Last week, I got a call from another bird lover and rescuer, about a 42 year old “cockatiel” who was going to be euthanized for being a “naughty” bird who liked to escape from her cage, scream, and bite. If we could convince her owner to surrender her, would I take her? Yes! I love older birds, and birds with issues. But it wouldn’t be that easy. Her owner, “Mary”, had had her for 32 years. She said she knew her better than anyone, and she was convinced she should put her bird to sleep. Mary was adamant in her decision and the date was set: September 7th, 2018. She didn’t want her to go to a rescue, she didn’t trust them, and she had her mind set on euthanizing her bird. I had to do something. I found out later that she wasn’t a cockatiel, but a cockatoo, one of the most commonly surrendered species of birds in rescues around the country, but that didn’t change a thing.
I talked to my friend who referred me, and I talked to the vet who was supposed to euthanize the bird. The vet said she wouldn’t do it, because despite the bird’s behavioral issues, this was a healthy animal. However, she was worried that Mary would just go and find another vet to do it if we pushed too hard. We couldn’t give up though, not with a life at stake. The vet said she’d try to talk to Mary and try to get her to relinquish the bird. So I waited, fingers and toes crossed, until she contacted me again.
And she did, a couple of days later, after talking to Mary once more. Mary’s vet was a wonderful, compassionate woman, and she said she’d tried convincing Mary several times to get her to change her mind, but Mary wouldn’t budge. Her vet was frustrated, and I could feel the love and concern she had for this bird through the phone line. The only light at the end of the tunnel was that Mary agreed to talk to me on the phone. Only me. Before hanging up, her vet wished me good luck, and I had a feeling I would need it.
I waited until the next day to call Mary. I needed to think about what I was going to say, because there was, quite literally, a life hanging on the line. No pressure, right? I was so nervous, I dialed the wrong number four times. When I finally got Mary on the line, I met a woman who was sharp, concerned about her bird, and utterly convinced that death would be better than rehoming her. She asked me a hundred questions and came up with a hundred reasons why it wouldn’t work. Patiently, I countered them, and gave her the opportunity to explain who she was and her relationship with her bird. It took me over an hour, but she finally said we could try it, I could come over and pick up “Sugar.” It would be almost a three hour drive, but I couldn’t wait.
Doubts flew through my mind. Was I strong enough? Was I smart enough? Was I experienced enough in rescue? Was I articulate enough to convince a person who’d had her bird for so long, not to do what she was determined to do? I felt so unprepared; there were a million more experienced and better people who should be handling this but no, Mary only wanted to talk to me. I felt this overwhelming pressure that if I screwed this up, Sugar’s death would be on my hands, and that it would be something I would live with for the rest of my life.
The next morning, my phone rang at 6:30. I missed the call, but the person left a message. It was Mary. She wanted to back out. I was devastated. I felt like I failed Sugar, this bird I hadn’t even met, this apparently mean and vindictive creature who destroyed homes, ruined marriages, and attacked people at whim, whose raucous cry could be heard miles away. But I couldn’t give up. I called Mary back. She was afraid I wouldn’t be able to give Sugar a good life and had reasoned to herself that euthanasia was still the better option. How bleak must her view of rescue be, that putting an animal to sleep is better than letting it live? But I pressed on, and half an hour later, she once agreed to let me come meet Sugar. Even though I was four hours early, I hopped in the car and started to drive, determined not to let this bird that I hadn’t even met down.
By the time I pulled up to Mary’s house, my nerves were in a frenzy and my mind in a jumble. I drove past her house four times before I finally realized the address numbers in my head were juxtaposed and thus, incorrect. But as soon as I pulled to a stop in front of the house, I knew I was in the right place. Outside, a black, rectangular parrot cage sat empty, devoid of perches, a chain of half chewed wooden blocks strung on a chain swinging gently in the breeze. Sugar’s cage.
Mary was in her eighties, a sweet woman and especially spry for her age, and just about as nervous as I was. She led me inside, past a huge round cage housing an African Grey, to a small brass- barred box, where a little white and pink fluffy bird with long toe nails and a nervous head bob announced, “Hi, bird friend,” in a high-pitched, girly voice. Her little crest went up and I could swear she recognized me and knew what I was there for.
Over the next half an hour, Sugar pulled out all the stops, as if she too, knew, that this was her last chance. She sang, she danced, she laughed, and then she squawked, the noise her owner couldn’t stand, which really wasn’t all that bad compared to another of our parrots. Mary tried her best to convince me how bad Sugar was. She bit people, a lot. She escaped her cage and tore up the house at every turn. She didn’t like other birds or pets. She screamed. She woke the house up at 5:00 for breakfast and wouldn’t stop until she got it. She wouldn’t go to sleep unless it was completely dark, and she had her music box on. If you looked her in the eye, she’d attack, only stopping when blood (yours) had been spilled. None of it mattered. I listened as Mary repeated how bad she was over and over again, I took notes about Sugar’s likes and dislikes, and then we loaded up her cage, which was so small we didn’t even need to take it apart, put her travel cage in the front seat, and said good bye to the only home Sugar had known for over three decades.
Sugar was supposed to die on September 7th, 2018, but we cancelled that appointment. Instead, she got breakfast, two new foraging toys, some crinkly paper and cardboard to destroy, and a radio playing classical music to keep her company. She has friends, my other birds, whom she talks to non-stop, and a big bay window from which she likes to people watch. She loves singing, and dancing, and acting like an eagle with her wings outspread and her head bobbing up and down. She enjoys climbing off of her cage and exploring if she thinks I’m not watching and stealing treats from the food cart in the bird room. She loves baths and playing and yes, she does love showing me how quickly she can escape her cage, but that’s okay. She’s alive, and she’s happy, and she’s never going anywhere, ever again. And that’s a promise.