Parrots need your voice
In the bad-ole-days, if you had a parrot who had some kind of feather destructive behavior (FDB), or self-mutilated, you were stigmatized. You were accused of not providing enough toys and enrichment, feeding a poor diet, not spending enough time with your parrot, or whatever was the “New Black” for why parrots in captivity expressed these behaviors. Well, except for captivity itself.
We know that some of these harmful behaviors are medical in nature. We also know some are quite common, as stated in the opening sentence in the abstract for “Feather Loss And Feather Destructive Behavior In Pet Birds,” by Rubenstein and Lightfoot in Journal Of Exotic Pet Medicine:
Feather loss in psittacine birds is an extremely common and extremely frustrating clinical presentation. Causes include medical and non-medical causes of feather loss both with and without overt feather destructive behavior. Underlying causes are myriad and include inappropriate husbandry and housing; parasitic, viral and bacterial infections; metabolic and allergic diseases; and behavioral disorders. Prior to a diagnosis of a behavioral disorder, medical causes of feather loss must be excluded through a complete medical work-up….
Yet, more often than not, the cause is never identified, and once all medical avenues have been exhausted, the diagnosis is behavioral. When people start looking for help in the behavioral realm, they are thrust into a world of DVDs, books, seminars, Facebook groups, YouTube videos, and trainers for hire either in person or remotely (e.g., FaceTime, Skype). So many try and try and try the different methods, yet still so many fail. Why?
I have attended seminars, watched DVDs, read books, joined Facebook groups and talked directly with trainers and behaviorists, and the answer to why so many afflicted parrots and so many failures was alarming. Much of the blame is still dumped in the laps of guardians. It comes in different forms, but essentially it’s assertions like: they haven’t had the right information (maybe meaning “buy our DVD, not theirs”), they didn’t do the right things (e.g., they didn’t find the right motivator/reward/treat), they are doing something to reinforce the behavior, or they are neurotic themselves (human psychology?).
But what conclusion do you come to if over and over you see people who are doing everything they’re told? Why are people still having behavior problems with their parrots even when they did all the research before getting a parrot, bought DVDs, joined Facebook groups, and brought their parrot to a board-certified avian vet for a battery of tests? I see good people all the time whose parrots are so troubled. They do all the “right” things they are told to do by vets, trainers and breeders, but they still have no success. They are wracked with guilt for their suffering beloved parrot, and then someone tells them they’ve created the behavior or made it even worse!
Are they all really making mistakes in the value of their rewards, or following the wrong information, or are they very neurotic themselves? Or is it something else?
Considering that the incidence of behavioral issues is so great in the captive parrot population as a whole (as stated by Rubenstein and Lightfoot), and that many of the these behaviors are also seen in other captive, non-domesticated animals, like chimps and elephants, we must ask if it’s captivity itself that is the problem.
But, if the root cause is captivity, that doesn’t sell parrots, DVDs, seminars, tools, supplements and every other “snake oil” being pitched by the different barkers. Those on the supply side of behavior problems give examples of how they changed X-amount of parrots with their wares. Some parrots have stopped biting and others have stopped screaming. They’ve learned to to give high-five, play dead, put balls in baskets, and other things that can keep parrots (and people) from getting bored; however, there are a lot of parrots who are so troubled they don’t respond to the methods taught in DVDs, seminars and books. Specifically, it’s because these methods don’t assess and treat the trauma of living in an alien world.
We know there are abnormal behaviors (behaviors not expressed in the wild) exhibited by other captives. There are even some who are saying, as in this paper, “How Abnormal Is The Behaviour Of Captive, Zoo-Living Chimpanzees?” after setting up experiments, that in certain species, some kind of abnormal behavior is exhibited in all the members of the group, regardless of environment:
Our overall finding was that abnormal behaviour was present in all sampled individuals across six independent groups of zoo-living chimpanzees, despite the differences between these groups in size, composition, housing, etc. We found substantial variation between individuals in the frequency and duration of abnormal behaviour, but all individuals engaged in at least some abnormal behaviour and variation across individuals could not be explained by sex, age, rearing history or background (defined as prior housing conditions). Our data support a conclusion that, while most behaviour of zoo-living chimpanzees is ‘normal’ in that it is typical of their wild counterparts, abnormal behaviour is endemic in this population despite enrichment efforts. We suggest there is an urgent need to understand how the chimpanzee mind copes with captivity, an issue with both scientific and welfare implications.
Yes, I know…. the parrots I’m talking about don’t live in zoos, and they’re not chimps; however, given all the similarities, and the data being presented from many different sources, shouldn’t we at least scientifically and meaningfully investigate this? If guardians really were the problem (which, really we humans are the problem as a whole in that we want to keep parrots as pets) wouldn’t we see the same behaviors across species? Why is self-mutilation so endemic and much more prevalent in Goffin’s cockatoo (Cacatua goffiniana) and in particular, Moluccan cockatoo (Cacatua moluccensis) than other parrot species? Does the cause only lie in the type of people who want these species of parrot, and not anything about the species themselves living in captivity?
Part of the problem with DVDs, seminars, books, Facebook groups and most of the advice given in whichever media form, is positive reinforcement utilizing applied behavior analysis (ABA). Specifically, it reduces each individual to a common blob, where you only identify the unwanted behavior, change it to the desired behavior and reinforce the new behavior, all utilizing a reward/motivator (i.e., treat). The reason for this reduction and rejection of labels is to avoid the need for interpretation.
This is a proven method for training animals. It helps curtail certain parrot behaviors, whether normal or abnormal, that can make living with them difficult for their human guardians, e.g., too much screaming, biting, and certain kinds of fear. It can also teach people to teach their parrots “tricks,” like riding a little bicycle or shooting baskets. This can be canned and individualized by the author-trainer to his/her methods of ABA, and sold to any consumer. But what about the large number of parrots who mutilate themselves to the point of gaping, muscle-deep wounds in their chests, under their wings, on thighs and abdomens? Or the ones who pull out their own feathers? Why is it so hard to “fix” these types of problems?
These problems are are difficult to treat because they are much more complex than just an unwanted behavior. These are the common symptoms of captive wild animals, whether in zoos, homes, parks, and the like, regardless of mammal or avian. Even if you could stop the behavior of self-harm (e.g., ABA, collaring), you still have an emotionally compromised parrot, and the underlying problems will manifest in some other way. Self-mutilation is also a symptom of very unhappy and deeply troubled humans. The reasons given for self-mutilation/self-injury in people are generally the same. This is from the nonprofit, Mental Health America:
People who self-injure commonly report they feel empty inside, over or under stimulated, unable to express their feelings, lonely, not understood by others…Self-injury is their way to cope with or relieve painful or hard-to-express feelings…Self-injury can also be a way to have control over your body when you can’t control anything else in your life.
This description certainly gave me pause. It describes perfectly the life in which wild animals in captivity find themselves. Captivity can never create the kinds of enrichment needed to fully stimulate parrots that would compete with how they would live in their native environments; they are unable to understand why they are unfulfilled; they have evolved to be around others most of their lives, rather than alone for hours at a time; we don’t understand their plucking, mutilating, screaming and biting as we continue to breed them and keep them as pets; parrots have evolved to make simple and complex decisions guiding their own lives moment by moment, and we take away just about every bit of their autonomy.
So, whether parrots are unsuited for life in captivity, or we are unsuited for providing them with what they need to live a happy and healthy life, the evidence is overwhelming. If so many parrots have some sort of behavior issue (and how many is too many), and people need to rely on DVDs, books, seminars and ongoing education in order to help their parrots fit into our lives, I think it’s too much to ask for our selfish pleasures and needs. We need to focus on helping the parrots who are already here with us. Let’s adopt the ones who need homes, educate the public on the detriments for parrots when used as pets, and put an end to this trade.