The more I think about the fallout surrounding the WOTR seizure and every other hoarding seizure that I’ve read about or been directly involved in myself, the more obvious it is becoming to me that those of us who care the most and are trying the hardest to be helpful are oftentimes inadvertently a huge part of the problem.
Here’s what I mean by that: bar none, without a doubt, the number one thing that will drive people away from asking for help, being open to help, or being receptive to new ideas, is the fear of being judged, criticized, and shamed. Period. That’s human nature. None of us wants to feel hated or vilified.
And yet, what is the first reaction that so many of us have when we hear of a hoarding case? ”How dare they?!” ”Who do they think they are?!” ”How could they?!” ”What right do they have?!” Etc. Whether those questions are directed at the alleged hoarders themselves or the people involved in the seizure is immaterial; the point is, that attitude is toxic.
I want to tell you a story that perfectly demonstrates what I’m talking about. This story is true; I’m not making it up. A couple of years ago, a breeder out of San Antonio kept posting on Craigslist that he HAD TO SELL THESE UNWEANED MACAW BABIES ASAP!!! His ad, of course, kept getting flagged, but he kept reposting. So, I sent him an email saying, “Hi there. It looks like you are having some kind of emergency in your life, that you so urgently need to get rid of these baby birds. Can I help you? Here are my credentials: xyz. I would be happy to hand raise these guys for you for free until you get out of the bad situation you’re in, or until you can find knowledgeable, adequately prepared people to buy them from you. That way you aren’t in this position where you have to sell them to people who don’t know what they’re doing and could harm or even kill the birds. What do you think?”
The response I got from him was littered with expletives, and accusations of being every bit as nosey and snobby as “all the rest of you do-gooders”. He then told me how, when he got out of the military, he had wanted to adopt a Macaw from a rescue group, but they turned him away because he had rehomed a bird right before he joined the military. So F*** THEM! He went out and bought some breeder birds and is on a mission now to breed parrots and sell them as cheaply as possible to whoever wants one so that people don’t have to get the third degree just because they want a bird.
His reaction might be extreme, but it is a direct result of the judgmental attitude that so many of us who work with and care for birds end up adopting. Yes, we see the aftermath of bad decisions. Yes, we have to pick up the pieces. But behaving in a negative way towards the people who caused the problem won’t make them behave better; it will make them behave worse.
Many of us who work with birds are familiar with Applied Behavior Analysis, and practice the scientific method of behavior modification. And yet, how many of us are very good at using that same method on the humans we interact with, both in the real world and on the internet? We are obviously capable of treating animals with respect and positive reinforcement; can we not also learn to do the same with other humans, even those with whom we can’t or won’t agree?
In order to be successful at doing this, in order to really turn the tide and see real change in aviculture, we MUST learn to do this. And we must be patient with the process. If you get a bird with four decades of trauma, he is not going to change overnight. It will take time–a lot of time. Think of the people who behave badly, the sector of humanity who do not know how to provide a healthy, enriching environment for their birds, as a single entity who have, not decades, but centuries of trauma. Humanity is used to not only treating birds in an unhealthy way, but also being treated by animal advocates in an unhealthy way. It is going to take a lot of time, patience, and positive reinforcement to turn the tide, and it is going to require the vast majority of our community to do so.
And think of ourselves, the avicultural community, as a single entity, too, and every person in it as a valuable part of the body. We must treat each other with every bit as much respect, compassion, and positive reinforcement as others. A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. Don’t agree with someone? Ok. I would imagine that the intestines and the mouth don’t jive together too well, either. But that doesn’t mean that one is any less important that the other.
Here’s where I think I’m lucky: I’ve had the great privilege of getting to see almost every conceivable side of aviculture and animal care in general. I’ve worked in vet clinics; I’ve worked for a breeder; I’ve worked in a pet store; I’ve been a board member of a rescue group; I’ve participated in hoarding seizures; I’ve participated in disaster relief; I am a pet sitter; I am a behavior consultant; I co-founded and co-run the Austin Parrot Society; I co-run our foster network; I teach bird ownership classes to adults and basic bird education classes to children; most importantly of all, I share my life with six birds and have fostered countless others. I have worked with thousands upon thousands of animals and their humans; I’ve had the privilege of really understanding the pros and cons, the risks and rewards, the drawbacks and benefits, of every side. So I see people picking sides, hurling accusations, making assumptions, and whipping themselves up in a frenzy, and it’s glaringly obvious to me that a lot of their emotional state stems from two things:
1) A fear of the unknown, and
2) A fear of the lack of control.
As for the first, I suggest that everyone who feels radically anti-something spend some time with what they are most opposed to. You against breeding? Go spend some time volunteering for a quality breeder. You against HSUS? Go spend some time volunteering with them on a hoarding case. You against veterinarians? Go spend some time volunteering in a vet clinic. You against people who use naturopathy/alternative medicine? Volunteer for a naturopath. You against wing clipping? Spend some time with someone who has valid, informed reasons for doing so; get to know their situation and their birds. You against keeping birds flighted? Spend some time with someone who has valid, informed reasons for doing so; get to know their situation and their birds. You against someone who feeds their birds chop? Spend some time with someone who has valid, informed reasons for doing so; get to know their situation and their birds. The list goes on. Whatever it is that you are convinced is wrong and evil and unacceptable, go dance with your devil and see what they’re really like. After walking a mile in their shoes, you still might not agree with them, but at least you’ll have more of an understanding of why they do what they do, and more compassion for their point of view.
As for the second, I don’t care what your religion is, but it’s time for everyone to become intimately familiar with the Buddhist concept of letting go, of non-attachment. So much of the angst I see in the avicultural community stems from this core belief that if we can just make everything perfect and keep all these idiots from doing things wrong, all birds will be happy, healthy, and well cared for. Well sister, let me tell ya: that’s not reality.
Reality is that life is not perfect, and that no amount of control is going to make everything right. As with every other living thing on the planet, some birds will be abused and neglected, and will not be saved. Some will suffer and die, despite our best efforts. Some people will behave badly no matter how loving we become, how positive our reputation becomes, how many resources and how much help and education is readily available to them. Things will go wrong. Accidents will happen. People will make mistakes. We have to be at peace with the fact that we can’t save them all.
Does non-attachment mean not loving, or not caring? Of course not! We MUST love. We MUST care. But loving and controlling are not only not the same thing; they are mutually exclusive. We must learn the difference between love and sentimentality and choose love. Love is doing the right thing, even if it’s hard. Sentimentality is acting based on our emotions, whether or not it’s beneficial. As the old adage goes, “If you love something, let it go.” That doesn’t mean shooing our birds out the door and letting them “be free”, but it DOES mean not taking more birds than we can handle, not trying to force other people to behave in the way that we think they should, and letting go of our righteous indignation long enough to help the people who need it most–regardless of how much damage they have done.
That, to me, is the most difficult thing about being in aviculture. We talk all the time about birds, what’s good for them, what’s bad for them, what we should and should not be doing. But until we acknowledge and address the human element of aviculture, we are not only spinning our wheels, but injuring our own cause. Let’s start working to change that, shall we?