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Polly Wants a ... Chance
Many of us are suckers for a pet store, drawn in by the allure of cuddly kittens, and mesmerized by the colorful plumage of exotic birds from all over the globe.
What people don't typically stop and wonder about is the journey that these animals and birds traveled to get to the shop -- and, more importantly, what they left behind.
It's a crucial question, I realized recently when I visited the World Parrot Refuge in Coombs, a small town on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The island is home to approximately 1,000 Jewish families, the majority of them clustered around the provincial capital of Victoria.
Its Emanu-El Synagogue -- an egalitarian Conservative congregation founded in 1863 in what was then the Colony of Vancouver Island -- is the country's oldest continuously operating synagogue, and is a national heritage building.
But back to the birds: Trade in wild birds is so highly lucrative, it's considered second only to drug-trafficking. What most people don't know is that only 20 percent of birds caught in the wild survive long enough to get to the market. The other 80 percent die torturous deaths along the way, in overcrowded cages with little attention or care.
Those that make it to the pet store can't anticipate a much happier destiny -- though their captors and the pet-store owners enjoy the lucrative sales that these birds bring in. In Canadian pet stores, the cost of an exotic parrot starts at $800 and can go up to $10,000. Yet the average captive parrot spends most of its life in or on a cage, and fed a monotonous, incomplete diet of manufactured food.
Many cannot fly; their wings have been clipped. As such, they live with the fear and psychosis of not being able to escape perceived danger, and thereby falling. As young birds reach maturity, the restriction of their natural desire to fly, forage, raise young and socialize with other birds often manifests in neurotic behavior.
Luckily, there's a guardian angel for some of these animals.
Her name is Wendy Huntbatch, and she's the co-owner of Coombs' World Parrot Refuge -- a sanctuary that started purely by accident. Thirteen years ago, Huntbatch's home was burglarized, and four of her six parrots were stolen, a loss that was devastating for her and her husband, Horst Neumann.
Not one to sit and complain, she placed advertisements to try and find them, and her telephone started ringing. It hasn't stopped since.
Within a week, her home had suddenly become a refuge for 15 large birds. "People were calling me because they wanted to get rid of their exotic birds," she said. "We took this as a sign that we needed to do something for the birds, that it was our mission to look after them."
In 2004, the couple used their savings to purchase a 20-acre property in Coombs, where they built flight compounds, a hospital unit and a special care section for the birds. Open for one year, the refuge is now home to more than 700 feathered friends, including cockatoos, parrots and macaws.
For some of these magnificent creatures, the World Parrot Refuge is their happily ever after.
They learn to behave like birds again, starting to interact with other birds and to flock. Their health and nutrition are carefully monitored, and their floor-to-ceiling compounds are filled with branches to simulate a jungle, with toys to stimulate them and keep them occupied.
It's expensive, to say the least, which is why the refuge is open to the public for a fee.
Huntbatch even hopes to introduce a "picnic with the birds" opportunity for visitors.
"It costs us $500 a year to keep a bird in here," she said. "Of all the people that have sent us the birds they can no longer care for or no longer want, only 20 have continued to support their birds financially. The rest think they're doing us a favor."
In truth, the only great deal is to leave these birds alone in the jungles where they belong -- far from cages, wing-clippings and over-zealous pet owners.
But if that's an ideal that cannot be achieved today, then it's comforting to know that in this small world, there is indeed a Wendy Huntbatch.
For more information, see: www.worldparrotrefuge.org.