By CHARLES SIEBERTJAN. 28, 2016
nytimes.com | Jan. 28, 2016
We often think of empathy as a skill rather than the long-ago, neuronally ingrained bioevolutionary tool for survival that it actually is: the ability to inhabit the feelings of fellow beings (the word empathy derives from the Greek en, which means ‘‘in,’’ and pathos, meaning ‘‘suffering’’ or ‘‘experience’’); the ability to feel, for example, their fear over a threat; or thrill over a newly found food source; or sorrow over a loss, which has as much to do with the fabric of a community as any other. Empathy, in this sense, can be thought of as the source of all emotion, the one without which the others would have no register.
The more time I spent at Serenity Park last summer, the more I came to think in terms of the expansive anatomy of empathy. And not just the shared neuronal circuitry that has now been mapped across species, from us to the other primates to elephants and whales and, we now know, to creatures with entirely different, nonmammalian brains, like crows and parrots. I thought, as well, of the extraordinary capacity conferred by that circuitry to recognize and respond to the specific infirmities, both psychic and physical (although those are essentially one and the same) of another species.
I got a sense early on at the park of which parrots and veterans seemed most drawn to one another. The way, for example, Simmons said that the lilac-crowned Amazon, Dagwood, came to life around Jim Minick, the former Navy helicopter crewman. But I learned only later about the true depth of such bonds.
‘‘You know, Jim does a great job of hiding how wounded he was,’’ Simmons told me. ‘‘He has tattoos all over the elbow he can’t use anymore, and he won’t talk about it, but at one point he was sitting on the edge of the bed with a shotgun in his mouth and tears rolling down his face. On that same night, he drove his car into a tree, drunk out of his mind. So he comes to Serenity Park, and Jim doesn’t know the history of any of the birds, and which bird loved him at first? Dagwood, the one with a screwed-up wing and a crooked beak. There’s no way to explain it.’’
Jason Martinez, who suffered traumatic brain injuries parachuting into Afghanistan and now suffers from epileptic seizures, was immediately drawn to Molly, an African gray, the only parrot at Serenity Park, he learned only later, with epilepsy. And then there were the daily cheek-to-cheek murmurings between the bedraggled, drawer-bound Goffin’s cockatoo, Bobbi, and a blond 21-year-old ex-Marine named Josh Lozon.
‘‘Let’s talk about Josh,’’ Simmons said. ‘‘A good-looking guy with curly hair. He’s a little scary. He’s so broken, all of his wounds are still hidden. Who gets along with him best? Bobbi, mostly naked, bleeding from her remaining feathers. A bird who looks like a damn pterodactyl that went through a buzz saw.’’
Of all the veterans I encountered at the sanctuary, Lozon was by far the most skittish. The one time I was able to chat with him at length was when I found him early one morning atop an elevated wooden porch, one flight above a work shed, scrubbing the bars of an empty bird cage with a brush. My decision to head up the narrow steps that lead to it effectively trapped him up there.
He joined the Marines, he said, because he ‘‘wanted to hurt somebody.’’ He told me he received an exceptional score on his recruitment aptitude test, which landed him an office job working with computers, a post suited to his intellectual abilities but not his disposition. Sent to the V.A. for evaluation after frequent episodes of insubordination and erratic behavior, he was prescribed mood stabilizers and antipsychotics, neither of which, he sheepishly confided, he was presently taking, thanks to Serenity Park.
He was not able to put into words what exactly went on between him and the parrots. All he kept saying was, ‘‘It’s something about the cages.’’ Feeling his growing discomfort, I descended the stairs. Back on the ground, I looked up at Lozon, who was peacefully cooing and chirping back and forth with Koko, the Australian Adelaide rosella. He suddenly looked down at me. ‘‘They’re in these cages and helpless,’’ Lozon said, ‘‘and it’s not their fault.’’ He paused, and I started away. ‘‘But for me,’’ he continued, ‘‘I think it’s also that when I’m alone with them in those cages, I feel I don’t have to conform to what everyone expects of me. I’m free to be an animal again.’’
In the late afternoon on my last day at the sanctuary, I seemed to be the only one around. I passed Koko in his cage, sounding his particular strains of the park’s ongoing symphony of stranded human speech. I thought then of the numerous anecdotes people have told of wild-parrot flocks learning, via ‘‘cultural transmission,’’ to speak the human words taught to them by reintegrated former pets. In the parks of Sydney, Australia, where there are native wild-parrot flocks, people regularly overhear a ‘‘Hello, darling’’ or ‘‘What’s happening?’’ sounding from the trees above. The early German naturalist explorer Alexander von Humboldt wrote of encountering, during his travels in South America toward the close of the 18th century, a parrot that was the last living repository of the language of the extinct Atures Indian tribe.
All alone now among the sanctuary’s parrots, I got a sudden glimpse of a possible future. One long beyond us and our traumas. A world of winged dinosaurs, soaring and chatting back and forth, their different local dialects inflected here and there with the occasional broken shards of a long lost one: ‘‘Hey, sweetheart.’’ ‘‘Whoa! C’mon man!’’ ‘‘Whatever!’’
Nearing Serenity Park’s exit, I decided to turn back and step inside Cashew’s quarters for a moment. I had only to nestle close to her perch and she immediately hopped on my back. Crisscrossing my shoulders as I had watched her do with Lilly Love, she stopped at one point for what I assumed would be the parrot equivalent of a kiss. Instead, she began to clean my teeth: her beak lightly tapping against my enamel, the faint vibrations strangely soothing. Immediately afterward, she took a brief nap in my shirt’s left breast pocket — it felt as if I’d grown another heart — then re-emerged and crawled to the top of my head. She strolled about there for a time before plucking out one of her own deep blue-green feathers and then descending to gently place it on my left shoulder. I have it still.
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