Freeing the Caged Bird
The Satya Interview with Eileen McCarthy
Eileen McCarthy is co-founder and Executive Director of the Midwest Avian Adoption and Rescue Services (MAARS), an organization dedicated to the welfare of captive and wild parrots exploited by the pet trade. In addition to operating a sanctuary called The Landing, for abandoned, abused or voluntarily surrendered captive parrots of all species, MAARS actively promotes avian welfare education and advocacy through classes, consultations and presentations on a local and national level.
co-founder of the Avian Welfare Coalition, also serves on the Board
of Directors of the Association of Sanctuaries (TAOS). Eileen is a
vegetarian who was born and raised in New York City. She currently
lives in Stillwater, Minnesota with her husband Brian and five parrots.
Monica Engebretson, Senior Program Coordinator for the Animal Protection Institute
and exotic bird specialist, sat down with Eileen McCarthy for an interview on
the MAARS program.
What factors led to the creation of Midwest Avian Adoption and Rescue Services?
In late 1998, it became apparent that there was an enormous need for avian shelter and placement in this community. Several others and myself were running the adoption program of a local bird club; in the first nine months I was involved, we placed 113 birds. The birds were coming to us by word of mouth from every region and socio-economic group in the Twin Cities metro area and they just kept coming in. We asked ourselves, “If we don’t help them, who will? Where will they go?”
Why does MAARS adopt out some birds instead of providing permanent sanctuary?
We believe that all parrots are born wild and deserve to live wild. In an ideal world, all captive parrots would be released to their native habitats and fly free with a flock, roost in trees, forage for food and bathe in rainwater. However, for many complex reasons, this is impossible.
The exotic pet trade has succeeded in making captive parrots the third most popular exotic pet in the U.S. While there is no definitive census, the captive parrot population is estimated to be between approximately 12 and 60 million in the U.S. alone. Consider then, that if only one percent of 10 million birds become displaced annually, there are 100,000 “surplus” captive parrots each year.
Lifetime sanctuary care in a naturalistic environment would be a welcome option for many captive parrots; however, such resources simply do not exist. Additionally, many parrots in the pet trade have been raised in captivity and have strongly bonded to humans. Although some may fare well in a naturalistic flock setting without human interaction, others would not thrive at all. For the vast majority of captive parrots, the only alternative to euthanasia is placement in an educated private home where their wild nature and complex needs are understood and respected.
What is the procedure for adopting a bird from MAARS?
Our primary goal when placing parrots is to determine that the household and its members are capable of meeting all aspects of the individual bird’s needs. MAARS also provides the information, resources and support to ensure that placements are permanent. Many of the larger parrot species can live 40 to 80 years; the responsibility of caring for such a long-lived animal is a life-altering, lifelong commitment.
In order to “adopt” a bird from MAARS, one must submit a detailed application, successfully complete interviews by phone and in the home with a placement counselor, attend a basic bird care class given by MAARS staff, demonstrate that they appreciate the demands, care requirements and commitment of living with a parrot, and have been “chosen” by a bird that fits into their household and existing flock if they have other birds.
What are the primary reasons given for relinquishing birds to MAARS?
The reasons that birds are surrendered are the same as those cited for the surrender of millions of cats and dogs each year to shelters, rescue groups and sanctuaries across the country. Unfortunately, birds are probably surrendered at higher rates, simply because of a lack of adequate public and consumer education, the complexities of caring for a wild animal, and parrots’ longevity.
The most common circumstances or reasons birds are surrendered to MAARS are: a new baby, partner or the addition of other household members including aging parents, grown children or pets; one or more household members do not have a positive relationship with the bird; moving; divorce; illness or death. All of these reasons, with the exception of illness or death, are almost always also linked to “undesirable” behaviors exhibited by the bird such as screaming, biting, aggression, jealousy, messiness or destructiveness, or neuroses like feather-picking. Ironically, these behaviors are frequently caused by the circumstances and then, ultimately, lead to the bird being surrendered.
What are the primary factors contributing to the number of unwanted birds in this country?
Over the past two decades, improved captive breeding practices and the prevalence of corporate pet store chains have facilitated the wide availability of parrots—we have come to view flighted, wild animals caged in American homes as commonplace. Retailers market parrots as an interactive novelty item of beauty, desirability and convenience, encourage impulse sales, and provide little or no information to consumers regarding the true nature, needs and care requirements of the “merchandise.” This scenario results in the suffering of many birds and the disenchantment of many consumers as well as a great need for shelters and sanctuaries capable of handling displaced birds.
Does captive breeding protect birds in the wild?
One of many long-standing myths disseminated by the pet bird industry asserts that the captive-rearing of parrots for the pet trade protects wild parrot populations; this is unconditionally, unequivocally untrue. The successful marketing of captive-reared parrots increases the demand for “parrots-as-pets,” thereby ensuring that the legal and illegal capture, export and sale of wild birds remains profitable. Additionally, most wild parrot populations are gravely threatened by habitat destruction unaffected by the pet trade.
What can individuals do to help captive birds?
We are a nation of consumers who possess a powerful instrument of change. Make educated, ethical choices about where you spend and invest your dollars. Patronize pet supply retailers who do not sell live animals, and purchase supplies (toys, cages, food) from individuals and companies that do not breed birds. Another thing people can do is offer a loving home for a bird in need by adopting from your local shelter or rescue/placement group rather than purchasing a bird; or volunteer or donate to avian welfare organizations. If that’s not possible you can become an educator or activist of avian welfare issues and support legislation to protect birds and other animals. Most importantly, please share the plight of captive birds with your friends, family and co-workers and encourage them to use their dollars wisely.
For more information, visit www.maars.org.