Even though the importation of parrots into the pet trade was made illegal via the Wild Bird Conservation Act in 1992, the parrots that were captured before the law passed still reside in captivity, and these are considered the lucky ones – according to the Animal Law Coalition (ALC), only 16.6 percent of parrots survived the trip across the U.S./Mexican border and 60 percent of these innocent creatures worldwide die after being captured without even making it to market. The shock of capture and confinement in horrific conditions takes a quick toll on health and mental stability. After all of this is considered, illegal smuggling still takes place worldwide.
Considering the life span of parrots and how many have been captured and taken from their native homes and families, an endless amount will remain in captivity for decades to come- the exact numbers are unknown. As if caring for the growing captive-bred population isn’t difficult enough, how do we then care for these parrots that once knew freedom? The trauma they have been through since their captors laid eyes on them leaves permanent scars physically, emotionally and mentally.
Imagine flying free in the trees, feeding your mate and your young ones, when suddenly chaos explodes throughout the forest with every friend and family member you know in a panic, screaming and flying every which way to escape. Then, everything goes black. You get dumped into a crate with hundreds of other birds and can barely move due to being packed so tightly. During the trip, birds beside you are suffering from heat exhaustion. You are covered in feces, and you think you are stepping on corpses but you are too terrified to look. Or maybe if you are a smaller bird, you have had your beak taped shut and have been stuffed into a toothpaste tube, sock or toilet paper tube. Maybe you have had your feathers pulled out so you can no longer fly, or have been drugged so you will keep quiet while being smuggled over the border – according to the ALC, this is very common – the black market is alive and rampant.
Whenever I look into the eyes of the birds in my rescue that were wild-caught, the above traumas run through my head. I find myself sitting next to their cage wondering what they have seen, and wishing I could take all of those memories away. Common words to these birds include; “I’m so sorry, baby. It’s so unfair – I’m sorry you are caged when you should be free.” The only thing that we can do is try to make their life in captivity as fulfilling as possible, and that is a never-ending circle of guilt along with feeling like we just can’t do enough – and realistically, we can never do enough to make up for what humans have done. Even though I was not the one who caused their anguish, I still feel the guilt and constantly have to remind myself that I can only do so much to repair the damage, and they are still better off here than where they were before finding our rescue.
Due to questionable trade practices, wild-caught birds are more likely to end up in deplorable conditions or into the homes of the uneducated. Approximately 20 percent of the birds at Hurlin’s Parrot Rescue are wild-caught, with three different stories coming to mind above the rest:
- Jack the Blue and Gold Macaw was illegally captured and ended up residing in a drug house where marijuana and cigarette smoke was blown in his face, and he was fed beer, sunflower seeds and Fritos. Our veterinarian estimates that he is 50 years old and his left wing was broken during capture – he is also blind in one eye and arthritic. During his first week with us, he would stand solemnly and stare at the wall while standing on his play-stand cage top. To this day he is still the quietest bird in the rescue; I don’t even want to think about all of the abuse he endured. After days of standing by his cage and talking softly, he began to accept walnuts for treats and started chewing on the toys I offered. One morning during feeding time, he touched his beak to his branch and shot his head straight up while saying “HI!” in a happy voice. Winter finally left, and we were able to bring him outside; I have never seen him happier than when he is out in the sunshine – makes sense, right? It’s where he is meant to be in the first place.
- JJ, an Orange-Wing Amazon was taken from his home and imported into the U.S. only to be put into a cage fit for a single finch – after a life of flying free, he could no longer move. When he arrived at our rescue he was understandably terrified, and still is nervous around people. His beak was so long it almost hit his chest; that was promptly filed down. After some time, he now enjoys being talked to and accepts treats from hands. Fortunately, he was not injured from being captured and, weather permitting, is able to fly free in the outdoor aviary; it’s the closest feeling to freedom that we can provide.
- Toby, a wild-caught Yellow-Nape Amazon was transferred to us from another rescue due to having a history of being rather unpredictable. He was adopted out once to a very loving owner with much Amazon experience, only to be returned after nearly taking her ear off. Even so that owner still visited him at the shelter after the incident, and Toby still showed that he liked that person. Unpredictable behavior can be common in wild-caught birds; if a human were to go through what they did that person would surely wind up in a mental institution. Toby now permanently resides with us in a very large cage, and gets to roam the aviary in the summer months. He enjoys our company and the company of other birds, but will always be unpredictable with humans – we love him anyway, for everything that he has been through and for the amazing creature that he is.
Saving and rehabilitating these misunderstood birds are part of the daily life of any rescue. It all pays off when you can finally see them smile – an expression that shows through their eyes – after the unimaginable rough past they witnessed. Although unnatural, some are able to learn how to live in captivity and enjoy human companionship, even finding their forever human. The really lucky ones find feathered friends and live as a captive small flock similar to how it would be in the wild. These are the moments that make all of the heartache and hard work worthwhile.