When I arrived home from New York, the massive black cage dominated most of our small living room. Looking out from behind the bars was the blue-and-gold macaw that my friend Samantha had given me without cost because of my track record in redeeming problematic or rescue animals. "Peg Leg," as she had been named by her previous owner, was a rescue bird, much larger than I remembered and, according to her previous veterinarian, vicious. I had seen her only once at Samantha's wild bird rescue ranch, but here in our ten-by-twelve-foot space she seemed far more imposing. She was nearly two feet tall, and her most impressive feature was certainly her feathers, brilliant blues and golds that extended to the tip of each two-foot wing. Then there were the eyes, soft black inside a white mask streaked with black lines like those of a Mayan shaman or African warrior. The effect was dramatic and not just a little intimidating, although not as intimidating as the beak, also black, which from nose to crown measured nearly four inches. She had only one foot. Her left foot had been cut off by her captors while they tried to release her from the parrot snare that had ended her life as a free bird in the Amazon basin. As I moved closer to the cage, her powerful gaze asked only one question: Predator or prey?
The bird I had originally wanted was an African grey, far smaller than a macaw and known for its high verbal fluency and mild temperament. I had first seen one at a "Parrot Weekend Experience" sponsored by Samantha and a group of breeders, rescuers, owners, and veterinarians. For three days I listened to lectures, heard amazing stories of bird antics and adventures, while interacting with both domestically raised and wild-caught parrots-from cherry-headed conures to cockatoos to African greys to the ultimate macaw, the largest of all the parrots and the most temperamental. Given the size of the macaw's beak and the bird's propensity for biting, I was hesitant to hold one or have it perch on my arm. Much more my style was the grey I fancied, who unfortunately already belonged to someone else. This weekend had been a gift from my husband, Kerry, who thought I would enjoy being exposed to these exotic creatures far beyond my usual family of dogs and cats. Something happened during that weekend, some strange pull to these living relics from the dinosaur age who seem to know what we have forgotten about being wild and wise.
When I was a child, lost animals always seemed to find me-mostly cats and dogs but sometimes hamsters or guinea pigs. When I was six, I had a gopher friend for whom I would steal carrots from the refrigerator, then sneak outside to feed him in his burrow. Even after I became an adult, cats and dogs still gravitated to me, along with the occasional squirrel or raccoon. When I met Kerry, my family was small- one dog and one cat-but I warned him that more would show up; it was only a matter of time. Since our home is in the woods, the possibilities were endless. I'd recently rescued a baby squirrel who had fallen from its tree home and landed in the middle of our deck, where my numerous cats were circling for the kill. Wrapping him in a fluffy washcloth, I carried him in a sling that held him against my chest for warmth and a friendly heartbeat. I fed him mashed-up fruits, along with a little water, and he slowly regained his strength. After a few days, I took him to a stand of oak trees whose branches offered many possibilities for both a new home and safety from marauding cats.
But I had never owned an exotic animal, believing firmly that wild things belong in wild places. Peg Leg brought the point home. There in her five-by-four-foot cage, her wings could not fully extend to their nearly four-foot span. In the jungle from which she came, she would have flown above the leafy canopy, following air currents down to the river to take a drink or bathe. She was now somewhere between four and six years old, having been captured when she was approximately two. She had not flown or bathed in all that time. The method of her capture is no less sad. Although illegal today, the preferred method of capture has been parrot snares or nets, placed to trap unwary birds. In her case, the left foot became hopelessly tangled in the mesh and her captors were forced to cut off her left foot in order to release her. From there she had been shipped to a first-time breeder in Nebraska who had illusions of raising scores of little birds that would sell for as much as two thousand dollars each. The illusion didn't take account of the incessant screaming of two macaws who hated each other and refused to mate. In retaliation and frustration, the woman beat them with a stick poked through the bars. Saddened by her own behavior, the woman offered the birds to a local veterinarian who had contacts in California for wild bird rescues. Peg Leg and her mate then made their way to Samantha who added them to her other sixty or so birds, all wild-caught and all living in cages. Her aviary was under construction when I attended the Parrot Weekend, but even when completed it would be able to accommodate only fifteen to twenty birds; the rest would remain caged and, to my mind, spiritually broken. Peg Leg's scenario was even worse; she was sick with an infectious disease, so her cage was in isolation in a tiny laundry room. That was where I first met her.
When I had left for New York, I was not yet convinced that I could or would trade my African grey dream for a macaw nightmare. Kerry had offered to buy me a grey, planning to have the bird there for me when I returned. Still, there was something about Peg Leg's eyes that captivated me from our first meeting; that proud bird in a pitiful cage was beginning to unravel my dream. I told Kerry that I would leave the final decision up to him, since he was going to have to live with the bird, too. Both he and I agreed that birds should not be caged, so the temperament issue was crucial. Peg Leg was vicious, trying to bite whoever fed her through the bars. Was this a bird we could live with? What about our other animals-and those to come? What would happen if things didn't work out and we had to return her to Samantha? What to do, what to do?
We said yes.
we had to give Peg Leg a new name. She was a beautiful bird, a proud and fearless bird, a bird of grace. Peg Leg would never do. Kerry suggested "Sarah" because he thought it was a beautiful name. I agreed, because in Hebrew the name means "princess" and I thought she was one.
"Hello, Sarah; you are such a beautiful bird."
Over and over I repeated those words, rhythmically erasing the terrible sound of "Peg Leg." Even our two dogs, Ben and Blanco, seemed somehow reassured by the sound of her name coming from me, the one they loved and who fed them so well. Ben had been our first dog together after I moved onto Kerry's property. A rescue dog, he had been abandoned by his owners and wandered for months during the winter out on the road beyond our place. Taken to the Barking Lot, a local rescue facility for dogs and cats, he found himself in the caring hands of Audrey, who spent nearly two months stripping his badly matted fur. Mostly Tibetan Terrier, he looked nothing like his elegant heritage when I saw him in his dog run. "Last on the right," he had been with Audrey for six months; no one wanted to adopt him because he wasn't cute enough with his buzz-cut black-and-white body. It's always about the eyes. I looked at him, and we both knew. I named him Bentley, which soon became Ben, and I called him my little Buddha dog because he was so mellow and wise-looking. If Ben was Buddha, Blanco was Attila the Hun. Nicknamed Blanco the Killer Maltese Terrier, he was pure white and feared nothing-not other dogs, not cats, not raccoons, not deer, not even the occasional bear.
Our two house cats, Mr. Mistoffelees and Tiger, had bolted for the great outdoors when the cage arrived. Mistoff the Magnificent was far too diffident to care about another animal unless it encroached upon his food or petting time. Tiger was a rescue cat from our local McDonald's, where he had been fattening himself into fast-food obesity. When the cats did eventually saunter back inside, they looked up at the cage with a certain curiosity but not any kind of concern. As they say, "cage bars make good neighbors."
For several hours, I sat on the daybed across from the cage, reading and intoning my macaw mantra. I added that I loved her, even if I couldn't be sure that it would ever be true. I had never tried to love a creature whom I might never be able to touch or to share affection with. And the book I had bought didn't address how to rehabilitate a vicious bird; there mustn't be many humans who try. This was all new territory, and there were bound to be many mistakes. I only hoped none would involve the loss of a digit.
As dinnertime approached and Kerry was due to return from work, I went over to Sarah's cage to check on her food situation. All cages have swing-out dishes that lock from the outside. The challenge with a vicious bird is that it will try to bite you when you are opening or closing the gates. Kerry had devised a way to open the food dish door without jeopardizing a finger: a small metal "blocking plate" with a center-mounted knob that blocked the open gate while food or water was being dispensed, then raised as the dish went back into place. She still had plenty of food, but I decided to experiment with putting nuts through the bars directly into the dish. I'd have to be quick, but I knew I had to start building a relationship with Sarah. This was a good place to start.
I brought gifts for the goddess from the kitchen: almonds, walnut halves, and one peanut. With their high oil content, peanuts are very dangerous for birds as excessive oil can kill them. Birds should also never eat avocado or chocolate.
"Hi, Sarah; you're such a beautiful bird, and I love you. Would you like some nuts?"
I don't know if anyone else had offered her nuts; Samantha's bird diet was nut-free. Time to find out. Sarah watched me as I moved my hand toward the food dish; she didn't move one inch. Only her eyes followed my movements; hands, after all, were her enemies.
"Treats for Sarah, treats for Sarah." The word treat must have cross- species universality because all of my animals have understood that word immediately.
She still hadn't moved, so I cautiously, fearfully, tossed an almond into the dish. Then a walnut half, more almonds, and finally the peanut. She still didn't move. I backed away from the cage and moved onto the daybed to see what she would do. Nothing. This might be harder than I thought. I decided to look away and feign interest in something else. After a few very long seconds, I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, Sarah moving very slowly sideways on her perch toward the treats. Success! The peanut went first, and as I turned my head to watch more closely I could see her pupil become a pinpoint of excitement. When she had finished all the nuts, she swooshed her beak back and forth in the dish. It looked to me like a little bit of happiness.
Maybe, just maybe, this would work.
despite samantha's warning that Sarah could scream loud enough to make a human chest vibrate, she had not done so with me. The telephone call that changed everything was from an editor who was making me an offer on a new book. Sarah was quiet, and I listened as the editor outlined the preliminary terms. The advance was less than I had hoped for, and my voice must have reflected that disappointment. Before I could respond?.?.?.
"Crap! It's crap!"
"What?" she asked. "What you you mean it's crap?"
"No, no," I assured her. "I didn't say it was crap, the bird did!"
"The bird? What do you mean, the bird?"
I explained that I had just acquired a macaw, that my separate office cottage wasn't yet ready (my husband was the contractor), and that I was handling my business calls in the house-with a bird that I hadn't known had any vocabulary skills, until now. She laughed. Still, the disappointment in my voice when she made a slightly higher offer did not go unnoticed.
"Bummer, it's a bummer!"
What? How many other words did Sarah know? Had she been captured by a group of hippies whose lingo would now punctuate my every day?
I groaned; the editor laughed again.
"Well," she said, "I've never done business with a bird before. Will she be overseeing the contract negotiations as well?"
We ended our conversation in laughter, and I turned to Sarah, who had now become quiet as the proverbial mouse. She gave me a look that said in no uncertain terms, "That's only the beginning."
The "beginning" extended to liberal use of "crap," "bummer," and "bad bird"-all expressed in her best earsplitting voice and always at the most unexpected moments. Feeding time in particular became an adventure.
"Kerry, would you please feed Sarah? It's nearly thirty minutes later than what she's used to, and I'm trying to talk on the phone."
With me, she would lower her head slowly to one side, then to the other, while I fed her. I learned that this is a sign of affection and "equality" among macaws, and I was delighted. She stopped trying to bite my hand when I fed her, and I was able to abandon the metal plate, which Kerry still had to use. Mostly I fed her, but he fed her on an occasional basis so that she would be accustomed to him when I was on business trips. For him, that little shield was a necessity. His antics reminded me of the three hundred Spartans up against the Persians, shields held strategically in place. Most of the time it worked, but Sarah was a clever little Persian and he was sustaining battle wounds. Beyond that, she had no interest in him. All macaws choose one mate, and that's it. I was in; Kerry was out. He accepted that she was my bird and gave up on having any kind of intimate relationship with her.
"Crap, crap, crap!"
My head was starting to throb, and I was catching only one word out of every two or three from my client.
"Bad bird, bad bird!"
Excerpted from The Parrot Who Thought She Was a Dog by Nancy Ellis-Bell. Copyright © 2009 by Nancy Ellis-Bell. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.