WHAT DOES A PARROT KNOW ABOUT PTSD di Charles Siebertjan
An unexpected bond between damaged birds and traumatized veterans could reveal surprising insights into animal intelligence.
Early 30 years ago, years ago, Lilly Love lost her way. She had just completed her five-year tour of duty as an Alaska-based Coast Guard helicopter rescue swimmer, one of an elite team of specialists who are lowered into rough, frigid seas to save foundering fishermen working in dangerous conditions. The day after she left active service, the helicopter she had flown in for the previous three years crashed in severe weather into the side of a mountain, killing six of her former crewmates. Devastated by the loss and overcome with guilt, Love chose as her penance to become one of the very fishermen she spent much of her time in the Coast Guard rescuing. In less than a year on the job, she nearly drowned twice after being dragged overboard in high seas by the hooks of heavy fishing lines.
Love would not formally receive a diagnosis of severe post-traumatic stress disorder for another 15 years. In that time, she was married and divorced three times, came out as transgender and retreated periodically to Yelapa, Mexico, where she lived in an isolated cabin accessible only by water. She eventually ended up living on a boat in a Los Angeles marina, drinking heavily and taking an array of psychotropic drugs that doctors at the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration Medical Center began to prescribe with increasing frequency as Love proved resistant to traditional treatments like counseling and group therapy. One night, after her fifth stay in the center’s psych ward, she crashed her boat into a sea wall. Finally, in 2006, she was in the veterans’ garden and happened to catch sight of the parrots being housed in an unusual facility that opened a year earlier on the grounds of the center.‘‘This place is why I’m still here,’’ Love, now 54, told me one day last summer as I watched her undergo one of her daily therapy sessions at the facility, known as Serenity Park, a name that would seem an utter anomaly to anyone who has ever been within 200 yards of the place. Inside one mesh-draped enclosure, Julius, a foot-high peach-white Moluccan cockatoo with a pink-feathered headdress, was madly pacing, muttering in the native tongue of the Korean woman who, along with her recently deceased husband, had owned him. Next door, a nearly three-foot-tall blue-and-gold macaw named Bacardi, abandoned by a truck driver who was spending too much time on the road, kept calling out for someone named Muffin, before abruptly rising up and knocking over his tray of food to surrounding squawks of delight. Across the way, Pinky, a Goffin’s cockatoo, the castoff of a bitter custody battle between his original female owner and the husband who threatened to spite her by cutting off her beloved pet’s wings, was mimicking a blue jay’s high-pitched power-saw plaint. More screams rang out and then, in the ensuing silences, random snippets of past conversations: ‘‘Hey, sweetheart!’’ ‘‘Whatever.’’ ‘‘Oh, well.’’ ‘‘Whoa! C’mon man!’’ Soon, from a far corner, came the whistling, slow and haunted, of the theme from ‘‘Bridge on the River Kwai.’’‘‘They had me loaded up on so many kinds of medications, I was seeing little green men and spiders jumping out of trees,’’ Love continued, as a six-inch-tall female caique parrot from the Amazon Basin named Cashew dutifully paced across her shoulders. Back and forth she went, from one side to the other, in determined, near- circular waddles.For the next 10 minutes, Love, her eyes closed, her arms still at her sides, continued to engage in one of the many daily duets she does with each one of Serenity Park’s winged residents, listing her shoulders up and down like a gently rocking ship, Cashew’s slow, feather-light paddings all the while putting Love further at ease. Now and again, Cashew would pause to give a gentle beak-brush of Love’s neck and ear, and then crane her head upward toward Love’s mouth to receive a couple of kisses. She made a few more passes, back and forth, then abruptly climbed atop Love’s head. Smiling broadly, Love let her loll around up there on her back for a time, Cashew using the same upward scooping wing flaps that caiques employ to bathe on wet rain-forest leaves. In the wild, caiques, diminutive dollops of luminous yellow, white and deep blue-green, fly in huge, tightly knit flocks whose collective wing feathers make a singular whirring sound above the rain-forest canopy. Cashew, however, for reasons unknown, had her wings overclipped by her former owner, who had bought her as a pet and then abandoned her. So each day now, Love helps her learn how to take to the air again. The flight lessons are usually administered at the end of Love’s daily rounds. Each morning at dawn, she arrives at Serenity Park from her boat at the marina. For the next four to five hours, she, like the six other veterans in the work-therapy program there, brings food and water to the parrots, cleans their cages and nuzzles and coos and talks and squawks with them. Love, by far the most animated of the veterans that I met at the park, flits from enclosure to enclosure, miming each bird’s movements, mimicking their individual voices and attitudes and, as with Cashew, tries to restore what was taken from them.
She had only to say her student’s name once that day and Cashew was upright in Love’s right palm, a knowing head tilt signaling her readiness. Love set Cashew on a nearby perch and with the thumb and forefinger of both hands took hold of each wing by the tip and moved them up and down a few times as though priming a pump. She then extended an index finger, held Cashew briefly aloft and with a quick thrust upward let her fall free. Some frantic flailing quickly morphed into firmer flaps, Cashew’s wings finally gathering just enough air for her to gain the netting on the far side of her large mesh home. ‘‘You see,’’ Love said, beaming. ‘‘She can actually go a little distance.’’
Taking hold of Cashew once again, she cupped her against her cheek. ‘‘Their spirit gives me the will to get up and do it another day. They’re all victims here. Kind of like what the veterans have been through, in a way.’’ Love lowered her hands and watched Cashew roll over once more on her back, a play position known as wrestling that is peculiar to caiques. ‘‘They don’t belong in captivity,’’ Love said, rubbing Cashew’s white breast feathers. ‘‘But they have a real survivor’s mentality. These forgotten great beams of light that have been pushed aside and marginalized. I see the trauma, the mutual trauma that I suffered and that these birds have suffered, and my heart just wants to go out and nurture and feed and take care of them, and doing that helps me deal with my trauma. All without words.’’
Abandoned pet parrots are twice-traumatized beings: denied first their natural will to flock and then the company of the humans who owned them. In the wild, parrots ply the air, mostly, in the same way whales do the sea: together and intricately. Longtime pairs fly wing to wing within extended, close-knit social groupings in which individual members, scientists have recently discovered, each have unique identifiable calls, like human names. Parrots learn to speak them soon after birth, during a transitional period of vocalizing equivalent to human baby babbling known as ‘‘subsong,’’ in order to better communicate with members of their own flocks and with other flocks. This, it turns out, is the root of that vaunted gift for mimicry, which, along with their striking plumages and beguilingly fixed, wide-eyed stares, has long induced us to keep parrots — neuronally hard-wired flock animals with up to 60-to-70-year life spans and the cognitive capacities of 4-to-5-year-old children — all to ourselves in a parlor cage: a broken flight of human fancy; a keening kidnapee.
There were 34 parrots at Serenity Park when I was there last summer — representing a range of the more than 350 species in the psittaciformes order — a majority of them abandoned and now deeply traumatized former pets that had outlived either their owners or their owners’ patience. A parrot separated from its flock will flock fully and fiercely to the attentions and affections of its new human keeper. And when that individual, for whatever reason, fails to uphold his or her end of such an inherently exclusive relationship, the effects are devastating.
Up and down the aviary-lined corridor of Serenity Park are the winged wreckages of such broken bonds. On and on they go: the ceaseless pacing and rocking and screaming, the corner-cowering, self-plucking and broken-record remembrances. And yet at Serenity Park, the very behaviors that once would have further codified our parrot caricatures — ‘‘birdbrained,’’ ‘‘mindless mimicry,’’ ‘‘mere parroting’’ and so on — are recognized as classic symptoms of the same form of complex post-traumatic stress disorder afflicting the patients in the Veterans Administration Medical Center. They’re also being seized upon as a source of mutual healing for some of the most psychologically scarred members of both species.
‘‘The problem with parrots is that they’re so intensely attuned,’’ Lorin Lindner, the psychologist who founded Serenity Park, told me one afternoon as we stood watching Julius pace back and forth, speaking in Korean. ‘‘Parrots have so many social neurons. Their brain is filled with the capacity to mirror their flock. It’s so crucial for survival to be able to know what the flock is doing, to know what the danger signs are, when they have to get together, when night is falling and they are called to roost. They’re so attuned to being socially responsive that they can easily transfer that to us. They have the ability to connect, to feel this closeness with another being, another species.’’
Listening to Julius that day reminded me of a story I read not long ago in the journal Current Biology about a 22-year-old male Asian elephant named Koshik that resides at the Everland Zoo in Yongin, South Korea. Separated from the two female Asian elephants he was raised with in captivity, Koshik lived alone at Everland for seven years, a period during which he construed a way of speaking perfectly intelligible Korean words by sticking his trunk in his mouth and then using his tongue to shape his own plosive trumpetings into the language of the zoo’s workers and local visitors. Such ‘‘vocal learning,’’ the researchers who wrote the paper concluded, isn’t an attempt to directly communicate with us so much as it is a way for a highly social species like the elephant ‘‘to cement social bonds’’ with the only other species available.
It’s one of those unlikely natural outcomes of the so-called anthropocene, the first epoch to be named after us: the prolonged confinement of intelligent and social creatures, compelling them to speak the language of their keepers. And now, in yet another unlikely occurrence, parrots, among the oldest victims of human acquisitiveness and vainglory, have become some of the most empathic readers of our troubled minds. Their deep need to connect is drawing the most severely wounded and isolated PTSD sufferers out of themselves. In an extraordinary example of symbiosis, two entirely different outcasts of human aggression — war and entrapment — are somehow helping each other to find their way again.
Lindner, a 59-year-old native of Queens, N.Y., knew little about parrots when she first came to Los Angeles in 1976 to finish college and go to grad school in behavioral sciences at U.C.L.A. Then one day in 1987, a week before Christmas, she received a call from a friend who knew of her deep affection and affinity for animals. ‘‘He was looking for someone to take this female parrot he heard about named Sammy,’’ Lindner recalled. ‘‘She was living alone in a Beverly Hills mansion. The owner had put the house up for sale and decided to leave Sammy behind. The bird matched the place’s décor, and he thought the new owners might like that. He was sending his driver over once a week to feed her. When I went to get her, the feces in her cage were piled up in a pyramid that reached her perch.’’
The following year, Lindner started a private practice in Westwood and began to do pro bono work with the increasing number of homeless veterans she encountered in the community, many of them living at that time in encampments under the nearby 405 freeway while awaiting appointments at the West Los Angeles V.A. medical center. Overwhelmed by their stories, she began devoting herself full time to veterans, eventually enlisting the backing of the state to head a nonprofit homeless-veteran-rehabilitation program, known as New Directions, at a residential treatment center.
Spending more and more time at work, Lindner soon decided to take in another orphaned cockatoo named Mango as a ‘‘flock mate’’ for Sammy. Before long, she was tending to both New Directions, which was relocated in 1997 to a newly refurbished building on the grounds of the V.A. center, and a sanctuary for homeless parrots that she started that same year with a friend on a four-acre plot an hour-and-a-half drive north in Ojai. One morning, near the end of 1997, Lindner found herself leading yet another veterans’ group-therapy session that was getting nowhere.
‘‘The guys are sitting around, all stoic, arms crossed, not saying anything,’’ she recalled. ‘‘They’d been like that for a number of weeks. So for a change, I took them up to Ojai to help build some new aviaries there. All of the sudden these same tight-lipped guys are cuddling up to the parrots and talking away with them.’’
Lindner was soon repeating the same exercise with other veterans. The transformations she saw in both species were so pronounced that she promptly set about persuading the V.A. to allot her the grounds of an old outdoor basketball court just down the hill from the medical center so she could move the birds from her Ojai sanctuary and start a work-therapy program there. (Veterans are paid a stipend to work in the sanctuary; some, like Love, volunteer their time.) She began with two 25-foot-high aviaries; there are now nearly two dozen. Some hold as many as three or four birds, like Kiki, Phoebe and Dino (a.k.a. the Three Stooges), a now inseparable troika of umbrella cockatoos who spend their days cuddling and grooming one another. Others contain just one bonded pair like Mandy and Kookie, a female and male eclectus parrot couple, a species native to the Solomon Islands, or Jester and Tango, one Harlequin and one green-wing macaw, who never leave each other’s side. And then there are the quarters of the inveterate loners, birds still caught somewhere between their inherent, wild selves and their captive ones: Cashew, Bacardi or Julius, who is afraid of other parrots because, as Lindner explained, ‘‘he doesn’t think he is one.’’
As I stood talking that day with Lindner, who is warm and effusive, with long blond hair and bangs, I watched Jim Minick, a former Navy helicopter-squadron member who did three tours of duty overseas and suffered severe upper-body injuries in a fall from his chopper, get his fingernails cleaned by Bacardi, the blue-and-gold macaw. In another enclosure, Jason Martinez, a wheelchair-bound Army veteran, sat alongside Molly, an African gray, resting on her perch, the two of them just staring at each other.
Love approached. She was holding an elderly Goffin’s cockatoo named Bobbi, a bird kept most of her life by her owner in a kitchen drawer. She looked like a tiny plucked blue chicken, her only remaining plumage some straggly wing and tail feathers and a frayed skull cap of the ones she couldn’t reach with her beak to mutilate. Love held Bobbi aloft on her index finger and then went dashing down the path between the compound’s two rows of aviaries, shouting, ‘‘Fly, Bobbi, fly,’’ giving her fruitlessly flapping charge at least the semblance of flight.
‘The parrots get what
the veterans are going
through and, of course,
the veterans get them,
too, because, hey, they
are all pretty much
traumatized birds around here.’
‘‘You can look in their eyes,’’ Love said, returning with Bobbi, ‘‘any of these parrots’ eyes, and I myself see a soul. I see a light in there. And when they look at you, they see right into your soul. Look around. They’re all watching. They notice everything. It’s intense.’’
I turned to take in a multitiered array of stares, feeling at once beheld and uplifted by creatures a fraction of my weight. I couldn’t place it at first, the slow-swiveling sideswipe of their gazes, the way they’ll dip their heads below their own bodies and then crane smoothly upward, like a movie camera pulling focus. And then it came to me: They reminded me of those C.G.I. velociraptors in films, except that the scales have turned to feathers and the stunted forelimbs to vibrant wings. Time, all at once, lurched wildly backward and ahead, depositing me right back where I’d been, in that moment, and yet deeper and more present.
‘‘God is a parrot,’’ Love said. ‘‘I know that now. God supposedly interprets and mimics what we do on earth, right? Is a reflection of us? So I believe God, if she exists, must be a parrot.’’
Animal-assisted therapy is hardly a novel prescription, having been employed at least since the 18th century, when the York Retreat for the mentally ill opened in England in 1796 and began allowing patients to roam the outside grounds among farm animals. At his office in Vienna, Sigmund Freud regularly had his chow Jofi on hand during psychoanalysis sessions to reassure and relax his patients, allowing them to open up more readily. The U.S. military used dogs as early as 1919 as a therapeutic aid in the treatment of psychiatric patients at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington. Still, what distinguishes the mutually assuaging bond that the veterans and parrots are forming at Serenity Park is the intelligence — at once different from ours and yet recognizable — of the nonhuman part of the equation.
There is abundant evidence now that parrots possess cognitive capacities and sensibilities remarkably similar to our own. Alex, the now-deceased African gray parrot studied for years by his longtime companion, Dr. Irene Pepperberg, a psychology professor, is regularly held up as the paragon of parrot intelligence. His cognitive skills tested as high as those of a 5-year-old child. He mastered more than 100 words, grasped abstract concepts like absence and presence (Alex excelled at the shell game) and often gave orders to and toyed with the language of researchers who studied him, purposely giving them the wrong answers to their questions to alleviate his own boredom. Alex was also given to demonstrating what we would characterize in ourselves as ‘‘hurt feelings.’’ When Pepperberg returned to Alex one morning after a three-week absence, he turned his back on her in his cage and commanded, ‘‘Come here!’’
Stories like these are, in fact, legion among those who keep and work with parrots. Dr. Patricia Anderson, an anthropologist at Western Illinois University, told me that her expertise in anthrozoology, the study of human-animal relations, is daily tested by her own cadre of adopted, orphaned parrots, including the first bird she decided to take in nearly 30 years ago, a Quaker, or monk, parrot named Otis.
‘‘He was so bright,’’ Anderson told me. ‘‘I taught him to say ‘thank you.’ Very anthropocentric of me, I know, but he generalized it appropriately to anything I ever did for him. He never said it randomly. He only said it when I did something for him, so it appeared to have meaning to him. There appeared to be some cognition going on, and this totally blew my mind.’’ Anderson read extensively about parrots and learned that anytime she left, she should say, ‘‘I’ll be right back.’’ ‘‘I started saying that, and then whenever I began to put my shoes on in the morning to get ready to go to work, he’d say: ‘Right back? Right back?’ ’’
Though the avian cerebrum possesses only the tiniest nub of the structures associated with mammalian intelligence, recent studies of crows and parrots have revealed that birds think and learn using an entirely different part of their brains, a kind of avian neocortex known as the medio-rostral neostriatum/hyperstriatum ventrale. In both parrots and crows, in fact, the ratio of brain to body size is similar to that of the higher primates, an encephalization quotient that yields in both species not only the usual indications of cognitive sophistication like problem-solving and tool use but also two aspects of intelligence long thought to be exclusively human: episodic memory and theory of mind, the ability to attribute mental states, like intention, desire and awareness, to yourself and to others.
Nature, in other words, in a stunning example of parallel or convergent evolution, found an entirely other and far earlier path to complex cognition: an alien intelligence that not only links directly back to minds we’ve long believed to be forever lost to us, like the dinosaurs’, but that can also be wounded, under duress, in the same ways our minds can. In one recent psychiatric study conducted at Midwest Avian Adoption and Rescue Services, a parrot sanctuary and rehabilitation facility in Minnesota, a captive-bred male umbrella cockatoo who had been ‘‘exposed to multiple caregivers who were themselves highly unstable (e.g. domestic violence, substance abuse . . . addiction)’’ was given a diagnosis of complex PTSD. ‘‘When examined through the lens of complex PTSD,’’ Dr. Gay Bradshaw, a psychologist and ecologist and an author of the study, wrote, ‘‘the symptoms of many caged parrots are almost indistinguishable from those of human P.O.W.s and concentration-camp survivors.’’ She added that severely traumatized cockatoos ‘‘commonly exhibit rapid pacing in cage, distress calls, screams, self-mutilation, aggression in response to . . . physical contact, nightmares . . . insomnia.’’
Veterans, of course, share similar psychological scarring, but whenever I asked any of them how it is that the parrots succeed in connecting where human therapists and fellow group-therapy members can’t, the answer seemed to lie precisely in the fact that parrots are alien intelligences: parallel, analogously wounded minds that know and feel pain deeply and yet at a level liberatingly beyond the prescriptive confines of human language and prejudices.
‘‘They look at you, and they don’t judge,’’ Jim Minick, the badly injured helicopter-squad member, told me. ‘‘The parrots look at you, and it’s all face value. It’s pure.’’
One afternoon at the sanctuary, I went up the hill to the V.A. hospital to talk with Leslie Martin. A clinical social worker and a director at the center’s trauma-recovery services, she often recommends parrot therapy for patients, including those who are ‘‘treatment resistant,’’ like Lilly Love. I asked Martin if the primordial nature of the parrot’s intelligence might have a particular effect on certain veterans. ‘‘Everyone knows these animals are very sensitive, like children,’’ she said. ‘‘The pure, primitive nature of their feelings, their emotions, activates your primitive brain. And then when they speak to you, it’s a real high.’’
Previous studies have shown that effective trauma therapies can help the brain construct neuronal bypasses around the scarred areas of a traumatized brain. ‘‘They’re only just starting to do research on this now, but there are phenomena that are operating in the prefrontal cortex,’’ Martin said. ‘‘There are some physiological and chemical changes happening that are real, that are measurable.’’ Lindner says she would like to one day enlist researchers to study the brain science behind the efficacy of parrot therapy and whether it is the parrots themselves that are helping the veterans or whether there are other variables at work. For now, however, she uses as her measure the nearby veterans’ garden just across from Serenity Park. For years, afflicted veterans were brought to work in the garden as a way of treating their trauma, essentially working in the same tranquil setting as the veterans at Serenity Park, the one obvious difference, of course, being the parrots. Lindner said she thinks that, using conventional measures of improvement for veterans suffering trauma — the ability to stay clean and sober; keeping up with their case-manager appointments; reuniting with family; finding gainful employment, and so on — the veterans who have been working with the parrots are doing better than those who spend time working at the garden.
‘‘There’s definitely something different going on at this place,’’ Lindner said. ‘‘We know that what’s preserved across species, all vertebrates truthfully, is the ability to feel compassion. As for birds and humans, we both have sympathetic nervous responses. We react the same way to trauma on the physiological level and in terms of the reparative nature of compassion and empathy. That’s what is doing the healing. That’s what is bringing the broken halves together. We don’t know what the actual healing factor is, but I believe that it has to do with mental mirroring. That the parrots get what the veterans are going through and, of course, the veterans get them, too, because, hey, they are all pretty much traumatized birds around here.’’
One afternoon at Serenity Park, a white pickup truck roared to a stop behind the work shed. Lindner emerged from the passenger side with a wooden box containing the ashes of her first parrot, Sammy, who died last March after living with Lindner for 27 years. Sammy was to be buried at the park later that day. The truck was driven by Serenity Park’s manager, Matt Simmons, a tautly built, square-jawed 43-year-old, who came to the sanctuary in 2006 after making little progress as a patient in traditional group therapy at the V.A. When his therapist first instructed him to visit the aviary down the hill, Simmons thought he was going to be ‘‘dealing with chickens,’’ he later told me. What he found instead was himself, through the eyes of the park’s winged trauma victims. He began devoting his days to caring for the parrots, forming attachments that gradually drew him out of his sense of isolation and mistrust and allowed him, in turn, to start connecting with people as well. He and Lindner grew increasingly close, and in 2009 they were married at the sanctuary. Sammy was flower girl. Lindner held a bridal bouquet made of fallen parrot feathers.
‘Parrots have so many
social neurons. Their brain
is filled with the capacity
to mirror their flock.’
Simmons built his first computer in grade school. He joined the peacetime Navy right out of high school, he told me, to spite his father, who wanted him to go straight to college and then law school. He scored so high on his recruitment aptitude tests that the Navy wanted to assign him to a nuclear submarine. Simmons managed, instead, to secure what he believed would be a relatively easy tour as a yeoman — essentially an administrative and clerical position — on an aircraft carrier, until that ship made a sudden turn in early 1991.
‘‘We’re told we’re headed for Puerto Rico,’’ Simmons told me at dinner one night with Lindner. ‘‘And the next thing I know is the sun is behind the ship and the announcement comes that we’re off to the Persian Gulf. I wound up in Bahrain, in-country, on a top-secret mission, tethered to the belt of Navy SEALs. My secretary job was now to document beneath the thick smoke all the slayings and how many targets the planes had accurately hit. For months it looked like night during the day. I saw a lot of killing, and things I wish I hadn’t.’’
Upon his return from active duty, Simmons enrolled at the University of Cincinnati and studied literature and philosophy. He started his own software company while still in his junior year and starred at quarterback under Rex Ryan, now head coach of the Buffalo Bills, until being permanently sidelined by a knee injury. At first, he attributed the night terrors and cold sweats he began to experience in his last two years of school to the stress of course work and managing his new company. But he soon started drinking heavily, and by his late 20s became addicted to heroin and prescription drugs. Growing increasingly estranged from his first wife, he eventually was divorced, sold his company to LexisNexis and then hopped in his B.M.W. one day and headed for California, where he ended up spending a year in jail for assault after nearly killing a man in a bar fight.
The PTSD stemming from his time in the Navy wasn’t formally diagnosed for another two years. A friend suggested that he visit the West Los Angeles V.A. for help. Simmons told me that until then, he had no idea that what he was experiencing had to do with his military service. The regimen of new drugs that were prescribed by a psychiatrist there proved ineffective, and he grew increasingly closed off in therapy sessions that were dominated at that time by long-ignored Vietnam veterans with issues entirely different from those associated with the Gulf War. ‘‘I told my therapist this,’’ Simmons said, ‘‘and he basically said that if I didn’t go down and help out at the sanctuary, he was going to stop treating me.’’
Simmons instantly connected with the yellow-headed Amazon, Joey, who had adopted and raised from infancy two other birds at the sanctuary — a pair of female lilac-crowned Amazon parrots that had fallen from their nest — regurgitating his own food to feed them. For a male parrot to raise two females from another species is a rare display of altruism, Lindner told me, a behavior long thought to be exclusive to humans and other primates.
‘‘Joey came to Serenity Park around the same time I did,’’ Simmons told me. ‘‘That’s the first thing we had in common. I had learned that yellow-headed Amazons are not that friendly, so when Joey made an effort to befriend me, that meant even more. We were different species, but we got each other. I was shy, burned by humans, isolated, angry. Joey had what seemed to me the same attitude. So we bonded. He let me touch him. Only me.’’
Within weeks of his arrival at Serenity Park, Lindner told me, Simmons had pretty much taken over the place. He was up at 3 a.m. every day in the New Directions kitchen, preparing breakfast for all the veterans. Then he came down to the sanctuary and worked there until 6 in the evening, clearing out the compound, building new aviaries and expanding the existing ones.
When I asked Simmons to describe what happens to him when he is with a parrot, he instantly went into one of his signature high-speed soliloquies. ‘‘Here we go,’’ he said. ‘‘Write it down. There are things I have seen that will never leave me. There’s this huge sack of guilt and shame and pain that I carry with me, and I got it when I was 18 years old in Bahrain. Now, when I’m with a parrot, it’s not a total time-change thing, but I do have to act like a 12-year-old boy again. And here’s why. Because parrots are not domesticated animals. They haven’t been bred for hundreds of years to be at my feet.’’ Simmons paused for a sip of Coke, the third one of the night. ‘‘So in order to have a relationship with a parrot, that parrot has to select me. In order for that to happen, that parrot has to be comfortable. I have to come in open and quiet and calm. Much like that 12-year-old boy that met the mean dog next door and never had a problem. Much like that 12-year-old boy that went hiking and saw a mountain lion. I’m acting like the 12-year-old boy again around the parrots, and what that does is help me confront my trauma rather than carry it around. Because now I’m with a psychiatrist, and I’m talking about how this bird didn’t feel so good today and wasn’t very comfortable and was kind of hiding in the back of the cage, and the psychiatrist goes, ‘Hmm, you’re starting to talk about emotions.’ I’m talking about how the bird was feeling, but I’m also transferring my own emotions. So being with the parrots allows me to take that third-person look at my own trauma, which you can never do when you’re whacked out on Vicodin and Budweiser and living under a cement highway bridge.’’
We often think of empathy as a skill rather than the long-ago, neuronally ingrained bioevolutionary tool for survival that it actually is: the ability to inhabit the feelings of fellow beings (the word empathy derives from the Greek en, which means ‘‘in,’’ and pathos, meaning ‘‘suffering’’ or ‘‘experience’’); the ability to feel, for example, their fear over a threat; or thrill over a newly found food source; or sorrow over a loss, which has as much to do with the fabric of a community as any other. Empathy, in this sense, can be thought of as the source of all emotion, the one without which the others would have no register.
The more time I spent at Serenity Park last summer, the more I came to think in terms of the expansive anatomy of empathy. And not just the shared neuronal circuitry that has now been mapped across species, from us to the other primates to elephants and whales and, we now know, to creatures with entirely different, nonmammalian brains, like crows and parrots. I thought, as well, of the extraordinary capacity conferred by that circuitry to recognize and respond to the specific infirmities, both psychic and physical (although those are essentially one and the same) of another species.
I got a sense early on at the park of which parrots and veterans seemed most drawn to one another. The way, for example, Simmons said that the lilac-crowned Amazon, Dagwood, came to life around Jim Minick, the former Navy helicopter crewman. But I learned only later about the true depth of such bonds.
‘‘You know, Jim does a great job of hiding how wounded he was,’’ Simmons told me. ‘‘He has tattoos all over the elbow he can’t use anymore, and he won’t talk about it, but at one point he was sitting on the edge of the bed with a shotgun in his mouth and tears rolling down his face. On that same night, he drove his car into a tree, drunk out of his mind. So he comes to Serenity Park, and Jim doesn’t know the history of any of the birds, and which bird loved him at first? Dagwood, the one with a screwed-up wing and a crooked beak. There’s no way to explain it.’’
Jason Martinez, who suffered traumatic brain injuries parachuting into Afghanistan and now suffers from epileptic seizures, was immediately drawn to Molly, an African gray, the only parrot at Serenity Park, he learned only later, with epilepsy. And then there were the daily cheek-to-cheek murmurings between the bedraggled, drawer-bound Goffin’s cockatoo, Bobbi, and a blond 21-year-old ex-Marine named Josh Lozon.
‘‘Let’s talk about Josh,’’ Simmons said. ‘‘A good-looking guy with curly hair. He’s a little scary. He’s so broken, all of his wounds are still hidden. Who gets along with him best? Bobbi, mostly naked, bleeding from her remaining feathers. A bird who looks like a damn pterodactyl that went through a buzz saw.’’
Of all the veterans I encountered at the sanctuary, Lozon was by far the most skittish. The one time I was able to chat with him at length was when I found him early one morning atop an elevated wooden porch, one flight above a work shed, scrubbing the bars of an empty bird cage with a brush. My decision to head up the narrow steps that lead to it effectively trapped him up there.
He joined the Marines, he said, because he ‘‘wanted to hurt somebody.’’ He told me he received an exceptional score on his recruitment aptitude test, which landed him an office job working with computers, a post suited to his intellectual abilities but not his disposition. Sent to the V.A. for evaluation after frequent episodes of insubordination and erratic behavior, he was prescribed mood stabilizers and antipsychotics, neither of which, he sheepishly confided, he was presently taking, thanks to Serenity Park.
He was not able to put into words what exactly went on between him and the parrots. All he kept saying was, ‘‘It’s something about the cages.’’ Feeling his growing discomfort, I descended the stairs. Back on the ground, I looked up at Lozon, who was peacefully cooing and chirping back and forth with Koko, the Australian Adelaide rosella. He suddenly looked down at me. ‘‘They’re in these cages and helpless,’’ Lozon said, ‘‘and it’s not their fault.’’ He paused, and I started away. ‘‘But for me,’’ he continued, ‘‘I think it’s also that when I’m alone with them in those cages, I feel I don’t have to conform to what everyone expects of me. I’m free to be an animal again.’’ In the late afternoon on my last day at the sanctuary, I seemed to be the only one around. I passed Koko in his cage, sounding his particular strains of the park’s ongoing symphony of stranded human speech. I thought then of the numerous anecdotes people have told of wild-parrot flocks learning, via ‘‘cultural transmission,’’ to speak the human words taught to them by reintegrated former pets. In the parks of Sydney, Australia, where there are native wild-parrot flocks, people regularly overhear a ‘‘Hello, darling’’ or ‘‘What’s happening?’’ sounding from the trees above. The early German naturalist explorer Alexander von Humboldt wrote of encountering, during his travels in South America toward the close of the 18th century, a parrot that was the last living repository of the language of the extinct Atures Indian tribe. All alone now among the sanctuary’s parrots, I got a sudden glimpse of a possible future. One long beyond us and our traumas. A world of winged dinosaurs, soaring and chatting back and forth, their different local dialects inflected here and there with the occasional broken shards of a long lost one: ‘‘Hey, sweetheart.’’ ‘‘Whoa! C’mon man!’’ ‘‘Whatever!’’
Nearing Serenity Park’s exit, I decided to turn back and step inside Cashew’s quarters for a moment. I had only to nestle close to her perch and she immediately hopped on my back. Crisscrossing my shoulders as I had watched her do with Lilly Love, she stopped at one point for what I assumed would be the parrot equivalent of a kiss. Instead, she began to clean my teeth: her beak lightly tapping against my enamel, the faint vibrations strangely soothing. Immediately afterward, she took a brief nap in my shirt’s left breast pocket — it felt as if I’d grown another heart — then re-emerged and crawled to the top of my head. She strolled about there for a time before plucking out one of her own deep blue-green feathers and then descending to gently place it on my left shoulder. I have it still.