Our local PBS channel reran a 2013 Nature program, “Parrot Confidential.” http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/parrot-confidential-parrot-confidential/8496/ It’s about the fascinating complexity of parrot brains and behavior, and makes the point that birds in the parrot family are wild animals that in many ways are unsuitable as pets. They have been extremely popular, though, and huge numbers of them are homeless refugees in the US, because people buy them and then find themselves unwilling or unable to keep them. A great many have been poached from the wild, and in an attempt to prevent that from happening, bird lovers have bred them domestically. Eventually this turned out to be compounding the problem, so breeders shut down their operations, and now everyone who wants a parrot is strongly encouraged to adopt one from a shelter. Habitat loss as well as poaching has threatened parrots in the wild, with the ironic result that their numbers in their native countries are decreasing even as shelters here are bursting at the seams.
But pet parrot overpopulation, while I want to spread the word about it, is not my main subject for today. I guess my subject is “bonding with complex creatures.” It seemed to me, when I watched the program, that the parrot experiences could teach us a great deal of what we humans need to understand about relationships.
One of the difficulties, and at the same time one of the joys, of living with a parrot is its deep attachment to its human companion. [Disclaimer: I do not live with a parrot and never have— I only know about this from observation.] The program explained why this is so. Parrots spend virtually all their time with their mate, and the human becomes a mate substitute and is also expected to give 100% attention. This is likely not what the human expected.
Among the parrots featured by the Nature team was a yellow-naped Amazon named Basil. He had done well with his human family for his first four years, bonding especially strongly with the husband, until he hit puberty. Then suddenly it was no longer okay that the husband was away a lot on business. The wife and kids became Basil’s targets, with the wife getting the brunt of his wrath. He would actually fly at her and attack her, and had to be locked in his cage to protect her and the children.
At one point during this period, the family wanted to take a vacation. They had friends who also had a male yellow-naped Amazon, and they asked to leave Basil at their house. Neither bird had ever had the opportunity to interact with another of his kind, and as soon as they met, they were best friends.
Two weeks went by, and Basil’s family returned. They put him in his cage and started out the door, and as they were leaving, the other bird, Coco, began to scream, with total clarity, “NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!” (And some people say that birds can’t use human language appropriately.) Well, no one could hear that heartrending sound and not be moved. They immediately brought Basil back, and it was decided that he would stay and be adopted by Coco’s family.
I was much moved by Coco’s pleas myself, and it seemed to me that what he was saying was something fundamental to all of us. More and more I think that relationships boil down to something very simple. Most creatures with some degree of awareness want to bond with others of their kind, or failing that, others of some kind.
If you put someone in a cage, they will not be at their best. One of the experts said that sometimes he is asked what the right size of cage for a macaw is, and he replies that it’s 35 square miles, their range in the wild. There is no right-sized cage, he said. For anyone, probably.
If you expect someone to act in a way that is contrary to their nature, your expectations will not be met. We were told that people ask for a bird that sings, that is quiet, and that doesn’t bite, and that there is no such species.
The main character in this presentation was Lou, a cockatoo who had been left alone to starve in his cage when his family’s house was foreclosed upon. The humans had just up and left him in the empty house. Fortunately, the neighbors noticed that something was amiss, and they had animal control come and look into the situation. The very traumatized and timid Lou was taken to a shelter filled with dozens of other cockatoos. He had to be quarantined for a month, and then he was placed into the aviary, still in his cage in order to protect him from possible aggression. When the staff finally decided it was safe to open his cage, he climbed to its roof, and a beautiful scene ensued. One of the females, Princess, sidled over to Lou in the most non-threatening and gentle way, with her back to him, as if to say, “Don’t mind me, not trying to bother you, just cleaning my wings over here.” Lou seemed to light up, and a moment later the two were preening each other’s neck feathers and clicking beaks as if they’d been together forever.
Humans make everything about relationships incredibly more complicated, with all sorts of arbitrary rules. I wonder if we could try just settling down with each other sometimes and sharing a nice piece of fruit or something.
We think of the natural world as a place of ruthless competition, but as Lynne McTaggart made clear in her book The Bond, cooperation is more prevalent and more beneficial. It can be shown rigorously, through game theory, that cooperation generally leads to the best outcomes for all. Many times, though, altruism seems to gain an animal nothing in particular except perhaps a pleasant feeling. McTaggart began the book* with an example of not a dog-eat-dog but a dog-help-dog story. It seems that her own dog was crazy about the dog next door, and although there was no advantage to be had for mating (both dogs being fixed), or anything at all other than friendship, he shared food and toys with her whenever he got the chance.
I know not every kind of animal enjoys company like this, but through the magical power of Facebook videos, I’ve marveled at the variety of animals who do. Even creatures as “unintelligent” as tortoises interact with other animals in fascinating and complex ways. Every species from bats to wombats seems to appreciate care and snuggling under the right circumstances. Humans are no different.
*http://thebond.net/ I went to find a link to the book for you, and found that there are other related materials available. Haven’t checked these out as yet.
After working on this post during the afternoon, I attended a web meeting of a new organization that’s trying to form, based on Alex Loyd’s book Beyond Willpower. The central idea of the book is extremely simple: You can have love, or you can have fear. If you act out of love, things will generally go well, and if you act out of fear, they will tend to go badly. At the time that the book was published, earlier this year, I was encountering this idea over and over in various places. I don’t think there is a more important concept anywhere. It transforms everything. The group intends to help spread the transformation.
Aggression and other negative behaviors have fear at their core. There is fear of abandonment, for example, at the bottom of the violence Basil the parrot visited on his family when his preferred human was not at home. Humans have the choice to think more clearly about the reasons for their behavior and to change it for the better.