8-23: Parrots and PTSD (1/7)

A relative passed along this serious article from the New York Times. Due to length, I will post it in seven installments.

What Does a Parrot Know About PTSD?

An unexpected bond between damaged birds and traumatized veterans could reveal surprising insights into animal intelligence.

By CHARLES SIEBERTJAN. 28, 2016

Nearly 30 years ago, Lilly Love lost her way. She had just completed her five-year tour of duty as an Alaska-based Coast Guard helicopter rescue swimmer, one of an elite team of specialists who are lowered into rough, frigid seas to save foundering fishermen working in dangerous conditions. The day after she left active service, the helicopter she had flown in for the previous three years crashed in severe weather into the side of a mountain, killing six of her former crewmates. Devastated by the loss and overcome with guilt, Love chose as her penance to become one of the very fishermen she spent much of her time in the Coast Guard rescuing. In less than a year on the job, she nearly drowned twice after being dragged overboard in high seas by the hooks of heavy fishing lines.

Love would not formally receive a diagnosis of severe post-traumatic stress disorder for another 15 years. In that time, she was married and divorced three times, came out as transgender and retreated periodically to Yelapa, Mexico, where she lived in an isolated cabin accessible only by water. She eventually ended up living on a boat in a Los Angeles marina, drinking heavily and taking an array of psychotropic drugs that doctors at the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration Medical Center began to prescribe with increasing frequency as Love proved resistant to traditional treatments like counseling and group therapy. One night, after her fifth stay in the center’s psych ward, she crashed her boat into a sea wall. Finally, in 2006, she was in the veterans’ garden and happened to catch sight of the parrots being housed in an unusual facility that opened a year earlier on the grounds of the center.

‘‘This place is why I’m still here,’’ Love, now 54, told me one day last summer as I watched her undergo one of her daily therapy sessions at the facility, known as Serenity Park, a name that would seem an utter anomaly to anyone who has ever been within 200 yards of the place.

Inside one mesh-draped enclosure, Julius, a foot-high peach-white Moluccan cockatoo with a pink-feathered headdress, was madly pacing, muttering in the native tongue of the Korean woman who, along with her recently deceased husband, had owned him. Next door, a nearly three-foot-tall blue-and-gold macaw named Bacardi, abandoned by a truck driver who was spending too much time on the road, kept calling out for someone named Muffin, before abruptly rising up and knocking over his tray of food to surrounding squawks of delight. Across the way, Pinky, a Goffin’s cockatoo, the castoff of a bitter custody battle between his original female owner and the husband who threatened to spite her by cutting off her beloved pet’s wings, was mimicking a blue jay’s high-pitched power-saw plaint. More screams rang out and then, in the ensuing silences, random snippets of past conversations: ‘‘Hey, sweetheart!’’ ‘‘Whatever.’’ ‘‘Oh, well.’’ ‘‘Whoa! C’mon man!’’ Soon, from a far corner, came the whistling, slow and haunted, of the theme from ‘‘Bridge on the River Kwai.’’

‘‘They had me loaded up on so many kinds of medications, I was seeing little green men and spiders jumping out of trees,’’ Love continued, as a six-inch-tall female caique parrot from the Amazon Basin named Cashew dutifully paced across her shoulders. Back and forth she went, from one side to the other, in determined, near- circular waddles.

For the next 10 minutes, Love, her eyes closed, her arms still at her sides, continued to engage in one of the many daily duets she does with each one of Serenity Park’s winged residents, listing her shoulders up and down like a gently rocking ship, Cashew’s slow, feather-light paddings all the while putting Love further at ease. Now and again, Cashew would pause to give a gentle beak-brush of Love’s neck and ear, and then crane her head upward toward Love’s mouth to receive a couple of kisses. She made a few more passes, back and forth, then abruptly climbed atop Love’s head. Smiling broadly, Love let her loll around up there on her back for a time, Cashew using the same upward scooping wing flaps that caiques employ to bathe on wet rain-forest leaves.

In the wild, caiques, diminutive dollops of luminous yellow, white and deep blue-green, fly in huge, tightly knit flocks whose collective wing feathers make a singular whirring sound above the rain-forest canopy. Cashew, however, for reasons unknown, had her wings overclipped by her former owner, who had bought her as a pet and then abandoned her. So each day now, Love helps her learn how to take to the air again.

The flight lessons are usually administered at the end of Love’s daily rounds. Each morning at dawn, she arrives at Serenity Park from her boat at the marina. For the next four to five hours, she, like the six other veterans in the work-therapy program there, brings food and water to the parrots, cleans their cages and nuzzles and coos and talks and squawks with them. Love, by far the most animated of the veterans that I met at the park, flits from enclosure to enclosure, miming each bird’s movements, mimicking their individual voices and attitudes and, as with Cashew, tries to restore what was taken from them.

She had only to say her student’s name once that day and Cashew was upright in Love’s right palm, a knowing head tilt signaling her readiness. Love set Cashew on a nearby perch and with the thumb and forefinger of both hands took hold of each wing by the tip and moved them up and down a few times as though priming a pump. She then extended an index finger, held Cashew briefly aloft and with a quick thrust upward let her fall free. Some frantic flailing quickly morphed into firmer flaps, Cashew’s wings finally gathering just enough air for her to gain the netting on the far side of her large mesh home. ‘‘You see,’’ Love said, beaming. “She can actually go a little distance.”

Taking hold of Cashew once again, she cupped her against her cheek. ‘‘Their spirit gives me the will to get up and do it another day. They’re all victims here. Kind of like what the veterans have been through, in a way.’’ Love lowered her hands and watched Cashew roll over once more on her back, a play position known as wrestling that is peculiar to caiques. ‘‘They don’t belong in captivity,’’ Love said, rubbing Cashew’s white breast feathers. ‘‘But they have a real survivor’s mentality. These forgotten great beams of light that have been pushed aside and marginalized. I see the trauma, the mutual trauma that I suffered and that these birds have suffered, and my heart just wants to go out and nurture and feed and take care of them, and doing that helps me deal with my trauma. All without words.’’

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