What Does a Parrot Know About PTSD?
By CHARLES SIEBERTJAN. 28, 2016
nytimes.com | Jan. 28, 2016
Abandoned pet parrots are twice-traumatized beings: denied first their natural will to flock and then the company of the humans who owned them. In the wild, parrots ply the air, mostly, in the same way whales do the sea: together and intricately. Longtime pairs fly wing to wing within extended, close-knit social groupings in which individual members, scientists have recently discovered, each have unique identifiable calls, like human names. Parrots learn to speak them soon after birth, during a transitional period of vocalizing equivalent to human baby babbling known as ‘‘subsong,’’ in order to better communicate with members of their own flocks and with other flocks. This, it turns out, is the root of that vaunted gift for mimicry, which, along with their striking plumages and beguilingly fixed, wide-eyed stares, has long induced us to keep parrots — neuronally hard-wired flock animals with up to 60-to-70-year life spans and the cognitive capacities of 4-to-5-year-old children — all to ourselves in a parlor cage: a broken flight of human fancy; a keening kidnapee.
There were 34 parrots at Serenity Park when I was there last summer — representing a range of the more than 350 species in the psittaciformes order — a majority of them abandoned and now deeply traumatized former pets that had outlived either their owners or their owners’ patience. A parrot separated from its flock will flock fully and fiercely to the attentions and affections of its new human keeper. And when that individual, for whatever reason, fails to uphold his or her end of such an inherently exclusive relationship, the effects are devastating.
Up and down the aviary-lined corridor of Serenity Park are the winged wreckages of such broken bonds. On and on they go: the ceaseless pacing and rocking and screaming, the corner-cowering, self-plucking and broken-record remembrances. And yet at Serenity Park, the very behaviors that once would have further codified our parrot caricatures — ‘‘birdbrained,’’ ‘‘mindless mimicry,’’ ‘‘mere parroting’’ and so on — are recognized as classic symptoms of the same form of complex post-traumatic stress disorder afflicting the patients in the Veterans Administration Medical Center. They’re also being seized upon as a source of mutual healing for some of the most psychologically scarred members of both species.
‘‘The problem with parrots is that they’re so intensely attuned,’’ Lorin Lindner, the psychologist who founded Serenity Park, told me one afternoon as we stood watching Julius pace back and forth, speaking in Korean. ‘‘Parrots have so many social neurons. Their brain is filled with the capacity to mirror their flock. It’s so crucial for survival to be able to know what the flock is doing, to know what the danger signs are, when they have to get together, when night is falling and they are called to roost. They’re so attuned to being socially responsive that they can easily transfer that to us. They have the ability to connect, to feel this closeness with another being, another species.’’
Listening to Julius that day reminded me of a story I read not long ago in the journal Current Biology about a 22-year-old male Asian elephant named Koshik that resides at the Everland Zoo in Yongin, South Korea. Separated from the two female Asian elephants he was raised with in captivity, Koshik lived alone at Everland for seven years, a period during which he construed a way of speaking perfectly intelligible Korean words by sticking his trunk in his mouth and then using his tongue to shape his own plosive trumpetings into the language of the zoo’s workers and local visitors. Such ‘‘vocal learning,’’ the researchers who wrote the paper concluded, isn’t an attempt to directly communicate with us so much as it is a way for a highly social species like the elephant ‘‘to cement social bonds’’ with the only other species available.
It’s one of those unlikely natural outcomes of the so-called anthropocene, the first epoch to be named after us: the prolonged confinement of intelligent and social creatures, compelling them to speak the language of their keepers. And now, in yet another unlikely occurrence, parrots, among the oldest victims of human acquisitiveness and vainglory, have become some of the most empathic readers of our troubled minds. Their deep need to connect is drawing the most severely wounded and isolated PTSD sufferers out of themselves. In an extraordinary example of symbiosis, two entirely different outcasts of human aggression — war and entrapment — are somehow helping each other to find their way again.