- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2007

CASCABEL, Ariz.

It is a sunny and cheerful place, yet it imparts a haunting sense of guilt. Birds, swaying on their perches, greet the rising sun with full-throated shrieks, their glorious plumage preened and fluffed to look its best.

They know breakfast — succulent fruit and crunchy nuts — is already on its way. And yet they would not be here, not a single one of them, if the human race had not failed them at least once.

Deliberately or inadvertently, unapologetically or with excuses, humans have turned the birds into homeless parrots.

“The sad part is that many people just don’t fully realize what they are getting into when they acquire an exotic bird,” said Sybil Erden, founder and executive director of the Oasis Sanctuary, shaking her head in bewilderment.

“Some of these parrots may live to be 60 or 80 years old. That means they may very well outlive their current owners.”

Their life stories vary like the colors of their feathers, but most have one common denominator: a broken home.

Here is Milo, a greenwing macaw — reserved and dignified like a Holy See cardinal.

They can be witty, vivacious, funny, sharp — and sometimes talk faster than their owners.

But they can also turn extremely loud, moody and defensive if they think they are not shown due attention.

Their massive beaks can crack walnuts as if they were sunflower seeds — and make short work of careless fingers.

Milo ended up at the Oasis seven years ago after authorities in the Midwest raided the home of an aging woman who had kept inside a total of 64 birds in appalling conditions.

He now has a lot more space — and a congenial roommate, a fellow military macaw named Rah-Rah, who was confiscated from a rare bird smuggler in the San Diego area in 2000.

Archie and Edith, another pair of macaws, have lived together for 35 years as part of a breeding program developed by their former owner.

Over these years, said Ms. Erden, they have produced together an estimated 250 offspring.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a young macaw parrot bred in captivity could fetch $2,500.

Then the market fell, cutting the price nearly by half, and Edith, nearing the respectful age of 50, reached menopause.

In the eyes of the former owner, the couple had outlived their usefulness.

They still look out for one another, perched in a heated pavilion on the bank of the waterless San Pedro River, tenderly adjusting each other’s feathers and casting a distrustful eye around.

“In very many ways, they are like humans,” said Ms. Erden as she looked around her domain, which now houses more than 400 homeless birds and is growing fast.

“They have the same attachments, tempers, phobias, diseases. They suffer from arthritis, cancer, glaucoma — they have strokes and heart attacks just like we do. And some even live on Prozac because of psychological disorders.”

Cookie, a rose-breasted cockatoo, struts around her cage with a bandaged torso because she has epilepsy and injured her chest in a fall.

Yosemite, a conure from San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill, hides most of the day under a wooden bunk in his cage, his nervous system a sorry wreck.

Oasis has a second Milo — this one a cockatoo. Milo has been prone to self-mutilation since he was abandoned by his owners in 1999 after a divorce. He was rescued and brought to the Oasis just hours before his scheduled euthanasia.

The same demons haunt Moluccan cockatoo BJ, whose previous owner in Phoenix kept him not even in a cage but in a foot-by-foot box with holes for 17 years.

All of them are in the care of Dr. Todd Driggers, an avian veterinarian from Gilbert, Ariz., who makes regular home visits to the Oasis to oversee his patients.

Bandages need to be changed, a procedure that in the avian world often requires general anesthesia to avoid pain because the old bandage is usually stuck to the wound.

Blood samples are to be collected, and new medicine that will be mixed to the food is to be prescribed.

“It is sad that so few people realize that owning a parrot is a commitment of a lifetime,” said Dr. Driggers, deftly slicing off bandages from a conure that had just been put under.

“If their problems had not been addressed early in life, that’s when psychiatric problems like self-mutilation usually start.”

Maintaining the Oasis, the first permanent refuge for homeless parrots in the United States created a decade ago on the site of a former pecan farm, is increasingly expensive.

According to Ms. Erden, the sanctuary’s current annual budget, financed exclusively through private donations, is close to $400,000 and grows about 15 percent every year.

But she fears an explosion of demand for services like those provided by the Oasis in years to come.

An estimated 20 million parrots currently live in private hands in the United States, about half of them in the homes of people age 40 or older.

That means, Ms. Erden said, that an army of exotic birds is likely to become homeless as the baby boom generation retires or passes away.

What will happen to them? Will there be more refuges like the Oasis committed to helping these unique creatures, or will euthanasia become the prevalent solution?

There is no answer to these questions as of today.

Today there is just another sunrise, and Tabasco and Jasmine, two yellow-headed Amazons, begin each day with a kiss.

Like most big parrots, said Dr. Driggers, they have a positive and happy relationship that, barring unforeseen circumstances, is likely to last a lifetime.

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