Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ethical dilemma

A friend of mine who runs a small rescue out of her home recently contacted me asking my thoughts on a bird that was surrendered to her. He's a cockatoo, a sulfur-crested (I forget if he's a medium or greater). The picture accompanying this entry is of two umbrella cockatoos from the rescue where I volunteer. It has nothing to do with my story since it's a different rescue, but I wanted to put a picture up!I have been giving this issue a lot of thought, and haven't come to an acceptable solution -- I'm not sure there is one. I'm hoping to flesh out my thoughts here and would love to hear if anyone reading this has anything additional to add. I'm going to call the bird "Frosty." That's not his name, but I want to provide my friend anonymity due to the subject matter. Also, due to space constraints (I'm really trying not to write a book!) I'm leaving out details of things that were tried to improve the situation. Believe me, they tried everything I can think of.

Frosty was in his early teens when he was surrendered to her two years ago. He had suffered terrible abuse and neglect in his early life. He's extremely human-aggressive AND bird-aggressive. Despite great precautions, he severely bit at least three volunteers. He also escaped from his cage one night and bit the beak off of one bird at the rescue and the toes of a couple of others (all of whom were in their cages, clinging to the side, trying to fight off this interloper).

My friend found a foster home for Frosty with a woman who had a lot of experience with difficult cockatoos. She was completely upfront with this woman about Frosty and his challenges. The hope was that the combination of positive interactions with this experienced cockatoo owner and living in a flock of cockatoos would help turn Frosty around. It didn't work.

After Frosty initiated several unprovoked attacks on other members of the flock (luckily, none of them suffered permanent damage), the decision was made that Frosty needed to be caged when other birds were around and could only be let out when the others were caged. It was a difficult balance, as her other cockatoos had to get used to spending more time in their cages than before.

His attacks on his human foster mom continued. She could find no discernible reason for the attacks. Unfortunately, Frosty's favorite attack target was the face, and this woman had to go to the emergency room for stitches in her face at least five times, including twice in one week. If anything, during the time he spent in foster care, he got worse.

Life intervened, and his foster mom had to move across the country. She took her permanent flock with her, but made the decision that she couldn't take Frosty. And I can't say that I blame her, as her other cockatoos were starting to show signs of stress with Frosty in the home.

Frosty is now back at my friend's rescue, and she doesn't know what to do. Possibly he would be OK in an only-bird home where the owner was constantly vigilant; however, finding a home where someone would have the experience to deal with this kind of behavior problem and they don't already own birds? Nearly impossible.

After long discussions with her vet, the decision was made to neuter Frosty. I believe this surgery is scheduled for sometime in February. Although it's a risky procedure and we don't know whether this will solve the problem, it gives her hope. Me? I'm a bit more pessimistic about things. He wasn't aggressive only during hormonal periods -- this is a daily thing. Although I'm certainly no expert, it seems to be as though he's mentally insane. I've read reports where people have become mentally unhinged after suffering severe abuse; I would think that a similar thing could happen to a parrot.

My friend firmly believes in the no-kill philosophy, and that's part of the reason she's struggling so much with Frosty. Can he possibly be happy? Would it be kinder to put him out of his misery? What options are there for him? Since he is aggressive to humans and parrots, it would seem as though his life would be relegated to living alone in a cage. Is it fair to do that to a majestic wild animal, who has already suffered so much, for possibly another 60 years or more? A dog who had sent a person to the emergency room five times would already have been euthanized. Should parrots be held to a similar standard?

I'm leaning towards euthanasia in this case. All over my blog, I've talked about the amazing resiliency of parrots and how they can overcome horrible pasts to find happiness again. I still believe that to be the case. However, I believe that there are some extreme cases where it is kinder to the bird to end his suffering. He doesn't appear to be physically suffering, but his mental anguish, in order for his behavior to be so aggressive, must be extreme.

I'm not sure my friend is willing to go that route. She's really hoping that the neutering will do the trick; if it doesn't, she's desperate to find another solution. I'll keep you updated on what happens.

Finally, in my experience (which does not include living with any of them), cockatoos seem to be the parrots who are the least resilient; the least able to cope with life in captivity. If you are considering adding one to your home, please visit this site. (Note that loud cockatoo noises start a few seconds after going to this site, so beware if you're at work or need to be quiet). The second page, in which there is no noise, can be found here. If you'd like to interact with people living with cockatoos, here is the forum. It's not a fluff board -- they tell it like it is.


Meg said...

Stories like this are so sad. Just really, really sad. Abuse, malnutrition, being locked up, can drive any creature insane.

Chester was, erm, crazy when I got him, from malnutrition and abuse. While he is still not exactly normal, he is happy now, and has come to love snuggling, even. So that is resilience, and it shows, or shows if you knew him when I got him, how much they can come around.

Frank would have been put down if he was a dog. Period. That sounds so harsh, it is hard to write, but it is true. He is not crazy from abuse, though, he has simply always been like this. He enjoys attention now, for the most part, but was very bird-human aggressive when I got him, and still is very human aggressive to most people, and even me, frequently. He goes through major depressions, and I am not putting my feelings on him in saying that. However, I have found a system that seems to keep him fairly happy, and me a bit less guilty. I know that he is a bird that will need to be worked with every day of his life, but he is happy right now. Or at least as happy as I can make him. And it was very hard to get this far, and it is very hard to deal with it everyday. So Frank is similar to what you are describing. Still a huge diff between the two situations, I know, if only in Frank's much smaller beak.

There really isn't enough room to go into different things that might help, I don't know, things I tried with Frank, so I will just say I assume they have tried everything they can.

I think, if he is really not happy, then perhaps the decision euthanize him is kinder. I hate saying that, so please, don't judge me on it. As people, allowing a bird to die is horrible, but what if you were the bird? Would most people want to live? Crazy, hating life, being kept alive but never happy? Parrots aren't people, so they do not see things in the same way, meaning, their values are not our values. Not that they do not value life, far from it, but.... they are not thinking about what could be, only what is.

Stephanie said...

I hate to say it but I firmly believe that you can't save every animal. Sometimes the damage has already been done and despite all attempts it can't be undone. I think rescues need to use their limited resources on saving those that can be saved. And on population control in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Euthanize - aka Kill, the bird.

There are limits to what you can do, and Frosty has gone well beyond them.

He's not like my Harley (who is merely somewhat aggressive), Frosty is dangerous.

I also don't think its a symptom of the "system". I'm not against all breeders. If I hadn't gotten Kermit the blue crown conure from a breeder, I would not have taken in Harley. And Harley is better off for being with me.

Mary said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, you guys. It helps to know that I'm not way out there in my thinking.

I really do hate the idea of putting down a physically healthy animal, but mental health counts for something. And he is dangerous.

Meg -- thanks for your anecdotes. From my unscientific observation, well over 99% of them are extremely resilient; I think there are some that just can't handle captivity. I could be wrong; perhaps he could be turned around in the right home, or could find happiness in the right flock of toos; but with his aggression, is it safe to try that out?

Stephanie -- thanks. You put it so much more succinctly than me!

Richard -- I agree with you on your comments on breeding. This is also a hot topic to which I've given a lot of thought.

Basically, my belief is that most parrots would be better off if they had never been brought into our homes. But, the fact is that they are here, and people want them as pets. If there are suddenly no more breeders, illegal importation will skyrocket, decimating wild populations even more and causing horrible pain to those birds.

I hate the bird mills (Rocky came from one), pet stores or breeders selling to anyone with the $, mistreatment of breeder birds, misinformation given to purchasers, poor treatment of birds in stores so people will pity purchase, etc.

Max's breeder was great. Small-scale and doing it for the love of the birds. Her breeder birds had toys and great nutrition. She grilled us before we were approved (Max was our first bird), she made sure she was doing everything "right" in regards to abundance weening, fledging, etc. And Max is a wonderful bird. I've no doubt that some of her great personality is due to the great start she had in life.

Gosh, I should just do a blog entry on this!

Like you with Kermit, Max led us to the rescue where we eventually started volunteering and found our other 5 birds.

I guess what I'm hoping to do with my blog is show people what it's really like to live with parrots so they can make the right decision about whether a parrot is right for them, and which kind. As I've mentioned before, I would have been very unhappy with a too, but the ones I have are just wonderful!

Pamela said...

Oh yeah, a terrible situation. The bird probably is some sort of crazy, there are many kinds in humans, I'm sure there are similar kinds in birds, which are quite intelligent.

I'd say try the neutering ("neutering"?) first. It's a radical move, but this bird needs something radical. If that works, great. If it doesn't, and everyone has tried every other option, and a really large space with no other birds is available (a girl can dream, can't she?), then death is an option. Not a nice option, but an option.

My own, personal, worst nightmare is to wake up in the locked ward of a mental institution. I would rather die. And maybe this bird is having the same sort of reaction to his situation. Unfortunately we can never know.

Meg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Have you heard of this place?
Perhaps calling them will help? They have colonies of "Killer Toos" & experience dealing with them.
Whatever is decided for this bird I'm sure all avenues have been explored, you've done a lot more than many would have.
God Bless

Jessie said...

Hi - how sad for Frosty :(

I did have some success dealing with a somewhat similar bird, although this one (I don't think) had been abused. He was just extremely aggressive and had been through seven homes for flying at and attacking people quite brutally. I was fostering him for a rescue.

We weren't sure if this guy would be a "lost cause," since he was so intense with his attacks. I decided to do a bunch of clicker training exercises with him, initially while he was in the cage. His bites were so bad that I didn't want to risk getting any on the face. So, for a couple weeks, I worked with him while he was in a cage. It worked great! He learned that people are okay and can be fun to interact with. I eventually let him out and he didn't attack me ever again. I did have to handle him carefully.

I outline in a bit more detail what I did with him here:

Best of luck to your friend!

Mary said...

Pamela -- I agree with you on that. I read a short story once where a sane person was locked in an asylum and have been fearful of that ever since. Eek!

Meg -- from what I've been told, he flies at people and attacks. Even with a good clip, he can do damage. I'll mention your suggestions to her; maybe she can find another foster home willing to keep him separate in another room. To be honest, if this were a grey, caique, macaw, or other species that I feel comfortable with, we'd figure out a way to transport the bird to us.

Anonymous -- I had seen this website a few years ago, but had forgotten about this colony. Perhaps we can figure out a way to get him here if other measures are unsuccessful; thanks for posting!

Jessie -- They did try clicker training him (I am such a huge fan of that!). I don't think my friend has had time to continue that now that he's back with her instead of in the foster home (even though it can be only 5 minutes a day -- I guess I should say I'm not sure she's willing to do that; unfortunately (fortunately?), I can't control her!) Thanks for posting this article; it's fantastic and I'm going to start posting a link to that instead of my current one when I recommend clicker training on forums and such.

Meg said...

I hope the neutering helps some! Tell the lady who has him that I wish her the best of luck helping him.

The cockatoo sanctuary looks awesome! Perhaps if he were kept separate for a while, to calm some, he could be adjusted to accept a flock. Or, perhaps, he would accept them quickly anyway! Who knows.

I worked for a while with Greater Sulfer Crested, that was aggressive (not to this degree!), a friend owned. I was never bitten, but I saw what he did to them, not nice!