Harpo, 22, came to Minnesota from a shelter in Texas after killing some of the other residents and injuring several caregivers. Bongo Bob was passed from home to home by alcoholics and was even traded for drugs. Cowboy became so despondent that he mutilated himself and still must wear a protective vest.
But in a nondescript brick building on St. Paul’s East Side, 82 parrots — cockatiels, cockatoos, Amazons, love birds and others — have found stability, safety and sanctuary at what probably will be their last home.
The Landing, filled with squawks, screeches and a lot of love, exists for birds that have been abused, neglected or abandoned. Staffed by volunteers for Minnesota Avian Adoption and Rescue Services (MAARS), the sanctuary nurtures birds that in all likelihood will never be adopted, said Executive Director Galiena Cimperman. Many are too damaged — psychologically, emotionally or physically, she said.
Still, healing happens, thanks to dozens of dedicated volunteers — no one, not even Cimperman, is paid — and a donation-fueled budget of $70,000 a year.
“Our ultimate goal is to really help them become birds again,” said Cimperman as Harpo snuggled against her. “When [Harpo] got here, he was off-the-charts aggressive. Now, he’s much better and he has a long life ahead of him.”
MAARS got its start in St. Louis Park in 1999 and moved to St. Paul a decade later. It is one of only a handful of sanctuaries across the country that provide hands-on and compassionate care for parrots for life, Cimperman said. Another 20 to 30 smaller rescue centers care for birds for shorter periods, she said.
The problem is, many parrots simply don’t do well in captivity.
Used to living in large flocks in the wild, parrots are extremely social yet wild animals. Many people mistakenly buy them as solitary pets, Cimperman said; that may work when the bird is young, but birds seek to bond with others and being left alone can lead to emotional trauma later.
So can puberty. As male birds mature sexually, they become aggressive and loud, screeching and pecking at their owners. Many owners give up.
Superintelligent — some breeds are said to be as smart as 3- to 5-year-old humans — parrots who are abandoned can suffer all kinds of psychological scars.
MAARS once offered birds for adoption. But health problems around the time of the move to St. Paul — with causes including a plumber who used a caustic chemical at the old place, and a virus that hit birds at the new place — cut the flock from 130 parrots to 82. Now, to be safe, MAARS doesn’t make its birds available for adoption. That’s a long-term commitment; some parrots can reach 90 years old.
On Friday, workers on the day shift scrambled through several first-floor rooms, cleaning floors and feeding, talking and playing with the birds. The Landing has 64 volunteers who cover shifts morning, afternoon and evening. Many volunteers have been there for years and know every bird by name.
“Our volunteers are amazing,” said Cimperman, who started at The Landing as a 19-year-old in 2002.
Will Joel, who has a degree in biology, began volunteering in November. He found out about the center online, spurred by an interest developed after a senior research project on parrots. The work is giving him experience for a potential career, he said, “and I get my parrot fix here.”
Jennifer Belland started volunteering about five years ago after her male cockatoo began going through hormonal changes and made her life a bit of a hell. “I slept in my car. He screamed for 12 hours a day,” she said of the bird that tore chunks out of her skin and ear. “He’s growing out of it.”
She learned how to stop the behavior, she said, by modifying her own behavior as well as her bird’s diet and environment. She now teaches classes at The Landing to other bird owners, another of the services the nonprofit provides.
“I learn something new about them every time I’m here,” she said.
Cimperman, too, has parrots of her own. She came to the center after her cockatiel’s veterinarian, who is also the MAARS vet, encouraged her to volunteer.
People who really want parrots, she said, need to make some allowances, such as giving them a room of their own and giving them free rein of the house when the humans are home. And there probably shouldn’t be small children around, she said; parrots become very attached to their adult people, and they get jealous.
Scraping to get by
Cimperman took over as executive director of MAARS in 2011 after the previous director left unexpectedly. She admits fundraising is not easy. Many people don’t know about parrot rescues, although the need is great and most places have long waiting lists.
“Right now, we’re at capacity,” she said, adding that they hope someday to provide outdoor aviaries to their birds.
MAARS receives some grants, but much of its funding comes from individuals and whatever the sanctuary earns through the parrot calendars and greeting cards it sells. Another novel way The Landing makes money is by selling paintings created by the parrots themselves. Yes, parrots paint. Who knew?
“They’re actually pretty good at it,” Cimperman said.
While many people give money to dog rescues, cat rescues and all kinds of other animal causes, parrots typically have not tugged at the heartstrings of the public. But, Cimperman said, if people knew their stories and could see how much better they do after time with The Landing’s volunteers, that might change.
Sitting in a chair in an upstairs conference room, Cimperman held a cuddling Harpo and stroked the feathers on his head. She was asked why she continues to volunteer so many hours to the care of so many birds.
“Because,” she said, “parrots don’t have a voice.”