Parrots Forever
The intent of the Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992 was to help preserve wild bird populations worldwide by removing the United States from the international market.  At the time, parrot breeders in the US fought that legislation for a number of reasons they perceived as valid, not the least of which was the fear they would be economically crippled without access to imported breeding stock.  In the end, the effect of the WBCA was quite the opposite.  In many areas of the United States, the value of parrots increased in light of the alleged WBCA influenced decrease in parrot availability.  And as the perceived value of parrots began to grow, commercial breeding began to accelerate.
According to Glenn Reynolds, former World Parrot Trust Administrator in the US, who had been a breeder before, during and after the Wild Bird Conservation Act, one of the most insidious consequences of the legislation was the rise of “the parrot broker”.  These were unscrupulous individuals who saw an opportunity to exploit the market and make an easy buck acting as the connection between the breeders and the consumers.  The broker didn’t give a damn about the parrots.  He was there to feed a market as quickly and with as many birds as possible – and to take a big cut.
The “shortage” of parrots as influenced by the WBCA, whether real or imagined, spurred an acceleration in domestic breeding that, over time, actually began to steadily decrease the market value of parrots, making them more accessible than ever before to a much wider consumer base.  This, of course, gave further rise to demand, and profit-minded brokers and breeders stepped up production. Parrots could be induced to lay more frequently – or even continually - when their fertile eggs or their newly hatched babies were promptly removed.  Of course, hand-feeding hatchlings takes time, costs money, and takes up valuable space in the factory.  Pumping chicks into the retail stores unweaned effectively kept the product in motion and passed that cost onto the retailers.  But why stop there?  Creating a myth and selling “the bonding experience” to consumers moved the product even faster, and passed that cost of time and money along even further.
The AVMA Pet Demographics survey of 2001 indicated 10 million parrots in homes in the US.  According to a 1996 PIJAC survey which included breeder information, that number was as high as 40 million.
That’s a big stretch.  But two years of research conducted by author Mira Tweti, while she wrote her book “Of Parrots And People” gives us a pretty good point of reference as we try to really quantify what’s going on out there in regards to parrot numbers today. Mira’s research indicated that PetSmart, with approximately 900 stores nationwide is being supplied by production plants like Kaytee Preferred Birds and Rainbow World Exotics to the tune of about 900,000 parrots per year.  Petco, which only just stopped selling “large” parrots a few years ago, but which still commonly sells parakeets, cockatiels, conures, quakers, caiques, ringnecks, mini-macaws, etc… boasts an equal number of retail stores nationwide actively selling parrots.
But PetSmart and Petco do not have the market cornered on parrot sales.   In general, independent pet retailers generate a higher percentage of sales from live pets than the cost-minded pet supply superstores.  And it is important to consider the fact that the greatest source of all for the direct sale of parrots to consumers are breeders.
There are more than 2500 parrot breeders in operation nationwide, each producing anywhere from 10 over 65 different parrot species per farm – or factory.  It is common for large breeders to house anywhere between 500 and 1000 breeding birds.
For example:
Scudder’s Parrot Depot in Washington State came under fire starting in 1999 with at least 800 parrots being held and bred under what can only be described as criminally negligent and abusive conditions so abhorrent as to incite a legal battle that waged from 1999 to 2006.  This legal battle, of course, ended in a sweeping victory for Scudders and the larger Washington State breeding community when, with a legal team funded by the AFA, they succeeded in blocking proposed legislation that would mandate licensing and standards of care in breeding facilities in the state of Washington.
Beech’s Bird Nest Ranch of North Carolina, a one-time field research farm for Kaytee Pet Products, liquidated it’s stock of 500 parrots in a public auction in March of 2007.
The Luv Them Birds Breeding facility located in Loxahatchee Florida, owned and operated by former Gabriel Foundation Board member Kathleen Szabo,  put 642 breeding birds up for public auction in September of 2009. These represented over 300 proven breeding pairs producing between 2 to 8 babies per pair per year, as disclosed by the breeder herself.
When you crunch the numbers and consider that, in addition to the volume of parrots being produced by industrial giants like Kaytee Preferred Birds, over 2500 independent breeders in the US are launching anywhere between 100 and 1500 baby parrots each on an annual basis, we can pretty much stand behind amodest calculation of at least 2 million parrots being bred for the market each year.  Renowned parrot breeder EB Cravens suggested several years ago that the reality was probably closer to 5 million.  And when we’re talking about a high production commercial industry that’s been in full swing now for at least two decades, producing animals with life spans typically between 25 and 80 years, I think it’s pretty safe to say that we’re looking at a domestic parrot population that realistically exceeds the 40 million range.
But the Numbers Debate is not the only issue.  The issue that we are really hoping the avian veterinary community will begin to wrap its collective mind around is the manner of production and the effect this has on the quality of the product which, in fact, is a highly intelligent, psychologically sensitive, living, breathing animal:  The standard method of production for pet parrots in the U.S. is a parrot mill.
WHY is this okay?                                                                                                             
We would find this completely unacceptable in any other arena.  There is no debate over whether or not a facility breeding 500 dogs and producing over a thousand puppies annually for the pet trade is a bad idea, not only because of the health issues plaguing puppies produced in this manner, but because we cannot tolerate the abject suffering of dogs being bred literally to death under horrific conditions. But, in fact, between 80 and 90% of parrots produced for the U.S. market are production bred,  and this is accepted  - or at least not questioned – by the industry, by consumers… and even by the avian veterinary community.  We condemn the practice when it applies to dogs or cats or even bunnies.  Why is it that we can accept the practice as it applies to an animal that is even more highly evolved cognitively than a dog?  Why are we completely disconnected from the harm this is doing to parrots?
Species of higher intelligence like primates, elephants, dolphins and whales – and parrots - require a sustained parental nurturing period in order to develop into normal healthy, well-adjusted adults. In the wild, parrot babies remain with their parents often for up to two years or more while the parents teach them all the things they need to know about their world, about themselves and about their species in order to survive and thrive.  Adult parrots continue to feed their offspring well after the babies are able to feed themselves.  This is an aspect of the nurturing and sustained parental support process that is essential to the healthy development of parrots.
When parrots are raised by their natural parents, they learn to identify themselves as belonging to their own species.  They learn to process the experiences of an ever-changing world and they learn from mom how to react, when to be alarmed, what new stimuli is benign – or not, what the social cues are and what the appropriate behavior is for any given situation.  They learn how to properly groom themselves and about the social significance of grooming others. They learn what to eat and where to find it.  They learn how to forage, how to play, how to communicate and how to relate to members of their own species, their own flocks and their own family. And they learn how to fly.  Their gift of flight in every way defines who they are and is inextricably linked to their psychological, physical and biological health.  Their hearts, their lungs, their brains, their skin, their nervous systems every fiber in their bodies is linked to what their wings were designed to do.
Well… life isn’t really anything like this for parrots raised in captivity.  In fact,  traditional, commercial aviculture has done little to emulate anything close to a natural developmental experience for parrots being raised in captivity, in spite of the fact that, for decades, the avicultural breeding community have held themselves up as the experts who have taught the rest of us about proper husbandry and breeding and rearing standards.    Furthermore, based on the strength of the Avicultural Society of America and the American Federation of Aviculture, the breeding community is accountable to no one.  They have managed to successfully block any and all attempts to impose legal regulations on their industry.  Anyone can call themselves an authority.  Anyone can breed any number of birds they wish under any kind of conditions without licensing, veterinary oversight or standards of care.
To this day, the standard set-up for a breeding facility is a succession of barren cages devoid of enrichments with boxes attached.  Aviculture has dictated that toys and enrichments – and even daylight – distracts parrots from their job, which is simply to mate and produce eggs. To this day shipping unweaned parrots that are merely days old to retail locations and/or selling unweaned babies directly to consumers is perfectly legal and widely practiced.
As “products” in a fast paced, profit minded pet market, the vast majority of captive bred parrots have never known their natural parents.  One of hundreds or sometimes even thousands of baby parrots on a breeding ranch, a commercially bred parrot is production-line fed without the benefit of nurturing – or even a real parent. Within a few short weeks – sometimes even a few short days - of hatching, he is packed up and shipped out unweaned to be delivered to his retail destination.  If the baby survives the transport or isn’t too sick once he has reached the pet store, he is delegated to a display case where he sits, miserably alone, and waits to be dutifully hand fed on a fixed schedule by a sales clerk who is qualified as an experienced expert by virtue of having successfully completed the on-line hand-feeding training course offered by PIJAC.  Provided this baby isn’t injured or even killed by a succession of PIJAC trained sales clerks, he is encouraged to learn to eat on his own by the time he is 6 to 10 weeks old, depending on his species, as his hand-feedings are gradually reduced.  His begging is ignored.  He’ll learn to eat before he lets himself starve to death.  Probably.  If he is lucky he is purchased by a compassionate consumer who will take him home and shower him with the love and interaction he craves every single night for at least 2 hours after she return home from work.  The pet store provides the complimentary wing-clip before sending him on his way.
Well, this is quite an austere illustration.  It actually sounds ridiculously outdated, as we are better educated these days and have so much more information about the importance of nurturing our parrots during the neonatal stage – and beyond. Nevertheless, this form of factory farming or production breeding is still prevalent.  This is still the way it’s done. This is still the experience of vast numbers of highly intelligent, sensitive little parrots as they begin their journey through life.  Even if we were to pretend that this is only what happens to parrots produced commercially for the big chain superstores, we’re still talking about a million parrots a year that are launched into the world like a fleet of shiny little toasters.
Many breeders do sincerely care about their parrots. Some even allow their parrot babies to remain with their natural parents for several days before they are pulled to be hand-reared by true professionals who have decades of hand-feeding experience.  Many breeders are now familiar with the work of people like Rosemary Low, and understand the importance of “abundance weaning” and other nurturing forms of support during the critical neonatal development period.  Good breeders never sell their babies unweaned.  And some good breeders actually screen applicants to try to ensure that their babies only go to experienced, committed homes.
The production bred baby and the baby nurtured lovingly by the good breeder appear to have very little in common as they begin their lives as pets.  But they actually have three very important things in common:  neither baby knows what species it is.  Despite having been domestically bred, both babies are still wild animals.  And regardless of the fact that every fiber of their being is linked to, influenced by and dependent upon their ability to fly, neither will be allowed to fly.
These 3 characteristics impact the capacity of every single domestically bred parrot to develop into a healthy, well adjusted “pet” regardless of the quality of their breeding.
We are well aware that there are very many people who provide outstanding lives for their pet birds.  Some pet birds are even allowed to fly.  But we’re not talking about that exceptionally miniscule percentage of people who have the time, the knowledge, the resources and the commitment necessary to really provide for all of the physical, psychological and social needs of a parrot.  We are talking about the typical experiences of captive parrots at the hands of the millions of ordinary people who try to keep them as pets.
Typically speaking, pet parrots are highly social animals who spend their days alone, confined to cages, waiting for someone to come home from work.  They have no way to constructively deal with loneliness.  They are hard-wired to be connected, either with a flock, with a partner, or with both.  They are highly intelligent animals whose cognitive capacity evolved parallel to their social behavior and as a means of navigating a very large and complex world.  In captivity, their worlds are tiny, and their best forms of mental stimulation may only come in the form of a few toys hanging inside their cage.  Or trying to figure out how to get out of the cage.  Or trying to figure out how to get under their owner’s skin so that someone will pay attention to them.
Typically speaking, pet parrot’s wings are routinely clipped, with the first clipping being delivered before they ever have a chance to fledge.  As prey animals whose primary escape reflex is directly and inalterably tied to flight, the fact that these parrots inevitably hit the floor  - or the bars of a cage – when they are startled or threatened leads to feelings of vulnerability and insecurity, and sometimes to inappropriate, chronic phobias arising from the fact that they don’t seem to have an effective mechanism to help them cope with danger.
The typical pet parrot sits in a cage in front of a window but seldom, if ever, gets to go outside or sit in sun that isn’t filtered through glass.  The typical parrot eats a seed-based diet that is high in fat, missing critical nutrients, and is poorly metabolized because there is very little opportunity for a parrot to exercise.
In the life of a typical parrot who suspects he is human, there is a resident human that he is highly – maybe exclusively – bonded to, and whom he has identified as his sexual partner.  The hormones grip the bird, but the human partner is unreceptive, altogether absent, or is being stolen by other humans in the household. Sexually mature parrots instinctually are driven to establish territory, to engage a partner, to mate and to defend a nest.  The resulting aggression and frustration are generally expressed by parrots in ways that are incompatible with a human household.
Excessive and inappropriate vocalizations, stereotypical behavior, displaced aggression, hyper-phobic behavior, feather destruction and self mutilation are all abnormalities that are common in captive parrots.  The manner of mass production widely practiced in aviculture today inevitably results in a mind boggling number of "pet" birds that are emotionally and psychologically impaired, experience severe challenges as they develop into adult birds, and are still wild animals destined to reach sexual maturity and succumb to the instinctual directive of their species.  Millions of people who purchase these birds are unprepared to deal with the resulting behavioral issues. After these birds have been passed through a succession of homes, someone finally contacts a rescue organization...
As a parrot rescue organization dealing continually with the fall-out from the pet trade… from where we stand… captivity isn’t really working for parrots.  Even in parrots that appear to cope well as pets there are other issues that the avian veterinary community routinely encounters including obesity, liver disease, fatty tumors, cancers, reproductive diseases, heart disease and stroke. Every single thing that’s wrong with pet parrots is directly related to their captivity.
Foster Parrots is a non-profit organization dedicated to the rescue and sanctuary of unwanted, languishing and abused parrots.  We are one of hundreds of rescue organizations in operation across the country. We currently care for over 500 avian residents in our 16,000 square foot sanctuary facility located in southern Rhode Island.
Our focus is permanent sanctuary care for wild and unadoptable parrots -  primarily older wild-caught birds, ex-breeders or those captive-raised parrots who somehow emerged from the domestic breeding machine with their sense of species identification intact.  Our focus is parrots who reject ABA training and human socialization and, instead, embrace their wild heritage and their right to be birds.  We care for other kinds of parrots as well.  Parrots that are no longer candidates for adoption due to health or disease issues.  Parrots that have plucked themselves naked or have mutilation issues and are no longer desirable as pets. Cockatoos who, no matter how much they love people, cannot manage to keep their homes for long.
We turn away approximately 1500 New England area surrender requests each year for lack of space and/or resources to deal with the demand.  We are one of the oldest and best known parrot rescue organizations in the country, but like all other parrot rescue groups, big or small, we are over-worked, overwhelmed and seriously under-funded.
There is very little support for parrots, and one of the primary reasons for this is the fact that wide and hostile divisions exist in the parrot sector that do not exist in other areas of animal welfare. Or at least not to the same extent.  People who love dogs and cats are in full support of the rescue groups that work to help dogs and cats.  In contrast, people who love parrots – the breeders, the bird clubs, the behaviorists, the trainers, the parrot accessory manufacturers and yes, sometimes even the avian veterinary community -  all close their doors, turn their backs and withhold financial support from parrot rescue groups who, operating under the mantra that “parrots should not be pets”, represent a threat – or at least an opposition – to their very livelihoods.
Parrots should not be pets.  Until there are more parrots in captivity thriving than suffering, parrots should not be pets.  Until avian science and aviculture are able to actually work together for the benefit of parrots rather than for the benefit of people, parrots should not be pets.
If the avian veterinary community is to embrace parrots as pets, you also must embrace the failure of parrots as pets, and your responsibility, as the true parrot experts, to stand up for the welfare of parrots in captivity.
There is not enough to be avian biologists or avian immunology specialists.  If you are not connected to the emotional and psychological lives of birds, you are not seeing the whole animal.  And if you, the veterinarians and the healers, are not questioning – and challenging - the standards that have been put into place that are harming parrots, then what chance do parrots have?
In the words of author Mira Tweti:  It is not enough to do what you can do to help an animal.  You have to do everything you can do.
by Karen Windsor Foster Parrots, Ltd. & The New England Exotic Wildlife Sanctuary
© Parrots Forever