Sheltering Homeless Parrots

Cummings School alum takes on the tricky job of running a sanctuary for wild birds that have been raised as pets
parrot at sanctuary
“Once you see these curious, intelligent, highly social animals in the wild, you would never think you should keep them in your home,” says Danika Oriol-Morway. Photo: Peter Gumaskas
December 11, 2015

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On the site of a former chicken egg and meat production farm, a nonprofit rescue and adoption service for mistreated and unwanted pet parrots has created something extraordinary.

The New England Exotic Wildlife Sanctuary offers a safe, permanent home for hundreds of birds. Within the 25,000-square-foot facility in Hope Valley, Rhode Island, more than 60 spacious indoor and outdoor aviaries accommodate natural bird behaviors like flight, foraging, play and social bonding. The sanctuary, a service of Foster Parrots, also offers local and national educational programs, student internship programs and an adoption center.

Tufts Now recently took a tour of the sanctuary with its director, Danika Oriol-Morway, who earned a master’s degree in animals and public policy from Cummings School in May.

Tufts Now: Why did these parrots end up here?

Danika Oriol-Morway: Many birds outlive their caretakers. Green-winged macaws have a lifespan of 80 to 100 years. Amazon parrots live 60 to 80 years. Even smaller birds, like African grey parrots, live to around 60. If I were to adopt a young macaw right now, it would probably outlive me, and I’m only 30. Although it’s hard to know how many pet parrots there are in the U.S., experts put their number at anywhere from about 8 million to 20 million birds. On average we get requests to take in one or two birds a day.

The other reason birds end up here is that they are failed family pets. That isn’t surprising, because parrots are wild animals. It’s hard to offer them a life of safety, comfort and freedom given that they are wired for a life outside, not in a cage. They need space. They need to fly. They need stimulation.

“How do we get people to love something as it is, living in its proper context, without the need to make it their own?” asks Danika Oriol-Morway. Photo: Peter GumaskasPerhaps most important, parrots are wired to have a mate—and to live in pair bonds. But in a home, you most often see a parrot by itself in a cage. Parrots can form that relationship with a person. They bond to that person really deeply, and that intense attachment is what many people love about parrots. But people work or even just leave the house on occasion. For the parrot left behind, that isolation can be devastating.

So when all these physical, emotional, intellectual and psychological needs cannot be met in captivity, you start seeing behaviors most owners won’t tolerate in their homes.

What are some of those bad behaviors?

A big one is screeching. It’s very hard on the ears, so owners shush them—and now the parrot knows to screech at the top of its lungs to get attention.  

Some birds are just so attached to their person they can’t handle being alone for a minute. They may squawk constantly, attack people or destroy property.

We have a lot of birds here that self-mutilate by plucking out all their feathers or in some cases actually do serious injury to themselves, which happens rarely in the wild. There isn’t a clear understanding of what causes them to self-mutilate. Many people consider it a compulsive behavior that is often linked to stress, a lack of stimulation or a lifetime of neglect—some of our birds previously had never been out of a cage larger than a square foot.

We try our best to rehab these animals. Sometimes that means finding the bird a mate, integrating it into an aviary with other birds or slowly increasing the cage size. But once self-mutilating starts, it’s often very hard to stop.

How do you care for the parrots at the sanctuary?

We aim to get each animal as close to a natural life as is possible in captivity, given that particular bird’s personality and history. Our hope is that each parrot will enjoy a spacious aviary with continual access to the outdoors and the companionship of either other birds or people.

But we often have to take it day by day and bit by bit. We have some parrots that only want to interact with other birds, parrots that just want to be with people and will never form natural relationships with other birds, and some parrots that are completely phobic about open spaces after spending their entire lives in a cage.

We pay a lot of attention to enrichment activities for the birds. Getting outside provides the best, most dynamic environment. Parrots love the rain; it encourages them to preen. Bert, our enormous hyacinth macaw, went out in a huge storm the other day and got completely soaked. When he came back in, he fluffed himself up and walked around with his wings spread out until he was dry.

What’s it like running such a big operation, with more than 400 birds in your care?

We have seven staff members and about 30 volunteers, all of whom spend the bulk of their time directly caring for the animals. All our parrots enjoy a fresh, handmade salad every day with ingredients like beets, kale, celery, apples, carrots, summer squash, beans, pasta and grapes. They also receive a medley of seeds and nuts, both in and out of the shell. Right now we wash all their dishes by hand; that’s about 1,000 dishes a day. Thankfully, someone donated a commercial dishwasher that will soon be installed.

We are creating new aviaries, too, and a large geriatric ward. We have a group of senior animals, and some have balance problems, others vision problems. We are working on setting them up with a special aviary that has low and ground perches, as well as other environmental modifications suited to these animals’ particular physical limitations.

Do you have any thoughts about why people would want to keep wild animals like parrots as pets?

Parrots are in this very bizarre place. They’re considered companion animals, categorized right next to cats and dogs. But they’re wild animals. So they serve as a great platform for initiating conversations with people about our relationships with wild animals. What do we get out such relationships? What are the animals’ needs, and are they being met?

It’s human nature to be drawn to other species because of their unique abilities, beauty or character, or because, in our minds, they seem to represent freedom. How do we get people to love something as it is, living in its proper context, without the need to make it their own?   

Have you seen parrots in the wild?

I went to Costa Rica recently. We work with a conservation group there called Hatched to Fly Free. When I saw scarlet macaws flying and playing in the rainforest for the first time, I started crying. Once you see these curious, intelligent, highly social animals in the wild, you would never think you should keep them in your home.

It gave me a new perspective on sanctuary work. Our job is to offer the birds something as close as possible to that life in the rainforest. We’ll never really come close, but I hold what I got to see in the back of my mind to push me to give our birds more freedom, more nest space, real relationships.

This sounds like difficult work—what keeps you going?

We recently got Magoo, a cockatoo that was among nine birds rescued from a terrible Texas breeding ranch in 2010. We suspect Magoo was kept in a small box for most of his life. He had advanced cataracts in both eyes and was completely defenseless due to being completely blind. Through the collective effort of our veterinarian and supporters, we were able to get one cataract corrected.

But despite gaining vision in one eye, Magoo was still incredibly phobic and spent most of his time inside a box in a cage. We kept his box in that cage for a while, then moved that cage into an aviary. We finally took the box out of the cage and set it directly in the aviary. All of us were holding our breath. Was he going to freak out?

This morning I came in, and Magoo was climbing on a wire up on top of a treetop. This is a bird that’s never left his box—now he’s finally acting like a bird, foraging and exploring. That’s why I do this.

Genevieve Rajewski can be reached at genevieve.rajewski@tufts.edu.

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