Dot Schwarz tells us how Parrots help veterans with PTSD
I believe that after almost twenty years of close involvement with pet Parrots and breeding Parrots that they are capable of empathy with their human carers and that they can suffer the same mental anguish and the same joy that we can.
It reassures me when I read articles that confirm my own belief that Parrots are emotionally and intellectually on a level with higher primates like dolphins and chimpanzees.
Serenity Park is a Parrot sanctuary in the USA founded by Lorin Lindner. She is a psychotherapist and deals with soldiers who have post-traumatic stress disorders.
Almost twenty years ago she took veterans suffering from PSTD to help build cages for her Parrot sanctuary.
She says, ‘all of the sudden these same tight-lipped guys are cuddling up to the Parrots and talking away with them.’
The army veterans and the sanctuary’s Parrots appeared to have an affinity for one another. And Lindner began a work-therapy program. This helped both the traumatised war veterans and the Parrots.
Charles Seibert has written in the New York Times about Serenity Park that ‘abandoned pet Parrots are twice traumatized beings: denied first their natural will to flock and then the company of the humans who owned them.’
‘The problem with Parrots is that they’re so intensely attuned,’’ Lorin Lindner told Seibert one afternoon as they stood watching Julius, a Cockatoo, pace back and forth, speaking in Korean.
‘’Parrots,’ she said, ‘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 ’
Pet Parrots abandoned by their owners either through death, divorce or lack of interest suffer a double trauma. Their lives in captivity are inevitably divorced from their lives in the wild where they would live either with a monogamous mate or, depending on the species, in a group.
Scientists have discovered that in a nest each baby Parrot makes its own individual sound – similar to our names. Parrots learn to speak them soon after hatching so that they can communicate with their parents and their flock.
When baby Parrots live with us, if they want to communicate, they have to learn human language. That is the origin of our word Parroting.
But although it’s often babble, there’s also a high degree of understanding – pretty amazing when you consider a Parrot’s brain is not that large.
A quality that Parrots do possess, that Parrot owners have always known about, and now scientists are even documenting- is the ability to empathise with other Parrots and with us.
My own poignant example of a pet Parrot’s empathy came years ago. Artha the young African Grey was outside in the garden in a small aviary. I was crying in the grass next to her cage because my youngest daughter Zoe, aged 27, had recently died.
Artha said clearly, ‘Will you be my friend?’ Not a phrase I had used in front of her or one I ever heard her use subsequently.
And just like us, Parrots can be aggressive to their own or another species, as well as showing sympathy and compassion. I occasionally take in rescue birds. A wild caught Grey whom I named Solomon, suffered from aspergillosis.
The vet said he doubted there was much hope of recovery but I wanted to give Solomon a chance so I put him in a secluded corner of the large outdoor aviary.
Solomon survived for six weeks. During the last two weeks, he stretched one wing in greeting when he saw me and even emitted an occasional whistle.
When I found him dead one morning, Casper Grey, then only a year old, appeared to be attempting to open his beak. Feed him? Awaken him? I don’t know. But it certainly was not indifference on the young Parrot’s side.
Writing about Serenity Park, Seibert found an extraordinary example of symbiosis between the veterans and the sanctuary Parrots, ‘two entirely different outcasts of human aggression – war and entrapment – are somehow helping each other to find their way again.’
Though the avian brain does not have a well-developed neo-cortex which is one of the main structures associated with mammalian intelligence, recent studies of crows and Parrots have shown how that birds think and learn using an entirely different part of their brain, a kind of avian neocortex known as the medio-rostral neostriatum/hyperstriatum ventrale.
Parrots and crows are said to be the most intelligent bird species; their ratio of brain to body size is similar to that of the higher primates. Problem solving and tool use were associated only with Homo sapiens when I was at school (yes, it was that long ago).
Nowadays we know that it’s not only Homo sapiens and other species of primates – the various orders of monkeys, gorillas and chimpanzees – but other species like crows and Parrots that can make and use tools and solve problems.
What also has become evident is that other qualities like empathy and compassion are not purely human but exist in a variety of other species.
Evolution isn’t a pyramid with us at the top; it is better visualized as a many-branching tree. ‘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 and insomnia.’
Anyone who has been at all involved in Parrot rescue and rehabilitation will recognize that image of a distressed psittascine. What gives us courage to persist is that in giving unhappy birds a more sympathetic quality of life, they can recover some semblance of contentment.
Lindner found out in her work at Serenity Park that PTSD soldiers were able to relate to the sanctuary Parrots, to the mutual benefit of both humans and Parrots.
The quality that the Parrots demonstrate at Serenity Park is that of intelligence – different from our and yet recognizable –the non-human part of the equation.
When Seibert was asking the veterans why and how the Parrots at Serenity Park helped them so much, one the helpers, Jim Minick, told him, ‘They look at you, and they don’t judge. The Parrots look at you and it’s all face value. It’s pure.’
‘The problem with Parrots is that they’re so intensely attuned,’ Lorin Lindner told Seibert one afternoon, as they stood watching Julius, the Cockatoo, pace back and forth, speaking in the Korean of his former owner.
Once you realize that evolution has found more than one single path to complex cognition, you accept that our Parrots have real emotional lives that in both joy and sorrow, can, and do, mirror our own.