Of Parrots and People: The Sometimes Funny, Always Fascinating, and Often Catastrophic Collision of Two Intelligent Species, by Mira Tweti, is a wonderful source for those looking to understand the intersection of people and parrots. The book progresses nicely from a brief overview of the current scientific understanding of the complexities of bird brains, focusing on the intelligence of parrots, to stories and anecdotes about those who own parrots (parronts in the lexicon of the parrot-owning community), to information about the parrot-selling and breeding industry (and the parrot rescuers and rehabbers), reporting on the cat-and-mouse game played by parrot-smugglers and law enforcement, and, finally, a journey to South America to report on conservation efforts in the wild.
Before reading this book I must confess I knew virtually nothing about the parrot industry. And for those who question calling the network of pet stores, smugglers, trappers, veterinarians, breeders, and owners an industry, well, read the book. My knowledge of pet parrots came from knowing a couple people growing up who owned them and a vague understanding that some unethical people occasionally caught and smuggled them, killing many in the process. This book was a real eye-opener in terms of the horrible actions of trappers, smugglers, breeders, and, yes, owners, of these magnificent birds. Tweti, who has a background in investigative journalism, is an excellent guide to both the surface and subsurface aspects of the interactions between humankind and parrots, and she went to great lengths, interviewing many people, traveling to see things for herself, and, occasionally, putting herself into slightly dangerous circumstances, to get the information for the book.
Parrots are not domesticated pets like cats and dogs. Even when bred in captivity and hand-raised they are still wild birds. The domestic pet industry portrays parrots as pretty playthings, not as the wild, sometimes intemperate, loud, and needy creatures that they are. Simply put, a parrot in the typical wire cage, fed a bland diet, without the stimulation or interaction with other birds that it needs, goes insane. As Tweti says in the chapter “Parrots and Parronts” “Isolating a parrot in a cage is the antithesis of its natural state. It is, plain and simple, avian abuse.”
Parrots are social creatures, and sticking one in a cage (which are often far too small) for years and years, isolated and unable to move freely, is tantamount to torture. Parrot owners might not even understand that their pets are misbehaving or self-mutilating because they lack stimulation. Tweti details how often prospective parrot owners are lured into buying a pet parrot by deceptive advertising and gimmicks like “starter cages” which are nothing but cheap, undersized cages that don’t give the room parrots need and make no sense except when an industry’s greed for dollars is taken into account. All too often a parrot is bought and then shunted into a back room, released, abused, or abandoned when the new owner is overwhelmed by the parrot’s needs or misbehavior. There are currently far more birds being given up by owners than the underfunded and all-too-scarce shelter system can adequately take. There are those that care deeply for their wild pets and do everything in their power to ensure that the birds live a happy and well-adjusted life. But the parrots are still wild birds that, all-in-all, would be happier and healthier as free wild birds, and even after a life-long relationship pet parrots will literally bite the hand that feeds them.
Almost everyone now agrees that catching wild parrots and sticking them in a cage is wrong. There are many specifics about the methods of capturing and smuggling (and attempting to interdict trappers and smugglers) in the book but because it seems almost everyone agrees that this is bad behavior I’ll not get into the details here. I was surprised to learn, however, how ineffective The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) is in protecting parrots. Essentially, CITES, corrupted by the greedy, often waits far too long before acting to protect species that then need much more money and attention to prevent their slide into the oblivion of extinction. Stronger laws and harsher punishments, coupled with more attention placed on developing ecotourism and other, less-harmful, employment, is needed to help species that are already dangerously low in numbers recover and prevent other species from getting to that situation.
In contrast with the strong public opinion against trapping and smuggling birds (when people think about such things at all), many still defend those who breed parrots (on a commercial scale) in captivity for resale as pets. Tweti destroys the notion that captive breeding is any less cruel with her in-depth reporting. The fact is, as Greg Glendell, a British parrot consultant (who has provided an article for Parrot Month which will be posted soon), is quoted as saying in the book, “This stuff is not complicated: the function of the parrot trade is bucks and damn the birds.”
Descriptions of breeding facilities provided by Tweti are not for the faint of heart, and would do Dickens proud. The process of mutilating aggressive male birds’ beaks, the stacking of cages so fecal matter drips on the birds below, the removal of young before they are old enough to survive on their own, the deprivation of any enrichment so birds have nothing to do but breed, and a host of other disgusting and depraved methods are described at length. The idea that captive breeders might be saving species is also exploded, with the revelation that the most critically-endangered species are not the ones being bred by the commercial breeders, mostly because they are not the big, bright, and flashy birds that buyers want. Also, when birds are taken out of the wild to provide a breeding stock or to be simply sold, that act alone greatly reduces the number of birds living naturally, as parrots have for millions of years, and drives the birds closer to extinction in the wild.
I don’t want to give the notion that the book is all doom and gloom: Tweti spends time interviewing rehabbers and visiting facilities where sick, abused, or abandoned parrots are given some respite. She also spends a couple of chapters describing her trips to see wild parrots and the good work being done by conservationists attempting to help save the wild populations that are still extant. Particularly interesting are the much-lauded ecotourism ventures funded by Charles Munn‘s Tropical Nature that Tweti focuses on. The ecotourism sites deeply involve the locals, and some ex-trappers now work to protect the birds they once decimated. The chapters Tweti devotes to her trips to sites in Peru and Brazil are inspiring, as is the fact that Tweti encourages readers to donate one dollar to help replace the trees that were sacrificed for the paper on which the book is printed.
I highly recommend this book to those who want to learn more about the horrible destruction humanity has wrought all in order to have pretty birds in cages. I imagine that this review might lead to a parront or two commenting about how their birds are well-cared for, loved, and have plenty of enrichment but the fact is, unless their birds were rescued from neglectful or abusive situations, anyone who owns a parrot may well be complicit in a exploitative, harmful, and destructive industry that should be banned immediately, at least in this reviewer’s opinion.
Of Parrots and People: The Sometimes Funny, Always Fascinating, and Often Catastrophic Collision of Two Intelligent Species
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Viking Adult; 1 edition (August 14, 2008)
Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.3 x 1.4 inches
I once saved a parrot from a frat house. He was the sweetest bird ever. He was very kind and totally appreciated the life we gave him. When we got him he had a cold and his nails were corkscrewed. He was terrified of everything. I will never forget having to give him antibiotic shots. I put him on his back and poked him with the needle in his breast. Parrots are amazing. He was just very calm and very delicately felt my fingers with his beak and toungue as if preening them. I believe he knew I was trying to help him. He recovered and still lives with my ex-husband and gets to fly free around his house when he wants. It was a rewarding feeling to help this little guy.
I hate to see parrots used as decoration which is what most people use them for.They are extremely intelligent creatures that deserve respect.
This is a book that needed to be written. Glad to know about it…thanks.
I love the parrot scenes in the film Winged Migration. Hypnotic and hopeful….
I’ve been meaning to get this book from Amazon.
Came here from book review blog carnival. This sounds like a good book to popularize. A few years ago I started learning about parrots because my family was interested in getting one, and we learned that it wasn’t a good idea. The best book I read then said that a parrot is as much work as a high-maintenance dog, like a border collie. I’d like to know more of what to do about pet shops that sell birds in cages.
An outstanding book that tells the true story. If one were to conduct a Google search for this book now, one would see that Ms. Tweti is now in the process of raising funds for a feature film based on her book. It is due to start filming this Summer. It is so incredibly refreshing to see the word finally get out! Thank you, Mira, and thank you, 10000 Birds!
Having worked with parrots for more than 20 years, I have never read such a load of hogwash in my life. Ms. Tweti is one of the throngs of PETA supporters that are against keeping pets of any kind. The claim that keeping a parrot in a cage drives them insane, is simply a lie, as are most of the claims put forward by these people. Most parrots sold in the US today are hand raised, and this is the life they know. Most people that have parrots, currently over six million in the US, do so by making sure their bird is happy and well cared for overall. Those that neglect or abuse the bird are few in comparison, and while it is a bad situation for that bird, and should result in the bird being taken to a better home, it is the exception, not the average situation. If you were to base your thinking off what she says, or the few posts here, you would think that all parrots are miserable. That is simply not true. I can show you literally thousands of stories to prove that point. People need to be educated in caring for birds. Unfortunately, some are simply not intelligent enough themselves to be able to provide the necessary care, and those people should stick to cats, or some other animal that doesn’t want or need actual thought to care for them.
@Bill: Your generalized and unsubstantiated claims are noted, as is your ignorance.
@Bill: I agree with Corey. the only intelligent thing you uttered was that many people are simply not objective (intelligent) enough to think about and provide natural and necessary care. In the same breath, you say, “those people should stick to cats, or some other animal that doesn’t want or need actual thought to care for them.” This post makes me think that any pet or animal placed in your care would be at risk. You have obviously not read much on the subject. Want a crash course? Check out the horror stories every day on our website.
Education is the key and it will take time. Don’t feel alone, Bill! You have plenty of company but there are a loyal and dedicated core of parrot lovers whose numbers are increasing daily and we have the patience and perseverance to make a difference in the lives of these long-lived, intelligent wild animals. We don’t make a dime on the backs of these magnificent creatures and that guarantees our success. Please think about it?
Please go and read the comments about this book on Cape Parrot Project’s wall.
I have worked with a rescue for several years. I agree that these wonderful intelligent creatures should never have been pets. However, the sad truth is that they are. I have several birds that I adopted that we’re given up for various reasons. They are all highly intelligent magnificent beings. Some are wild caught but most are captive bred. I have tried to educate myself on caring for them, but I am always learning and mostly from them. The rescue I work with really tries to educate people on the birds they have & how to care for them. Education is very important.