A Green-winged Macaw Gets Past Abuse at a Vet's Office
By Bettie Gaylor
We first met Zak, the Green-wing Macaw, at our vet’s office when we took our rabbit in for an eye infection. The pitiful Green-wing macaw sat quietly huddled in the comer on a T-stand. His chest, legs, and upper wings had no feathers. The feathers on his tail and wing were shredded and broken. He had a large thick heavy leather “Elizabethan” collar riveted around his neck. My husband, Sal, and I couldn’t help but go over and talk to him. When I asked the vet about him, he said that he was a neurotic bird who plucked his feathers. I felt so sorry for him. He had spent two months at the vet’s office and was often left for hours on the T-stand without any food and water.
During the next month, we returned to the vet’s office to have the rabbit’s eyes re-checked. Each time this poor sad bird was still sitting in the comer. On our last visit, the vet asked us if we would be interested in taking Zak and providing him with a good home. My first response was YES but I needed to talk to Sal about it. We had no cage and I knew that they were expensive. We were barely making it financially and I didn’t know if we could afford the upkeep on such a big bird. I called the vet two days later and told him that I would love to take Zak but we didn’t have a cage. My other concern was Zak’s health. The vet assured me that they had tested him for everything and that his health was good and his problems were behavioral. He said he would give me the cage Zak was in and free medical care for a year. I was thrilled.
Two days later, Sal and I drove over to the vets” to pick him up. The vet told us that the macaw did well with the collar and to leave it on until all of his feathers grew back. The cage was one of those old dome type “Amazon” cages that fit over a round tray stand - much too small for a macaw. Although the vet assured me he was fine in it, I knew that we would have to get him a larger one. My first experience with this LARGE bird was not exactly pleasant. I was so used to our grey-cheek parakeet just hopping on my finger that I just automatically reached my hand in front of the macaw’s face without thinking. This was the WRONG thing to do with a frightened macaw. He chomped right down on it with full force. Needless to say, it hurt! But I managed to stay calm until he released it.
We got him home and set up in his new home. The vet told me that he was stick trained so we should not try to pick him up with our hands. So our first attempts were with a broom handle. It was awkward for both of us. Although Zak would readily take food from our hands he did not tolerate us picking him up or touching him. I knew we needed to get help. I needed to be able to pick him up in case of an emergency. I wanted so badly to be able to handle him and play with him. He seemed so desperate for affection and attention. I have read Sally Blanchard’s articles for years and remembered that she used to teach a class at a Bay area humane society. I called them to ask for her number. Being familiar with her work, I felt she could help us or start us in the right direction. My husband, Sal, called her. Although she no longer has the time for very many in-home consultations, she agreed to help us since we live fairly close to her.
A few days before our appointment, we visited a nearby bird shop to get some manzanita for a new perch for Zak. We rarely go there because I have always hated this filthy store. It is one of the worst we have been in and the birds always look so sad and sick. When we started telling the owner about Zak, he said that he knew all about our bird. He said that Zak originally came from his shop. Evidently, a man who was looking for decorations more than cherished pets had purchased several large parrots. Supposedly Zak had lived in the same cage with a military macaw and they had apparently formed a strong bond. The man became overwhelmed by owning too many birds that he shouldn’t have bought in the first place and put the macaw on consignment in this horrible pet shop. When Zak began to pick his feathers, the man took him to the vet and left him there. That’s when we came into the picture.
The day that Sally came to our house was the turning point. The first thing she said when she saw him was “we have to get him out of that cage! It is abusive to keep that large a bird in such a small cage.” (Editor’s note: When I first saw this macaw in a cage barely suitable for a conure with his huge heavy leather collar, I wanted to drop to my knees and scream or cry. I was shocked at the poor care the vet gave the macaw and even more upset about the horrible information he provided about the macaw's care. I am extremely thankful that Betty and Sal are the kind of people who took the time to learn how to make a difference and give this macaw the kind of life all captive parrots deserve, but unfortunately, not all receive.) Between the heavy collar and the terribly small cage, Zak had no mobility. He would rock back and forth neurotically. Occasionally, he would lose his balance and would fall off of his perch. It would be almost impossible for him to climb back up to his perch with the thick leather collar. He couldn’t hold his food with his foot and could barely eat or even get a drink of water easily. It was so sad to see him this way.
After watching him for a few minutes, Sally asked us to put him on the floor using the manner that he was most comfortable with. He was used to stepping on the broomstick so we used that to put him on the floor. Zak had been terrified of towels but Sally was able to towel him fairly quickly from the front. He seemed quite calm once she had him gently wrapped in the towel. The first thing that she did was to use heavy tin snips to cut the leather collar off. She told us that it would be better to let him pick his feathers than to suffer the abuse of that heavy leather collar for another moment. She felt that if we provided him with proper care, a healthy diet, and nurturing affection, there was a good chance that he would stop plucking.
Sally sat with Zak in the towel on her lap and started gently rubbing the skin around his beak and face and petting the back of his neck. After a few minutes, he calmed down and started to enjoy this attention. Under the towel, Sally put Zak’s toes around her fingers and slowly got him to stand on her hand. It was as if he didn’t realize that she had him on her hand because he couldn’t see that was where he was standing. When she withdrew the towel, he seemed surprised that he was standing on her hand but didn’t seem to mind. Within a few more minutes, she had him slowly stepping back and forth from one hand to the other with a calm word “UP.” She then showed me how to handle him and by the end of her visit, I was able to get Zak to step onto my hand and pet him. The progress we made in such a short time was amazing and I began to feel like we really could begin to provide Zak with a happy life.
Sally explained that Zak’s aggression towards us was mostly because of fear. She told us that the kind of treatment that he had received would make any living creature neurotic. She pointed out how relaxed he was with her because she was so relaxed with him and sensed no fear or aggression from her. Because of this, he had no reason to bite. We had also been told that Zak was about 5 years old but, after working with him Sally thought that he was closer to 3. She felt that because of his posturing and responses to her affectionate attention that he still had a lot of baby in him and wasn’t close to sexual maturity yet.
We had been told that all Zak ate were seeds, peanuts, red (not green) apples, and watermelon and that he just would not eat anything else. Sally also gave us pointers on feeding Zak properly. She recommended a fresh food diet and told us how to gradually convert him to it. She also gave us her recipe for “glop.” This is easy to make, very nutritious food that she has been feeding her birds for years and recommends to her clients. (Editor’s Note: 2 or 3 slices of sprouted whole grain low salt toast broken up into a bowl. (Now I recommend adding some cooked quinoa) Add 1 small jar baby food carrots, sweet potatoes or winter squash and 1 tablespoon of plain yogurt. Sprinkle a teaspoon of Wheat Grass and a few drops of Flax seed oil on to the mixture and mash it all together so it has the consistency of turkey dressing.) Once Zak began to bond to us, it didn’t take him long to start eating just about anything that we offered to feed him.
Sally felt that if we put Zak into a larger cage, fed him properly, and worked with him diligently every day to win his trust and form an affectionate bond, that we could change his life and turn him into a happy companion. She lent us a larger cage until we could get our own. We began feeding Sally’s “glop” which he ate readily, and fresh vegetables and fruits. I truly expected that the morning after Sally removed the collar; I would find that Zak had ripped off all of the feather growth he had. But to our amazement, he had not picked one feather and, to this day, he has never done so again.
In the next couple of weeks, Zak started sleeping with his head tucked back under his wing. He stopped losing his balance and became quite adept at climbing. He also discovered that if he stood on top of his cage, he could flap his wings. What a truly beautiful sight it is to see him enjoying life so much. We added a perch to the top of the cage and it has become his favorite place. I know that with his seeking the higher perch, that it is important for me to always say “UP” to establish and maintain my “nurturing guidance.” We recently purchased a playgym for him. He has lots of toys and lots of love. Now, he readily steps on to my hand when I calmly say the word “UP” and we always use it so Zak knows that we are guiding his life. He no longer sits like a depressed zombie but plays and talks all the time during most of his waking hours. His favorite saying is “Zak’s a good bird!” He has grown back most of his feathers and I am sure after one good molt, he will have them all. The new feathers are growing in with beautiful color.
Considering the abusive situation that this bird has been in throughout his young life; from a very bad pet shop to an ignorant owner, to continued mistreatment even at a veterinarian’s office ... he has come a long way. We overcame the poor information we received from our veterinarian with Sally’s help. Our veterinarian does an excellent job with our other animals but we have really learned how important it is to seek the assistance of a competent avian veterinarian who really knows birds. It is obvious now that not all vets who say they treat birds truly understand their needs. Zak continues to improve every day. He is very tame to me and is becoming tamer to my husband as Sal begins to work with him more. Keeping a large bird like Zak requires a lot of knowledge and work. It has been a learning experience that has enriched all of our lives ... not just Zak’s.