Recently, a friend of mine was in her front yard, working on her garden. She left her front door open, and her bird was talking to her from inside the house. After a while, a Sun Conure flew from a nearby tree into her front door, landing on her bird’s cage. Her bird’s voice must have attracted him. The Conure was clearly upset, and extremely hungry. My friend, whom we will call Jill, gave the Conure, whom we will call Oliver, some food and water, and Oliver ate and drank with an urgency that suggested he’d been on his own for quite some time.
Jill put the word out in every possible medium, looking for this bird’s home. He talked and sang, so clearly he had been someone’s pet; surely someone was missing him. On the other hand, he was very scared, very aggressive, and screamed constantly. After a couple of days of not hearing from anyone, she wondered if someone let him go because he was so difficult.
Then, a few days into her search, she got an email that went something like this (I’m paraphrasing, because I don’t have an eidetic memory):
I think you have my bird. He’s a sun conure, and he’s 2 years old, and his name is Oliver. I’ve had him since he was a baby and I love him very much. He talks and sings songs from my baby sister’s CDs. I let him fly free two weeks ago. He’s missing a toe because my dad slammed his toe in the door when he was screaming for 3 hours straight. When I let him go it was because my dad threatened to kill him if he didn’t shut up. I didn’t want him to die. I mean, he’s a wild bird, so he can survive in the wild, right? I’m sorry I did this. Please don’t be mad at me. I just didn’t want him to die. Can you please keep him? Or find a good mom for him? I’m sorry to Oliver, if that’s him. I’m sorry.
I was bawling like a baby when I read this email. Even now, writing about it, I’m a blubbering emotional mess. Judging by her spelling, grammar, and punctuation, she was either pretty young or poorly educated; either way, she was obviously still young enough to be under her parents’ guardianship. And I can feel that little girl’s heartbreak and fear. I can imagine how difficult the decision was for her, how she was trying to do the right thing for her bird under the cloud of her father’s rage and threats. I wonder whether his rage is ever turned on her. I wonder if he expresses his anger verbally and physically with his children as well.
But this blog entry is about much more than my speculations about his suitability as a parent. I’m writing about this because this is exactly why I am a behavior consultant. This situation perfectly demonstrates the impetus behind my desire to educate the public. If this man had been given better tools to process his emotions, if he had been taught that he has options to improve his environment, his circumstances, and his bird’s behavior, imagine how different the story would be. But most people don’t know that they have the ability to change things in their environment. They don’t know that a bird’s behavior can change. They don’t know that, just because a bird does something unpleasant now, it can learn not to do that unpleasant thing at all, or at least do it less. And perhaps most importantly of all, they don’t know how. So many times, I go into a client’s house for a behavior consult, and a great deal of the consult ends up becoming a therapy session; because behavior is greatly contingent upon environment, and because the humans in a household make up a very important part of a bird’s environment, their dysfunction oftentimes significantly plays into the bird’s dysfunction. Thus begins, and continues, a vicious cycle–one that often leads to situations like Oliver’s.
He’s been at Jill’s house for about a week now. He has moments where his beautiful little personality shines through. He loves his food, and he loves singing along to children’s songs. But he still screams a lot. He’s terrified of hands, and bites hard if one gets too close to him. When Jill’s other bird tries to talk, Oliver shouts, “SHUT UP, STUPID!” Anger, threats, and physical abuse are all he’s known; it’s the only way he knows to react to his environment. His few good memories are, at the moment, overshadowed by so many bad ones. With a lot of love and patience, he will come around. He will learn that life can be so much better, so much more, than what it has been. He will learn that he has agency in his life; he has the ability to make decisions on his own, and that he doesn’t have to use aggression as his only tool of communication. He will learn that he is being heard, understood, and respected. He’s lucky to have flown into Jill’s house–someone who can provide that love and patience. How many others aren’t so lucky, though? And what about that little girl? What about her father? Who will be loving and patient with them? Until applied behavioral analysis becomes a part of our culture, our way of life – until we, as a civilization, can undergo a true paradigm shift and learn to start treating each other with love, patience, and respect, and thinking of every sentient being as a learner, who can and will change, and who deserves the opportunity to do so – I can’t help but feel that Oliver’s story will continue to be repeated everywhere, across species, and that most will not end up as lucky as he is.