An adorable sweater-wearing cockatoo named Javi is making the rounds on the Internet, and while she might be one of the cutest animals you’ve seen all day, underneath all those colorful avian jumpers lies a sobering story about captive exotic birds.
Those sweaters, constructed from cotton crew socks, are meant to prevent Javi from plucking out her feathers — a nervous, stress-induced habit that she developed in her previous home.
You see, Javi is just one of nearly 40 birds recovering and living out their days at the Tallgrass Parrot Sanctuary in Lecompton, Kansas. Founded by former zoo keeper Kail Marie and her partner Michelle Brown, Tallgrass provides lifelong homes to birds and other animals — many of which have experienced trauma, abuse and neglect.
After she was surrendered in the wake of her former owner's eviction, Javi arrived at the sanctuary reeking of stale cigarettes and rancid garbage. Her name, which was originally "Hobby," was quickly changed to "Javi" (pronounced "Ha-Vee") because, as Marie explains, "no living being should be someone's hobby."
The parrot problem
Sadly, tales like Javi's are all too common. People adopt birds without fully understanding what it takes to care for such animals, and eventually they are unable to give the birds what they need to live happy, healthy lives.
Bringing home a parrot is not as straightforward as bringing home a dog or cat — because parrots aren't domesticated animals. These highly intelligent creatures possess complex emotions and require a great deal of time and energy from their caretakers to properly socialize and stimulate them in captivity.
On top of the high level of day-to-day maintenance required, parrots are also extremely long-lived. Depending on the species, many of these colorful avians can live for decades. While smaller parrots can live to around 15-20 years, the average lifespan of larger birds — such as macaws and cockatoos — is between 30 and 70 years.
The life of a rescued cockatoo
Javi still has a long road to recovery ahead, but after just a few months in the sanctuary's care, she's already starting to open up and show off her unique personality. She's even made fast friends with a Goffin's cockatoo named Sassy, who has taken her under her wing.
"Javi has just blossomed!" Marie tells MNN. "From being a shy little bird who was afraid of anything new to an outgoing, confident cockatoo. This is because she is now always either with me or her friend Sassy."
Despite the encouraging progress, it's not clear if Javi will be
able to regrow the feathers she plucked out in her
previous living environment.
Although she’s regained a few of her downy feathers since being rescued, Marie isn't sure if Javi will recover enough to allow the rest of them to
grow back — or whether they can grow back at
"The feather follicles also could be permanently damaged to where they are unable regenerate new feathers," Marie explains. "Only time will tell."
Activism through photography
In the wake of her rescue, the charismatic cockatoo received quite a bit of social media attention, which caught the eye of Brooklyn-based photographer Sara Forrest. After realizing that the sanctuary was located less than half an hour from her childhood home, Forrest got in touch with Marie to see if she could support the sanctuary's work using the power of photography.
"I firmly believe one of the most important parts of being a professional photographer is to help create awareness for people doing incredible things in this world," Forrest explains.
Another part of Forrest’s interest in photographing Javi and the other birds at the sanctuary stems from her decade-long relationship with her own parrot companion, a green cheek conure named Kiko.
"I understand how much time, attention and patience is required when you are sharing your home with a parrot. I know how affectionate and profoundly intelligent these animals are," Forrest tells MNN. "I also know there are baffling numbers of people who mindlessly purchase birds only to neglect them or try to pawn them off on others after seven or 10 years."
Sadly, due to the sheer number of abandoned and surrendered pet birds, many sanctuaries and rescues are forced to turn away needy birds on a daily basis. There simply isn't enough room or resources to adequately take care of them all.
The same applies to Tallgrass. Since Marie and Brown opened up their home as a sanctuary in 1995, their overarching mission has been to provide the animals they take in with a lifelong home that is dignified and stable and based on a philosophy of mutual respect. Because of this, no animals are adopted out, and to preserve the integrity and quality of the sanctuary's living conditions, there's a limit to the number of animals they can bring in at a time.
Forrest hopes that her photos of Javi and the other residents at the Tallgrass Parrot Sanctuary will educate and inspire others to take action to support sanctuaries like Tallgrass.
"Kail and her organization need all the help they can get," Forrest says. "Behind the scenes is constant cleanup, vet bills, construction of new space for them and any new birds she takes in, food, etc. It's a lot of work."
Disabled by human neglect
One of Tallgrass' needs that's particularly pressing is prosthetics for a
blue-and-yellow macaw named Baby (above), whose legs are permanently
disabled as a result of neglect she encountered in a previous home.
The circumstances of Baby's rescue is particularly heartbreaking and indicative of an even larger problem. As the sanctuary explains on its website:
"A man contacted Tallgrass, worried that his grandmother's obsession with birds was getting out of hand. Upon arrival at her home, our volunteer found a tiny house in desperate condition filled with more [than] 100 birds! Most were suffering from various levels of malnutrition, physical illness and mental distress. Although we negotiated with her for months, we were unable to secure the release of any bird save one: Our precious Baby Girl."
Before she was rescued, Baby spent her days cramped inside a tiny cage without a perch, nervously plucking at her feathers. The lack of a perch dealt permanent damage to Baby's legs and feet throughout the years. As a result, she is currently unable to perch or walk properly, and spends most of her days at the sanctuary staring out a large picture window while sitting on a custom-made padded platform.
Beaks of recovery
Despite their troubling pasts, Forrest hopes that people will see birds like Javi and Baby as the faces (or is it beaks?) of recovery: "I want people to know that these birds are trying to move on as best as they can, despite being misunderstood or neglected."
If you'd like to support the Tallgrass Parrot Sanctuary, consider purchasing a tax-deductible gift off the group's Amazon wishlist or make a direct donation through the website. If you're itching to do even more for captive exotic birds, consider getting in touch with a rescue in your area to see how you can volunteer or contribute.