Jacque Johnson, Parrot Garden Manager at Best Friends

I did a rather unusual interview with Bird Lovers Only Founder, Irena Schulz a few weeks ago. I sent her a series of phrases that were the beginning of a statement. All she had to do was finish the sentence. Irena was a trooper and despite the fact that it’s harder than it looks, she finished all of the sentences and provided a very revealing interview without my ever asking her a thing. Here is that interview: Interview With Irena Schulz.

Well, it was so well-received, I decided to send it to various people to see what they did with it. And now it’s my friend Jacque’s turn. Jacque put up with my digging around, video shots and asking questions all day long during my visit to the Best Friends Society in Kanab, Utah last September. She was a wonderful host and is the brilliant Manager of the “Parrot Garden” at Best Friends.  The following are her responses to the beginning of a sentence shown in red:

A day doesn’t go by… that I’m not thankful for an opportunity to do something I love for an unbelievable organization in one of the most beautiful locations in the United States! Not everyone is lucky enough to work for an organization that they believe in 100%. And living in the “Golden Circle”, surrounded by National Parks (Zion, Grand Canyon, Grand Staircase Escalante, Pink Coral Sands) isn’t too hard to take either!

I never thought… I’d have an opportunity to live out my dream. For most of my adult life I did what was expected of me. I raised my family and went to work at the same job for 20+ years. After that many years of living in the same place and doing the same thing day after day, life had become a little stale. Having the opportunity to move to Utah and work towards the Best Friends goal of “No More Homeless Pets” has re-energized and motivated me.

Before I worked at… Best Friends, I worked for the South Dakota Department of Social Services for 20+ years. There are some remarkable similarities between Social Work and Animal Rescue work. Both require you to make decisions that affect other’s lives. Both require you to have a basic concern for the wellbeing of others. And both allow you to work miracles on a shoestring!

Just a few of the Parrot Garden Adoptions Last Year.

Sometimes…I get overwhelmed by sheer size of the parrot problem. Although parrots have become increasingly popular as pets (numbers are estimated to be just behind dogs and cats), the number of rescues/sanctuaries available for their care has not kept pace. There are a limited number of placement options for parrots. And there are untold numbers of birds looking for a place to land. I get daily calls and emails asking us to take birds that we don’t have space for. It is heartbreaking to have to tell people “no” when they are desperate to place their companions in safe, loving environments. Because parrots have such a long life-span, this problem is just going to continue to get worse.

Wendy hard at work with a cockatoo getting ambient attention.

The thing about…parrots is that they require such specialized care. However, there are few opportunities for people to find out about their needs. Even for professionals, there are not many continuing education opportunities. Because of the long life span of parrots, they are not popular for scientific studies (which require multiple generations to adequately complete a study)…..which translates to little or no on-going research. Even Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s groundbreaking longitudinal study on the intelligence of African Grey Parrots has had continued problems with funding. These creatures are just too complex and too long-lived to make good study subjects.

King O: The Soprano Soloist at the Parrot Garden!

We try to…educate, educate, educate. I’m not just concerned about the birds in our care, but also all the ones that are living in loving homes where the owners want to do the right thing, but they don’t know what that is. One of the major goals of the Parrot Garden is to make sure that every person we come in contact with leaves us with some very basic, very important information:

• Parrots are wild animals. They are NOT domesticated pets like dogs or cats. Many of the behaviors that make them successful in the wild can cause them to be re-homed in captivity. Parrots are loud, messy and destructive. Parrots can bite. Hard.

• Seed diets are unhealthy and can kill your bird in the long run. A seed diet is like fast food. You can live on it, but how healthy are you going to be? A pelleted diet with lots of fresh vegetables is necessary for a happy, healthy bird.

• Inappropriate handling will damage your human/bird relationship. It can result in a mate bond, which is harmful to the emotional well-being of a bird. (Humans make lousy mates for parrots.) A healthy relationship is based on companionship and respect. The easiest way to make sure your relationship doesn’t cross the line is to keep physical contact above the shoulders. Parrots only touch each other on the body when they are going to breed.

• Parrots are remarkably intelligent and social. To have a happy bird, you must make them part of your family or “flock”. They cannot spend their lives in a cage…they need to be part of your everyday life. Parrots actually require more time and effort than almost any other “pet”. If you don’t have the time to give them, please don’t adopt them.

• There are hundreds of birds looking for homes. Contrary to popular belief, rescue birds do not necessarily have behavioral issues. Sometimes they are only looking for homes because they have out-lived their humans. When you adopt an older bird, you don’t have to worry about how the bird will act once it reaches sexual maturity. What you see is what you get. Parrots are remarkably adaptable and most are just happy to find a new family to bond with.

It’s all about…the birds. Everything we do, every dollar we spend, every person we visit with….is all for the birds. The sign that hangs in the Parrot Garden kitchen sums it up best: “Choice..it’s their right and our responsibility”. At the end of the day, I have to ask myself, “What did we do to make things better today?”

Nothing beats…the feeling you get when you see a person and a parrot make a connection. We call it the thunderbolt. That instant connection that is so incredibly powerful. When a bird looks in a person’s eyes and the person knows they’ve been selected. There is an overwhelming sense of being unworthy and a determination to rise to the challenge. Every time I see it happen, I’m in awe. That’s one of the things that makes me love this job!

Sometimes your gut tells you…that something is just not right. Parrots are a prey species, and as such they hide any sign of illness or injury. You have to be somewhat intuitive to keep on top of what’s going on. If you wait for concrete symptoms, it’s often too late. We also have to be able to sense a bird’s comfort level in order to find the best possible placement for a high quality of life. Some birds like flights, some like cages. Some like to go outside to the garden cages. Some don’t. And until they decide to start telling us in words what they prefer, we have to rely on body language and yes, our gut instinct.

I’ve never regretted…throwing my lot in with Best Friends Animal Society. This is an organization that definitely walks the walk. Best Friends believes in the sanctity of all life. (Even the uninvited field mice are live-trapped and relocated!) Best Friends embraces volunteers and visitors every single day of the year. Each person that comes here leaves knowing that they can make a difference in their own part of the world. There is something very special about being part of something so much bigger than myself. It allows me to truthfully say that I do make a difference.

Patricia, Jacque and Wendy