Bear in Mind

Exploring the common minds and emotions of people and other animals and their lives together

Malachi

Love and sanctuary bring healing to profound loss.

Cockatoo photo
As always, day was born in the quiet tension between dark and light—night reluctant to give up her secrets, morning impatient to throw off the covers. The forest remained hostage to this uncertainty of contradiction until the piping of early risers broke the impasse. An avalanche of sound followed. In a moment, the green canopy’s stolid countenance melted into a collage of movement, vibrating with calls and greetings of coral pink Moluccan Cockatoos. Malachi, newly fledged, nuzzled and groomed branch mates, eager for flight.

Then, as sudden as dawn, darkness descended. The flock’s screams were earsplitting, indistinguishable from his own. Throat and lungs ached with the effort and the world swirled in a confusion of blackness and rough.

Again, without warning the world split open, this time into piercing brightness. Malachi’s fragile form was pressed into those of his family. Screams throbbed through the matrix of bodies sealed in hard wire cages. Soon, voices ceased. Movement ceased and Malachi was left floating in the rasping silence of death and pain.

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The cage was thrown onboard ship. A few cries escaped but the noise of the docks obliterated them. There was no food or water for seven days. No food or water for seven nights. Decay seeped in the space where souls departed. The stench of death enveloped the birds. Time stopped. Feeling stopped and the shutters of life closed in on Malachi.

Now, reader, please pause for a moment. Malachi’s story is not yet done. But a prickle of horror or sinking fear may prompt the instinct to depart these pages. If so, then breathe deep to clear soma’s cautionary communiques to psyche. They alert that the protective shield between subject and object, observer and observed, is dissolving. But, remain. Honor Malachi by bearing witness.

Cockatoo photo
Nearly all of the birds died in transport from Indonesia. Malachi’s survival was miraculous. Upon arrival on American shores, he was sold as a “pet.” The next years are blank but we can surmise that he was moved from shop to shop, house to house, until finally he reached the steps of a Minnesota animal shelter. They contacted Midwest Avian Adoption & Rescue Services (MAARS), a local parrot sanctuary founded by Eileen McCarthy:

Malachi arrived in 2002, traumatized and extensively plucked – completely bare on his abdomen, breast, legs, and on the underside of his wings. His feather follicles were badly damaged and he never regrew any plumage in those areas… In late 2009, Malachi became ill, exhibiting symptoms of Avian Bornavirus (ABV), also referred to as Proventricular Dilatation Disease (PDD). In the spring of 2010, when he had a severe flare-up of symptoms, Malachi very clearly expressed his consent to – and desire for – aggressive treatment. But after a few days, it was obvious that he had changed his mind, and he communicated – very dramatically and at significant volume – that he was withdrawing his consent to treatment. To recover, he would have to eat on his own if he didn’t want tube feeding, sub-cutaneous fluids, and other palliative care. He chose another path. Together, we seemed to reach a mutual agreement. Malachi was provided with – and ate – bananas (one of his favorite foods), macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes with butter and molasses, and rice pudding. He willingly drank his favorite fruit juices. For weeks, he was offered a smorgasbord of tempting foods – to which we added supplemental nutrients – that would sustain him without aggravating his symptoms. In this way, he managed to pull through the episode. [1,2, 3]

Cockatoo photo
Malachi and Gomer.
Malachi’s wounds spoke in other ways. MAARS Director, Galiena Cimperman, recounts Malachi’s recovery at MAARS sanctuary grounds, The Landing:

When he first arrived in sanctuary, Malachi was a deeply traumatized bird. It took close to a year before he would even come out of his enclosure, agree to have his head scratched, or even allow a human be near him. He was finally stepped out of his enclosure and onto a human arm. This was a monumental effort, a huge step for someone whose entire body shook when a person walked by, gave him food in his bowls, or lingered a little too long. Eventually, with slow and careful work, trust began to build. Gradually, Malachi blossomed to the point where he designated himself the official flock greeter of visitors and would follow new volunteers around The Landing making sure they knew that he was not to be overlooked and that he had much he could teach them. After years of being able to be his own bird, Malachi achieved what we had always wanted, a friend of his own, Gomer, a Military Macaw. Gomer and Malachi were inseparable through all of Malachi's battles with illness, Gomer being ever-present and ever caring, the best mate and friend one could hope for. [4] 

Malachi lived in sanctuary for 12 years but the shadow of loss and violence was not banished. Cimperman describes the relentless struggle:

For the last several years Malachi battled mutilation. While treatment options were semi-successful and provided him with a good quality of life, Malachi's on-going mutilation was an enormous challenge for his long term care. Malachi's treatment plan developed by several doctors both on-site and consulting involved anti-anxiety medication and several different  barrier methods, while the volunteer staff maintained his quality of life. We helped him visit with Gomer and the rest of the flock as much as he could. But he became increasingly weak and sick. The last few weeks, Malachi began mutilating in a few different areas starting at his left humerus and moving down to his elbow. He injured his elbow joint the most severely doing damage to the bone and joint capsule. The damage done that day was irrecoverable & irreparable. The decision to euthanize was finally made. He was surrounded by Gomer and his favorite volunteers, and he passed peacefully. [4]

Self-Injurious Behavior (SIB) is observed in other captive parrot species, but is prevalent in captive cockatoos and, increasingly, in humans. Notably, it is absent in free living birds. Brain structural and functional convergence in birds and mammals accounts for the parallels found in mechanisms and symptoms among both classes.

Self-injury puzzles many researchers because it counters what has been considered conatus, the innate drive for self-preservation among humans and other animals. The impetus to survive comprises the engine of evolutionary and other psychobiological theories. [5] Subsequently, any act that undermines this imperative contradicts convention. Nonetheless, examples of self-injury date as far back in as the Bible and its trace is found throughout literature. Sylvia Plath’s poem Cut makes graphic her own excursions into self-harm that preceded her suicide at age 31.

Cockatoo.
The recent upsurge in human self-injury has intensified research into underlying causes to explain what allows mind and body to override life’s most elemental function – survival. SIB is now organized into two categories: suicidal and non-suicidal self-injury. Within the latter, direct self-injury is contrasted with indirect self-injury such as excessive drug and alcohol consumption and other “risk taking behaviors” that may result in self-harm but do not cause immediate, intentional bodily injury. [5]

While hypotheses for intentional harm are myriad, there is consensus that self-injury provides a means to regulate or avoid unbearable emotions and thoughts. Individuals predisposed to self-injury have suffered abuse and trauma. Clinical psychologist and Georgetown professor of bioethics, John Gluck comments on self-injury behavior induced in laboratory nonhuman primate experiments:

Early social deprivation reliably produces both stereotyped and self-injurious behavior (SIB) in both nonhuman and human primates. This was particularly the case with individuals with additional developmental disorders that evolved with non-normative rearing in the lab. Denial of expected food delivery and brief painful foot shocks administered to monkeys both caused bouts of SIB.  Mark Lewis and I also showed that animals with brain damage from early social deprivation reduced the number of dopamine (DA) receptors thus producing receptor super sensitivity and increasing propensity to develop SIB. In other words, SIB is not just a “peculiar bad habit” but the result of a disordered nervous system produced by relational trauma – living in environments characterized by traumatic abuse but a lack of basic social bonding. [6]

Such social and neuropsychological models of self-injury suggest why “there currently are no evidence-based psychological or pharmacological treatments for self-injury.” The scars that lead to self-harming acts are etched deep. This understanding from neuropsychology explains why Malachi resumed self-injurious behavior despite the strides made possible by sanctuary care. It also resonates with observations by psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Henry Krystal, through his own experience and thousands of other prisoners. There is no universal rule, but that those who received what one might call an early “inoculation of love” were more likely to have the internal wherewithal to revitalize a sense of self and life beyond the camps. They retained the capacity to form positive relationships and make meaning in the world. [7]

Here, faced with defining ineffables such as “self” and “meaning,” we are compelled to expand beyond the confines of technical explanations and theories of the selfish gene to include the experiential, the vantage of a soul. Our sense of self, as author François Mauriac wrote, is “molded and re-molded by those who have loved us.” Significantly, he adds, for “good or for ill.” Attachment theorist John Bowlby agrees. A sense of self is an internal reflection of the people and things who populate the environment we experience. Meaning derives from this milieu and learning. A Moluccan Cockatoo’s self identity is a set of interlocked and interwoven relationships of mother and father, sisters and brothers, cohorts, and the relational network of the flock that extends to hundreds in number. The Cockatoo self resembles that of a slime mold or traditional tribal human whose life does not exist in the singular, but is inextricably plural. Every experience and action is conditioned by the collective psychic “soup” in which an interdependent individual is immersed. [7]

Abduction, capture, and captivity stripped Malachi’s sense of self laying bare and raw its unprotected psychic core. A piece of the seamless whole cut from the life support of the plurality of cockatoo consciousness. Malachi’s bleeding body, his self-imposed injuries emerge as the somatic image of the rent and bleeding soul within. Even salvation of love with and for his newfound companion, Gomer, could not staunch the bleeding void nor regenerate the paper-thin skin enwrapping mind and body. For Malachi, the act of self-injury, whether modelled as endorphin relief or psychological oblivion, became the only exit from, albeit temporarily, the horror of profound loss. Perhaps his body offered a portal to reunion with the lifeblood of communal consciousness from which he was torn.

The legacy of Malachi’s wounds are carried by his survivors:

Malachi’s passing has been a huge loss for all of us but devastating for Gomer. The two epitomized trans-species communication and mutual healing with an unfathomable depth. They came from different continents, they were different species, and spoke different languages, but both found a way to learn how to heal from each other and grow in ways to become what they should be again- birds. [4]

To contribute to Gomer’s care and in memory of Malachi, please visit MAARS.

 

 

Modern art by a cockatoo.
Literature Cited

[1] MAARS utilizes the American Medical Association Code of Medical Ethics in regard to “consent,” “inferred consent,” and “implied consent.”

[2] American Medical Association. 2014. Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs. Code of Medical Ethics of the American Medical Association, 2012-2013, http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/physician-resources/medical-ethic...

[3] McCarthy, E. 2014. pers. comm. February 6, 2014

[4] Cimperman G. 2014. pers. comm. February 8, 2014.

[5] Nock, M. K. 2010. Self-injury. Annu. Rev. Clin. Psychol. 2010. 6:339–63.

[6] Gluck, J. 2014. pers. comm. February 9, 2014.

[7] Bradshaw, G.A. 2009. Elephants on the edge: What animals teach us about humanity. New Haven: Yale University Press

 

G.A. Bradshaw, Ph.D., Ph.D. is the author of Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us About Humanity.

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