic birds from South America and Africa are not pets. We humans basically have no business keeping them indoors in refrigerator-sized cages when some of them are built to fly 50 miles a day and are smart enough to speak up to 600 words, know multiple languages and read body language fluently. In my house, the bird won’t be caged unless we’re away for a few hours.
I am deeply ashamed to admit that my interest in macaws stems secondarily from their iconic status in my cultural heritage. Sadly, my recent concern was primarily sparked from seeing so many adorable pictures and videos of large birds on my social media feeds.
As Marie Charon Crowley, who runs a home sanctuary out of her basement in Detroit, said in “Parrot Confidential,” people see these super-cute posts and make terrible assumptions about their ability to care for an exotic, with horrible consequences. “As long as they’re at the top of the YouTube charts, they’re at the top of my surrender charts,” she said.
Since this is the case, I’ve made a vow of avian social media silence. I will never again share cute bird videos or pictures. I will dedicate myself to giving my bird a better life, and never post images of my new friend anywhere.
In the meantime, there are many sanctuaries that could use your donations to keep up their efforts for these beautiful and pained creatures – please find one and support them in any way you can.