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THE HIDDEN PAIN IN CAPTIVE COMPANION PARROTS

Animal Boredom

Boredom. How long can or will, anyone, any animal live with boredom?  

Wikipedia's definition of boredom;
Boredom is an emotional state experienced when an individual is left without anything in particular to do, and not interested in their surroundings. Boredom has been defined by C. D. Fisher in terms of its central psychological processes: “an unpleasant, transient affective state in which the individual feels a pervasive lack of interest in and difficulty concentrating on the current activity.” M. R. Leary and others describe boredom as “an affective experience associated with cognitive attentional processes.”  In positive psychology, boredom is described as a response to a moderate challenge for which the subject has more than enough skill.

FRANÇOISE WEMELSFELDER Animal Boredom - A Model of Chronic Suffering in Captive Animals and Its Consequences For Environmental Enrichment 1998;
 
The initial stage of attention impairment, I submit, may be characterized as boredom. As the animal is deprived means for behavioral interaction, his or her attention becomes increasingly dispersed towards inappropriate stimuli, such as another animal's tail, or his or her own limbs. One could say in that stage the animal "does not know what to do." The animal suffers from a general lack of meaningful behavioral goals, and becomes increasingly listless and withdrawn. In the final stage of impairment, attention disintegrates. The animal may respond chaotically to his or her environment, or become apathetic. In both cases, he or she becomes virtually helpless to cope with andor change the situation. This stage may be regarded as evidence of depression andor anxiety.

Generally speaking, animals housed in a barren environment show an overall decrease in interaction with the environment. This comes to expression in a variety of symptoms. The animals lie down and sleep more, and spend significantly more time sitting. On the other hand, they over- react to novel and/or unexpected events with fearful and aggressive responses. Furthermore, the animals may develop stereotyped patterns of behavior. Such patterns consist of high repetitive and uniform sequences of behavior which seem to be of no direct functional value to the animal.  Examples are bar-biting in tethered sows, stereotyped pacing shown by zoo animals such as polar bears and wolves, and various locomotory stereotypes in laboratory primates. Sometimes such behavior can be damaging to other animals; licking and nibbling tails and ears of offspring may for example induce cannibalism in rats and mice.

As time of confinement proceeds, such patterns tend to become increasingly directed towards the animal's own body or products thereof. Primates may spend long periods of time masturbating, rocking their own body, or eating and regurgitating their own feces. Rats may chase their own tail, tethered sows may show long bouts of chewing air, with no other apparent effect than producing large amounts of saliva. Such tendencies may eventually develop into various forms of compulsive self-mutilation. Laboratory monkeys gnaw at their own limbs or genitals, while parrots will pull out their feathers until completely naked. In summary, the overall decrease in interaction shown by captive animals comes to expression in decrease in behavioral variability and an increase in self directed behaviors (Dantzer, 1986).

As mentioned earlier, dogs and cats are indeed domesticated, and in most cases are allowed to move at will and feel the sense of freedom within their own home. Most people have lived with a pet dog or cat or have been around others who have. Dogs generally tend to be more dependent on human caregivers for their interaction, affection, and entertainment, whereas cats are more comfortable with periods of down time and tend to tolerate solitude more naturally than dogs. But even with the freedom of limited movement within the home, a lack of external stimuli and interaction with their caregivers can produce boredom in most dogs and cats to varying degrees. This is why you DON'T leave your dog or cat alone if you are away for a one-night stay-over or weekend. 

If you care for a cat, here is something to keep in mind by knowyourcat.info;

Have you ever heard people saying that their cat sleeps all the time?  If the owner is complacent about this, he would be shaken by the reality - the cat probably sleeps because it is bored out of its mind. It simply has no other way to pass the time.  It is true that cats spend a lot of time sleeping and they need a quiet place to do so, but excessive sleeping is unhealthy. Cats need something to stimulate them and if they do not get it they will slump into this sleep of boredom or show signs of neurotic behaviour such as aggression, excessive grooming, or eating strange objects. These symptoms are more often seen in indoor cats, because there is much less in their world to stimulate them.  

If a pet becomes bored enough, destruction of the home in some way, shape, or form is bound to happen. Cats have their own ways of coping, especially if they have claws. Dogs like to chew and enjoy finding new and exciting ways to pass the time. This is best illustrated by “Bored Dog”, written by Karen Peak, Pet Editor, “Your Life Magazine”;

[...]Dogs who are bored tend to develop destructive and annoying behaviors such as barking, chewing, and digging. The dogs are not getting back at humans; they are just trying to entertain themselves.  Dogs who spend all day alone and isolated from the pack may develop barking problems as well as become escape artists. The owner views the dog as hard to handle, trying to "get back at me" and refuse to take him out even more as a form of punishment for not behaving. This does nothing but exacerbate the situation. The dog is not being given the opportunity to learn and he is being even more socially deprived.[...]

Dogs respond in many ways to boredom. Dr. Stanley Coren, author of the book "The Intelligence of Dogs (2006)," states that 

[...]the smarter a dog is, the more likely he will become easily bored, which leads to anxiety.  Bored pets will often scratch, chew or jump on household furnishings, destroying them in the process. If your dog is exhibiting symptoms of boredom, taking the dog for a long walk may have a calming effect or cause it to go to sleep, resulting in less destructive behavior.

Separation anxiety is the most common form of anxiety.  Dogs that experience this will show atypical behavior.  Some of the most common symptoms are whining, loss of appetite, excessive licking and barking. You can diminish separation anxiety in your dog by such methods as quietly leaving and re-entering your residence to avoid exciting the dog or diverting the dog's attention with a treat or toy before heading out the door.
The preceding examples illustrate how a lack of interaction, stimuli, and the provision of a happy environment for a pet dog or cat can allow boredom to set in, and how this boredom causes a number of neuroses to develop as a means of coping. If this can happen with a cat or a dog, both of which usually enjoy the freedom to move around the home, why do people feel they should be any less diligent in interacting with their parrot? It is because people have been conditioned to believe that parrots are domesticated pets and that it is normal and acceptable to house parrots in a cage for their entire life. Those bars form more than a physical barrier between parrot and caregiver. They have a tendency to form psychological and emotional barriers as well. Their presence becomes so acceptable to the parrot owner that the bars and their meaning become invisible. They are certainly not invisible from where the parrot is sitting.
 
Behavioural Problems in Companion Parrots by Greg Glendel states;

Were dogs and cats to be confined to small cages and only let out for an hour or two each day we would not be surprised to see more incidences of ‘behavioural’ problems in these animals. Captive birds are, by default often confined to cages for most of their lives. For parrots, over-use of small cages which may also be bereft of environmental stimulation commonly leads to stereotypical behaviours, particularly route-tracing and self-plucking (Meehan, Garner and Mench 2003). However, where birds have many hours each day out of their cages and are provided with a stimulating environment which includes facilities to forage for some foods they are far less likely to suffer behavioural problems. Without direct, physical contact with their keepers or other birds, the caged bird is, essentially in solitary confinement.

While captive parrots are commonly subjected to some or all of the above conditions (conditions which are inimical to their behavioural needs) they have a further common problem. This relates to how their keepers interact with them when they are out of the cage.

Not only are companion parrots not domesticated like cats and dogs, but they are also prey animals—as opposed to cats and dogs, which are predators. This means that parrots have a completely different view of life. Predators are on the lookout for a single potential prey. They wait patiently for their opportunity and act quickly. They eat when they are successful and do not waste energy. Prey animals, on the other hand, are constantly aware of their environment and constantly on the lookout for multiple sources of danger. They have a fast metabolism and must eat often. Their reflexes are instinctive and fast, with a well-honed fright-to-flight response. When startled, they err on the side of caution and react without thought. Parrots are always in a heightened state of awareness, as their survival depends on it. Because of this, the bird's vision is much more acute and is best described by Wikipedia;

Vision is the most important sense for birds, since good eyesight is essential for safe flight, and this group has a number of adaptations which give visual acuity superior to that of other vertebrate groups; a pigeon has been described as "two eyes with wings". The avian eye resembles that of a reptile, with ciliary muscles that can change the shape of the lens rapidly and to a greater extent than in the mammals. Birds have the largest eyes relative to their size within the animal kingdom, and movement is consequently limited within the eye's bony socket. In addition to the two eyelids usually found in vertebrates, it is protected by a third transparent movable membrane. The eye's internal anatomy is similar to that of other vertebrates, but has a structure, the pecten oculi, unique to birds.

Birds, unlike humans but like fish, amphibians and reptiles, have four types of colour receptors in the eye. These give birds the ability to perceive not only the visible range but also the ultraviolet part of the spectrum, and other adaptations allow for the detection of polarised light ormagnetic fields. Birds have proportionally more light receptors in the retina than mammals, and more nerve connections between the photoreceptors and the brain.[...]

Birds can resolve rapid movements better than humans, for whom flickering at a rate greater than 50 Hz appears as continuous movement. Humans cannot therefore distinguish individual flashes of a fluorescent light bulb oscillating at 60 Hz, but Budgerigars and chickens have flicker thresholds of more than 100 Hz. A Cooper's Hawk can pursue agile prey through woodland and avoid branches and other objects at high speed; to humans such a chase would appear as a blur.

Birds can also detect slow moving objects. The movement of the sun and the constellations across the sky is imperceptible to humans, but detected by birds. The ability to detect these movements allows migrating birds to properly orientate themselves.

To obtain steady images while flying or when perched on a swaying branch, birds hold the head as steady as possible with compensating reflexes. Maintaining a steady image is especially relevant for birds of prey.

For all birds. Even just eating and foraging is a highly involved process. Because the parrot by nature is always in a state of vigilance to avoid being eaten by predators. "[...]While moving the head, birds can focus on two images at the same time (one per eye, as eyes are placed peripherally). However, to keep track of what is going on around its head, birds move their heads very quickly.[...]" (Esteban Fernandez-Juricic Bird vision explained http://estebanfj.bio.purdue.edu/birdvision/ 2010).
 
It is essential to understand what this very important part of a parrot's telos means to a captive companion parrot. Parrots know instinctively that they must maintain awareness of their environment, that they must know where sources of food are, that they must be in contact with other parrots to share information about possible dangers, and that they must be able to flee within seconds of detecting danger. Survival is a full-time and energy-intensive endeavour which occupies the parrot from sunrise to sunset. Caged parrots have all of this energy and the instinct to use it, but no outlet. Because they are primed to deal with myriad stimuli, they are easily bored and very prone to neurotic behaviours which channel this undirected energy.
 
A parrot sees more than what humans see for all the reasons stated above. The way the parrot’s visual cortex works with neuro-pathways and the ability to integrate them with the other senses is truly remarkable. Parrots are in a much more heightened state of awareness of the nuances of their environment, of whereabouts and activities of their companions, and the emotional tone of their flock, than humans can ever comprehend. A parrot's natural state of being is survival mode. Humans cannot even begin to understand what that means.
 
Parrots, like most companion animals, are with us because of what they give us. Beyond food, water, and a clean safe place to live, we often do not consider what companion animals really need from us. This is particularly true for companion parrots. They have an absolute requirement for companionship and interaction from us. They need to be acknowledged and talked with. They need to be picked up, petted, scratched, and preened. They need to play, forage, and vocalize. Most parrots will appreciate having another parrot around, but if they have been hand raised and around people for all of their life, it is people that they identify with and people they will want to interact with. They need to be included in all aspects of family activity, because they need to feel that they are an important member of the flock.

Parrots need to be busy, and they need to remain interested enough in their environment to want to be busy. They do not switch off or go into suspended animation when humans are not around. They get anxious and bored. Companion parrots are condemned to a life which requires that they spend 70 to 90 percent of their life locked in a cage completely dependent on their caregiver. Parrots sit alone anxiously waiting for their flock to become active, and waiting to interact with the flock. Sitting alone in a quiet, sterile environment causes more stress and boredom. Sitting alone and hearing the rest of the flock going about its business, but excluding the parrot, causes more anxiety and stress. All of this boredom, angst, and pent-up energy is eventually released by developing neurotic and often self-destructive behaviours.
 
It is very difficult for a human to understand that, from a parrot's point of view, there can never be too much togetherness. This basic requirement of a parrot's telos, to never be alone, makes the task of providing the parrot with suitable living conditions nearly impossible for a caregiver. Companion parrots require a lot of simulation, both internal and external, within their own space and in all of the area that they can see; enrichment both inside and outside the cage; and activity and companionship with their favourite person. This is a huge demand on a usually time-strapped and overstimulated person who just wants to relax and do nothing.  
 
Chewable toys, foraging toys, and puzzle-type toys are essential components in the struggle to keep a companion parrot interested and busy. Background noise provided by a radio or television is also helpful, as is positioning the cage with a view to the outdoors. But these things can never and should never be a substitute for what a companion parrot really needs—and that is companionship. By giving the parrot companionship, the caregiver is giving what the parrot most wants and needs. Filling a parrot's cage with toys and leaving them to fill the day with chewing and playing by themselves, and then assuming that since they were busy all day they must be tired and not need much interaction when the caregiver comes home, is a recipe for disaster.
 
Happy, secure, self-confident parrots that get regular human interaction and attention will happily chew and play with their toys and keep themselves busy while the caretaker is away for short periods of time. For these parrots, toys are part of a full and satisfying life. However, a neglected parrot will often sit, withdrawn, uninterested, and inactive, in a cage overflowing with a variety of fun toys. These toys do not make up for the deficits in other areas of the parrot's life. A parrot soon becomes bored with toys if these are the only focus for interaction and stimulation. This is similar to a neglected child being given toys to make up for a lack of attention and love. Very soon these toys become meaningless, pointless, and unwelcome. Child—or parrot—for intelligent beings, toys do not compensate for the bleakness, unhappiness, and loneliness experienced in their life.
 
Because parrots are so intelligent and perceptive, they know when their caregiver is distracted, too busy to fully focus on them, or unwilling to interact with them in a meaningful way. Parrots are also very aware of time. They know that a day has begun and ended, and they feel the passage of time. They know when important events in their day should occur. Their day is scheduled with feeding times, alone time, time allowed out of the cage, petting times, play times, the times that the caregiver leaves and returns each day, and bedtime. They know when this schedule changes and when the caretaker devotes less time to important parrot-related activities. Parrots will not just amuse themselves with toys to fill the extra time in their day. They need and expect a certain amount of quality interaction with the caregiver every day.
 
All companion parrots already have to deal with boredom in some form just from being locked up in a cage. Boredom is a condition that companion parrots are subjected to every day and which caregivers must fight every day. Each individual parrot has varying requirements for resisting boredom, but the development of any unhealthy coping mechanisms tells the caregiver that these requirements are not being met. The caregiver must provide as much enrichment in the parrot’s environment as possible.
 
The parrot's diet should be interesting and include fresh fruit, vegetables, and a favourite treat twice daily. The parrot should be acknowledged and talked to for a few minutes in the morning before the caregiver departs for the day. Leaving a radio or television on to provide some background noise when no one is home and leaving lights on for the parrot keeps the environment from being too boring. Providing 2-4 different chewable toys, foraging toys, and puzzle toys which are changed regularly gives parrots the opportunity to amuse themselves while they are in their cage.
 
Having the parrot's cage in an area of the house where the family gathers for most of the day when they are home lets parrots feel like they are an included member of the flock. Acknowledging the parrot immediately when the caregiver comes home lets the parrot know that the wait is over. Allowing parrots out of the cage for as much time as possible every day, and spending regular, meaningful, and dedicated time with them every day, gives them something to look forward to and assures them that they are valuable members of the flock.  

We bring a companion parrot into our home as a cherished pet.  But, to a companion parrot our home is a prison.  We do not have to turn it into solitary confinement.  

 
The Tipping Point!
 
The tipping point is the breaking point. The tipping point is the moment in time when people or animals cross a certain stage of stress and their mental state changes. They snap. Once this point is reached, it becomes obvious to observers that there is a problem. The stressors that led up to this point may have been low level, long standing, and built over time, or may be a series of isolated, but very intense, events. No matter how this point is reached, once it is crossed, the problem manifests itself. This is quite possibly a point of no return where even if the stressors are removed, the person or animal is changed forever.
 
People and animals who are under an immense amount of stress and strain may experience anxiety, psychoses, neuroses, and ultimately, a complete breakdown of their ability to cope with their environment. This can be devastating and in some cases irreversible. Both people and animals rely on various coping mechanisms to help them endure the adverse effects of negative or oppressive environments that they cannot escape. The variety and effectiveness of these coping mechanisms are different for each individual, but everyone has a breaking point. This tipping point varies with each individual.
 
Some individuals seem to be able to withstand horrible treatment and conditions for very long periods of time and remain relatively unscathed. Others may succumb quickly to what appears to be minimal or innocent sources of stress. Once the tipping point is reached, the problem will be manifested in individual ways. Some may act out violently, screaming, showing unprovoked aggression, and exhibiting manic activities. Others may withdraw, lose interest in their surroundings, become depressed, and self-mutilate. Still others may exhibit a bizarre mixture of these behaviours. The trigger for these behaviours is not something that has just happened. It is something that has been happening, or often not happening, for a very long time. The individual simply cannot take it anymore.
 
Chronic boredom is probably the worst type of neglect that any sentient being has to cope with. People and animals are designed to be active throughout the day. It is an innate part of our natures, our telos, to be active and to have purpose. Animals and people need to be engaged with their environment. Unless people are in prison in solitary confinement, most will have the ability to stimulate and control their own environment in some manner. This interaction and shaping of the environment helps to alleviate stress. When there is no sense of control over the environment, stress builds, and neuroses and neurotic tendencies develop as a way of coping with the stressors. Caregivers need to understand that it is seldom what IS happening in a parrot's environment that causes stress, but what is NOT happening.
 
Companion parrots have their own telos, their natural innate instincts and urges which they need to express every day of their lives. But from the they hatch, companion parrots are unable to exercise their telos. They never learn how to be a parrot. They grow up living in a cage, imprinted on humans, usually unable to fly, and having their food brought to them instead of having to find it. And at some point in their young life they are going to have to live alone, deprived of contact with their own kind. This unnatural life, at odds with a parrot's telos, causes stress from the start.
 
This only gets worse as parrots mature and experience instinctive urges which they don't understand and have no way of satisfying. This constant frustration can be a huge stressor in a parrot's life. Captive companion parrots are entirely and forever dependent on their caregivers for every aspect of their life. This means that really good care must acknowledge the parrot's telos. The provision of a clean cage, fresh food and water daily, and toys is such a basic requirement for keeping a parrot that it cannot even be considered to constitute a minimal level of care, let alone good care. Maintaining the physical body is not enough if the spirit and the mind are allowed to decay.
 
So how does that sweet, impressionable, playful parrot fresh from the pet store or breeder and equipped with all of the paraphernalia that a parrot is supposed to need reach the fork in the road that leads to either a lifetime of happiness and good care, or a lifetime of neglect and ultimate insanity. No one buys a parrot with the intent of willful neglect or torture in mind. How does it all go so wrong? Why does it go wrong with so many parrots and so many people? What drives so many parrots past their tipping point?
 
The obvious answer of course is that parrots were never designed to be kept in cages as pets. Everything about the situation is foreign to their telos, and as they mature they begin to sense this. An important factor also is that most people do not buy a parrot to satisfy the parrot's needs, but to satisfy their own selfish desires. Little is considered past the aesthetics of the parrot and the potential fun to be had. People either don’t do enough research, or, in true human fashion, do not believe that all the warnings out there apply to them.
 
Another consideration is that most parrots from pet stores and breeders are sold as juveniles. These adorable babies are quiet, playful, and pliable. They may not differ much physically from adults, but everything else about them is different. Even with the very best care, these juvenile parrots are going to mature, they are going to have a shift in attitude, and they are going to experience raging hormones. These changes take years but they do happen. On the outside, no obvious change has occurred, but on the inside. Jekyll has turned into Mr. Hyde, and people cannot deal with this evolution. They want the parrot to stay exactly the same as the cute baby they purchased, and do not know what to do with this foreign creature that has inhabited their parrot's feathers. People often feel hurt, rejected, and betrayed by the parrot's changing attitudes, and in turn, reject the parrot.
 
What kind of commitment must a caretaker be willing and able to make in order to ensure that a parrot does not stray down the wrong fork in the road?
 
Firstly, a potential parrot caregiver must fully acknowledge that the life of a captive companion parrot, even under the most ideal circumstances, is not natural. However, these parrots cannot just be set free; in most cases they would not survive. So by taking a parrot into the home, a caregiver is attempting to make the most of a bad situation. This means that the parrot’s environment must be appropriate to the parrot's telos. This comes at the price of human convenience and desires.
 
Secondly, the potential caregiver realizes that a parrot is not a static automaton. The parrot will mature and change over the years; the needs, expectations, and alliances may change over time. This comes at the price of human ego.
 
Thirdly, the potential caregiver realizes that this commitment lasts forever. This commitment has to survive past a caregiver's lifetime, because most parrots will outlive their owners. Parrots, at some point in their life, will have to find a new home. A caregiver is responsible to ensure that the new caregivers are also willing and able to make this commitment to the parrot. How many people are willing to sublimate their desires for a parrot's happiness? 
 
A parrot’s telos induces a craving for constant physical, visual, and aural contact with others. Parrots want to touch and be touched, see and be seen, hear and be heard, from sunup to sundown. Parrots naturally want to fill their days with periods of activity and periods of rest. They will forage for food, play, chew, climb, walk, fly, preen, talk, and interact with each other, have a nap, and start again. They are prey animals and so are very curious and aware of their environment.
 
Parrots naturally have a rhythm to their life. They wake with the sun, forage for food, socialize, nap, play, watch for predators, care for their young, call the flock together at dusk to roost, and are quiet and asleep through the dark. They are hatched into a social group, are cared for by their parents, taught appropriate behaviour and survival skills, leave the nest to survive on their own, find a mate, and raise young. They are never alone, they work hard to survive, and they are never bored.
 
Captive companion parrots have the same telos as their wild cousins. In spite of living in a cage, they still sense the rhythm of the life they should lead. But the reality of their life in captivity is discordant with the natural rhythm they feel. Companion parrots are very often alone, have no need or opportunity for survival skills, and are extremely bored. Their whole life revolves around the routine and company of their caregiver. If this routine is fairly consistent and always includes the parrot, then the parrot can adjust and find a way to synchronize with the environment. But if the routine is chaotic, often excludes or isolates parrots, then there is no way for them to reconcile reality with instincts no matter how hard they try. They are pushed down the wrong fork in the road. They become anxious, stressed, and depressed. They may start to act nervous or paranoid, may scream, show aggression, become territorial around their cage, develop neurotic behaviours, or self-mutilate. The tipping point is reached.
 
Living locked in a cage is not normal for the parrot, even if this is all the parrot has ever known. The fact that parrots have to live in a cage—for their own safety as well as the safety of everything in the house—is already isolating for them. If that cage is too small, then it is also claustrophobic. If the parrot is never allowed out of the cage, then it is a prison. If that cage has limited perches and few or no toys, then the cage is a sensory deprivation chamber. If that cage is also placed in a closed room, away from family activity, then it is solitary confinement. If that cage is covered to keep the parrot quiet, then it is like gagging and blindfolding the parrot. If there is activity around the covered cage, the parrot is not sleeping; the parrot is alone, isolated, blind and mute, confused and powerless. All of these conditions are counter to a parrot's telos and any one of them can send the parrot down the road towards the tipping point. 
 
However, the fact that parrots have to live in a cage does not mean that they should be in the cage 24 hours a day, every single day of their life, even if the cage is placed so that they are involved with family activities. To most parrots, the cage is home base. It is where the parrot sleeps, eats, plays, socializes, and feels safe. If the parrot is never allowed out of the cage and encouraged to be away from the cage, then a pathological attachment develops. The parrot becomes unwilling to leave the cage and will be defensive and frightened if forced. The parrot becomes difficult to handle, is consequently left in the cage, and the problem is reinforced. The parrot doesn’t stay in the cage due to happiness with the confinement, but because the tipping point has already been reached and this is the resultant behaviour.
 
Part of a parrot's telos is to be free and active. A parrot needs regular time every day outside of the cage. This time does not have to be totally structured around human interaction, and in fact parrots should be allowed several hours to engage in whatever activities they want. It is a time for parrots to stretch or exercise their wings, to explore and forage, to chew, play, or nap. Yes, many of these activities are the same as might occur inside the cage, except that the parrot feels free and has choices.
 
It is also a time for human interaction, but this is a very small part of the total time outside the cage. If the only time a parrot is allowed out of the cage is to be handled by someone, or to be taught tricks or words, then this is perceived as forced and unwanted activity. Parrots may become resentful, resistant to interaction with the caregiver, and this "free" time outside of the cage becomes a stressor that pushes them to their tipping point. It is not that parrots do not want to interact, in fact they want to very much, but interaction is a two-way street. Parrots do not want to be dictated to, or put through their paces and dismissed. They want to have a conversation, to be heard, to elicit reactions from the caregiver other than just a "good bird" when they perform some obscure action "right".
 
Parrots differ in the amount of free time they need. But they need it regularly, every single day. Parrots will also differ in the amount and type of human interaction they require. Again, they need it regularly every single day. There is generally a fairly large gap between what parrots need every day and what they actually get. Juvenile parrots fresh from the pet store or breeder are not generally neglected or left locked in their cages. Like all babies, they are appealing. They are adorable, funny, and enjoyable to be around. They are demanding, time consuming, and want to be with the caregiver, but at this point the neediness is a novelty that is satisfying in a way.
 
Whether it takes months or years, the novelty does eventually wear off and the parrot does grow up. The parrot time commitment competes with other commitments in the caregiver's life, and the parrot is allotted less and less valuable time. The neediness is not balanced with the satisfaction of caring for a loveable fun baby, but becomes just another responsibility. Spending time with the parrot becomes more of a burden than a pleasure. The parrot senses the reduction in time with the caregiver and that the quality of the time spent is deteriorating. The parrot becomes increasingly more demanding, screaming, and even attacking the caregiver in a bid to be noticed. This behaviour results in more rejection and even less time with the caregiver. Bad behaviours escalate, an already time-strapped caregiver finds fewer reasons to want to spend time with the parrot, the cycle becomes self-perpetuating, parrot’s tipping point is reached.
 
Parrots do not understand human time commitments, family, friends, jobs, vacations, and other distractions. Parrots do not understand human illnesses, disabilities, good intentions, or plain fickleness. Even very real and legitimate reasons that a caregiver may have for not being able to spend time with the parrot are meaningless from the parrot's point of view. Parrots do not play games with time like people do. They have no concept of making up time later; lost time is lost forever. To captive parrots, whether they like it or not, that human caregiver is the source of everything, the only path to the fulfillment of their needs.
 
Captive parrots do not have other friends to visit, or somewhere else to go. They sit alone waiting for the caregiver to acknowledge them. And while some species are very vocal and will complain quickly about the change in circumstances, many react in the opposite way. They become quiet, withdrawn, disinterested, almost catatonic. Busy caregivers often do not notice these changes, or assume that the parrot is just very undemanding. The parrot is still being fed and still eating, so everything must be fine. These introverted parrots are suffering just as much as their louder, more demanding brethren. They are quietly and unnoticed stumbling down the road to their tipping point, until the day comes when the caregiver comes home to a very plucked and naked, undemanding parrot.   
 
Caregivers may also tire of the feeding routine and cut corners. They may start out offering fresh fruits and veggies, and a variety of seeds and nuts; some may even cook and bake for their parrots. Over time, however, as they watch most of their special offerings end up on the floor covered with bird poop, they feel less inclined to put so much effort into feeding that fussy, feathered ingrate. They may at first only offer foods that the parrot is inclined to eat. As the parrot gets bored with those foods, they too will end up on the floor. The amount and variety of fresh food decreases to a point where it is nonexistent. The caregiver decides that the parrot is just fussy and will have to make do with pellets and seed.
 
This makes feeding the parrot a lot easier for the caretaker, but also makes it much easier to forget to check that the pellets, seed, and water are not dirty or in need of replacing. The parrot no longer has the guaranteed time and interaction that feeding time offered, no longer has the opportunity to forage and search through different foods, and may not even have regular access to fresh pellets, seed, and water.
 
Parrots need to forage. Finding food is a daily adventure. It is normal behaviour to pick through food and find the choice bits to eat first. This may mean that everything else ends up on the ground, but it does not mean that the parrot wouldn't eat it later if given the chance. The parrot has even less to look forward to, less interaction, and may now be suffering nutritionally or may be forced to pick through old, soiled food. Since eating is no longer interesting, the parrot may resort to other activities to pass the time. The parrot is heading for the tipping point.
 
The behaviours that manifest when a parrot reaches the tipping point never just happen. They build for a long time. Caregivers are tempted to look for immediate reasons such as disease, parasites, vitamin deficiencies, changes in the environment, new this or that, but they are looking in the wrong place. They try a few things to stop the behaviour, usually to no avail, and declare it a mystery. A careful, honest look at the parrot's history will usually reveal a precipitating event or series of events that set the parrot down this path. It may be difficult for the caregiver to accept, because these events usually reveal a decline or lack in proper care and attention, rather than some horrible catastrophic experience in the parrot's life.
 
Because of their disfiguring and alarming appearance, feather plucking and self-mutilation may be the most apparent neurotic behaviours, but they certainly are not the only ones. Parrots may chew their feathers (similar to nail biting in humans), over preen, become cage bound, exhibit repetitive movements such as circling, screaming, eating or playing with their feces, constantly chewing the cage bars, sitting for long periods of time in a catatonic state, banging their beaks excessively against the cage bars, pacing, and excessive biting and unprovoked aggressiveness. These are not just some weird things that the parrot does. These are behaviours that developed because a parrot’s cries for help went unheeded—and the parrot snapped.
 
There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of parrots languishing in cages (most not large enough for the parrot) in North America. These are parrots that have not been let out of the cage for any social interaction, emotional bonding, playtime, or to even to feel like they are a part of the family, for a very long time. At best, they are an afterthought. As sad as that fact may be, the real tragedy is that parrots are considered mere commodities. Many parrot owners refuse to re-home the parrot or give the parrot to a shelter, even though they themselves have lost interest in the parrot and are barely providing adequate care. Many have been ignoring the parrot for so long that the idea of re-homing does not occur to them. Some are too lazy to try to find a new home for the parrot. In some cases, parrots are in such bad shape that they aren't worth what the owner paid for them. Many of the reasons, such as, "It's my property to do with what I will" or, "I can't live without it" or, "I'm not going to just give it away" are plain selfish.
 
Most of the cruelty that is inflicted on companion animals is unintentional and done out of ignorance. Most companion animal caregivers do not go out of their way to inflict physical, emotional, or psychological pain on their pets. But ignorance does not excuse the fact that companion animal caregivers don't understand the complexities and dynamics of the pet that they choose to care for. Much harm is caused by good intentions and too little knowledge. A parrot owner has ultimate control over every aspect of the animal's life and destiny.  

"Are you loving your parrot the way you want to love them? Or the way they want and need to be loved?" Bird Tricks Dec.12 2012


Re-Writing A Parrot's Brain

Most neglected or abused parrots can be rehabilitated and will recover to a certain extent if given a chance. Like people, a parrot's life experience is part of who they are and cannot be undone; but how they live in the present and for the rest of their life can be changed. Some parrots will need only a few weeks or a few months of rehabilitation, because the difficulties they endured were not overly severe and did not last very long. They may have just reached their tipping point.
 
Other parrots will have had decades of neglect and/or abuse, usually at the hands of more than one caregiver and in many different homes. These parrots are well past their tipping point, their minds have changed, and their behaviours are ingrained. They may be so withdrawn that another change in their environment or another new caregiver makes no impression on them. Their issues are long standing and severe. And it may take several months or even many years to rehabilitate them, for them to learn to trust and to engage with their environment again. A few may ultimately decide that they have no desire at all to interact in a meaningful way with humans ever again. These parrots often do not interact well with other parrots either. For these lonely few, we can only hope to halt the decline by ensuring that the remainder of their life is as free of stressors as possible. 
 
Every parrot that comes from a background of neglect or abuse, whether it was physical, emotional, or psychological, and whether it was intentional or unintentional, will have a different story to tell. There is a wide variety of parrot species popular as pets, and while all parrots share common characteristics, each species has evolved unique characteristics designed to fit into its own natural environment. Also, each individual parrot within a species will have its own personality and its own way of coping with stress. This means that while certain species may be more prone to developing certain neuroses and neurotic behaviours, not every individual will display these behaviours, even when subjected to stress.
 
It is true as well that just because a species is not known for certain behaviours, that an individual of that species may show these behaviours given the right situation. Whatever the expectation of the species, the reality that has to be dealt with is that the individual is exhibiting neurotic coping behaviours and this is due to some stressors in their environment. If those stressors are not recognized and acknowledged, and if they are not removed or changed, then those neurotic coping behaviours will become ingrained. These behaviours become part of the parrot's personality and the normal behaviour when stress is encountered. Although these behaviours often hurt the parrot physically, they also calm the mind. This is similar to people who hurt themselves with substance abuse or cutting as a way to cope. These behaviours are difficult to eradicate because they serve a purpose, they are effective, and they are self-reinforcing.
 
Brains are not static. Neuroplasticity is the term used to describe the changes to neural pathways and synapses which occur in the brain in response to changes in behaviour, environment, and physical injury. An animal's experiences result in changes to both the physical structure of the brain and its functional organization. They change in response to stimuli or a lack of stimuli. Brains change as an organism ages, as it learns, and as it responds to pain and stress. It is accepted in psychology that brains have plasticity and that this adaptability of the brain's structure is influenced by the experiences of the organism.
 
Chronic physical pain, ongoing physical or psychological stress, constant fear, sensory deprivation, boredom, and an unstable environment where the organism has no control are among the experiences that alter the brain in a negative fashion. Learning, puzzle solving, visual and auditory stimuli, positive physical interaction, exercise, and a stable, interesting environment that the organism has influence over precipitate positive changes in the brain. These changes do not occur instantly, but develop over time. The brain cannot grow new brain cells to replace those that die. It does, however, develop new connections between the remaining cells, which can allow the animal to regain lost functions. The brain does not return to some pre-set correct architecture and function; it will be permanently changed. It is not enough to just stop a stimulus that has a negative effect in order to change the brain. An animal must unlearn negative behaviours and relearn positive ones.
 
So a parrot's brain will be permanently changed by the environment it is in. In an abusive or neglectful environment, the stress that the parrot experiences will result in changes to both the structure and the chemistry of the brain. These changes will be manifested as neurotic, obsessive-compulsive behaviours. The changes to the brain will alter the manner in which the parrot reacts to any stress in the future. Once this process starts, it will take a positive intervention to change it. Although the parrot's behaviours and attitudes may be improved by replacing negative stimuli with positive ones, the parrot will never truly be the same as before it experienced the negative effects of the bad environment, and there is a risk of the parrot reverting back to the neurotic behaviours with little provocation.
 
To rehabilitate a parrot fully, the parrot must unlearn the coping mechanisms developed in its need to survive the boredom, anxiety, and stresses of its life. This is called rewriting a parrot’s brain. Someone who is in the process of rehabilitating a parrot and trying to lessen or eliminate neuroses, neurotic behaviours, and aggressiveness, is attempting to rewrite the parrot's brain to allow it to function more normally. The rewriting of the brain happens only as an effect of a very slow, progressive rehabilitation process that is dependent on the parrot's trust in its caregiver and willingness to interact with the caregiver. This happens in the parrot's own time and no amount of good intentions, reading, researching, training, or cajoling on the part of the caregiver will heal the parrot. This process is all about the parrot, and not human ego.
 
The parrot does not immediately realize that life will be better or that the new caregiver is responsible for this potentially better life. They are not grateful—they are wary. The parrot must be allowed the opportunity to observe and interact with a positive environment that speaks to the parrot's telos. At this point, the caregiver is simply one more natural part of the environment. As the parrot becomes interested in the possibilities of the new environment and begins to explore the freedoms offered, they slowly come back to life. As they regain confidence in themselves and their place in the world, they have less need for their coping mechanisms. They display fewer neuroses and neurotic behaviours. They learn to trust again and at this point may decide to develop a relationship with the caregiver. 
 
The process of healing for a parrot that was lacking proper care takes time and a GREAT deal of patience on the part of the caregiver. The caregiver must consider the process from the parrot’s point of view. Caregivers who are attempting to rehabilitate a parrot seldom know the whole story behind the neurotic mess they are dealing with. They may not be aware of the extent of the problems or the real timeline. So they have to rely on what the parrot tells them.
 
Even a happy and well-adjusted parrot will be scared and stressed by being introduced to a new environment, new handlers, new rules (whether they are positive or negative), different food (again whether it's positive or negative), and possibly having other parrots around. Even if the parrot is quarantined, it will still hear the other parrots in the background and this may be either a positive or negative experience at first. A damaged parrot will find these events extremely difficult to deal with. Any change will be stressful. Any stress, whether positive or negative, can trigger the parrot’s neurotic coping behaviours. The parrot needs time to adjust to the stress in the present before damage caused by the stress in the past can be addressed.
 
Regardless of the degree of neglect or abuse the parrot has experienced, the parrot needs to feel safe from the first moment they arrive in their new home, or in a sanctuary or shelter. But they also need to start with a clean slate. The new environment must include a different cage from the one that they had been living in. The new cage should include different perches, toys, and bowls. This removes any old associations or triggers from the past and lets the parrot understand that the dynamics of the environment are different. The parrot should be kept in the cage for the first 24 to 48 hours so that they can become accustomed to the cage and feel safe. They can observe the routine, people, and other pets that are part of their new environment from a safe vantage point. This time also allows the new caregiver to observe the parrot before attempting to interact with it. 
 
The caregiver must understand that the first 24 to 48 hours in a new environment will be the most stressful time for the parrot. Everything must be done to allow the parrot to feel safe. The parrot should not be the centre of attention or be treated with special care. The caregiver should have an attitude of nonchalance and make the parrot feel that it unquestioningly belongs in the environment. The parrot must be treated with respect and be allowed to interact with the caregiver in its own way and in its own time. Attention should not be forced on the parrot, but the caregiver must be observant and willing to respond quietly to any overtures the parrot may make.
 
The caregiver is attempting to set the stage for a new type of relationship for the parrot, one which respects the parrot's space and preferences, which allows the parrot to have a say and be heard. This does not mean that the caregiver is complacent or submissive to the parrot, but rather is simply trying to convey to the parrot that they are beginning a new phase of their life with new rules of engagement and that their old behaviours are not needed anymore. Only when the parrot indicates that it is willing to try can the caregiver begin to help the parrot to develop healthier behaviours.
 
If the parrot is aggressive in any way the caregiver must take the time to study the triggers and targets of the parrot's aggression. This is generally just another form of coping mechanism, but the caregiver does not want to be hurt by the parrot or reinforce the behaviour by showing fear. Depending on the parrot's history, aggression may have been its only way of communicating with its owner or its only means of expression. The behaviour may be long standing and done out of habit, like any other maladaptive behaviour.
 
The caregiver must not take the aggression personally and must treat the parrot with respect and patience. By observing the aggression dispassionately, the caregiver will begin to notice slight nuances in the parrot's behaviour that indicate the parrot is starting to realize things have changed. The tone of the aggression will change subtly as the parrot begins to understand that the caregiver is not a threat and the old triggers are no longer relevant. Any new avenues of communication that the parrot may initiate will still be layered with aggression, as this has become part of their personality. 
 
The diminishing of negative behaviours and the establishment of more positive behaviours takes time, reinforcement, and will happen at the parrot's own pace. A caregiver should never assume that the parrot is fully rehabilitated at the first positive signs. This is only the beginning. Like any maladaptive or addictive behaviour, the chance of backsliding is greater than the chance of continued progress. Rehabilitation is never a smooth process, but an erratic one of a few steps forward and a few steps back.
 
The caregiver must reinforce positive behaviours, avoid inadvertently reinforcing the negative behaviours or creating new ones, and never force or rush the process. The caregiver must always listen to the parrot and be willing to backtrack or find a new approach if things start to go badly. The caregiver must always determine that what they think they are teaching the parrot is the same thing as what the parrot is actually learning. Each and every behaviour a parrot exhibits reflects a change in the parrot's brain.
 
Rehabilitation is usually easier when the parrot is in a completely new environment with a new caregiver. The old environment is eliminated and any old triggers and associations are removed. The parrot has no relationship with the new caregiver and the caregiver has no reflexive responses to the parrot. It is an entirely new start for the parrot. While rehabilitating a parrot in the original environment and by the original caregiver is not impossible, it is not easy either.
 
This is because two brains need to be rewritten: the parrot's and the owner's. Both need to abandon the old way of relating to each other and find a new way of communicating. Both need to agree to wipe the slate clean and begin again. Both have to admit to past mistakes and really want to change. Anyone who has been in a relationship for a long time knows how difficult this is, how built in and automatic the responses to the other individual are, how easy it is to push each other's buttons, and how nearly impossible it is to change one's behaviour for the sake of the relationship. It is no different between a parrot and its owner.
 
If the original owner is initiating the rehabilitation process for the good of the parrot, to allow the parrot to live a better life, and not just because they want the parrot to behave in a certain way; and if the original owner can abandon ego, admit to past mistakes, absolve the parrot of any responsibility for the current situation, and be honestly willing to change and do what the parrot needs from this point forward, then there is a chance. There is a long process of healing, forgiveness, and trust building to go through before the owner will even know if rehabilitation is possible. The scars may be too thick and the wounds too deep for the parrot to risk trusting the owner ever again.
 
By attempting rehabilitation, we are asking a traumatized parrot to give up the coping mechanisms that it developed to survive an impossible, unescapable situation. We are asking the parrot to expose itself to possible disappointment, emotional turmoil, and psychological pain. This is difficult enough to do with people who are able to understand that they are being helped. It is very difficult to convince a damaged parrot to try again, to allow itself to leave its comfort zone, to rewrite the parrot's brain to expect to relate in a positive way with the environment. The protective wall that the parrot has built to protect itself from further harm has to be brought down carefully one brick at a time.

"[...] It is not the act of kindness to treat animals respectfully. It is an act of justice. It is not "the sentimental interests" of moral agents that grounds our duties of justice to children, the retarded, the senile, or other moral patients, including animals. It is the respect for their inherent value. The myth of the privileged moral status of moral agents has no clothes. [...]" (Tom Regan; The Animal Ethics Reader 2nd Edition 2008).




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2012-2019