Parrots to the Rescue: How they Help Veterans with PTSD
New York Times essay called "What Does a Parrot Know About PTSD?" a must read
Posted Jan 31, 2016
A few days ago numerous people sent me information about one of the most interesting and important essays I've read in a while written by Charles Siebert. After reading "What Does a Parrot Know About PTSD?" a few times, I thought it most worthwhile to share it with you. It really is that good. Because Siebert's masterpiece is available online, here are a few snippets to whet your appetite for more.
"Nearly 30 years ago, Lilly Love lost her way. She had just completed her five-year tour of duty as an Alaska-based Coast Guard helicopter rescue swimmer, one of an elite team of specialists who are lowered into rough, frigid seas to save foundering fishermen working in dangerous conditions. The day after she left active service, the helicopter she had flown in for the previous three years crashed in severe weather into the side of a mountain, killing six of her former crewmates. Devastated by the loss and overcome with guilt, Love chose as her penance to become one of the very fishermen she spent much of her time in the Coast Guard rescuing. In less than a year on the job, she nearly drowned twice after being dragged overboard in high seas by the hooks of heavy fishing lines."
Siebert goes on to write about Love's residence at a place called Serenity Park, where birds named Julius, Bacardi, Pinky, and Cashew live with 30 other parrots, and where Love received parrot therapy. Before going to Serenity Park Love told Siebert, ‘‘They had me loaded up on so many kinds of medications, I was seeing little green men and spiders jumping out of trees" ... "as a six-inch-tall female caique parrot from the Amazon Basin named Cashew dutifully paced across her shoulders. Back and forth she went, from one side to the other, in determined, near- circular waddles. For the next 10 minutes, Love, her eyes closed, her arms still at her sides, continued to engage in one of the many daily duets she does with each one of Serenity Park’s winged residents, listing her shoulders up and down like a gently rocking ship, Cashew’s slow, feather-light paddings all the while putting Love further at ease."
Love goes on to say, "Their spirit gives me the will to get up and do it another day. They’re all victims here. Kind of like what the veterans have been through, in a way.’’
Parrots also can be severely traumatized. Siebert writes:
"Abandoned pet parrots are twice-traumatized beings: denied first their natural will to flock and then the company of the humans who owned them. In the wild, parrots ply the air, mostly, in the same way whales do the sea: together and intricately. Longtime pairs fly wing to wing within extended, close-knit social groupings in which individual members, scientists have recently discovered, each have unique identifiable calls, like human names. Parrots learn to speak them soon after birth, during a transitional period of vocalizing equivalent to human baby babbling known as ‘‘subsong,’’ in order to better communicate with members of their own flocks and with other flocks. This, it turns out, is the root of that vaunted gift for mimicry, which, along with their striking plumages and beguilingly fixed, wide-eyed stares, has long induced us to keep parrots — neuronally hard-wired flock animals with up to 60-to-70-year life spans and the cognitive capacities of 4-to-5-year-old children — all to ourselves in a parlor cage: a broken flight of human fancy; a keening kidnapee."
According to Lorin Lindner, the psychologist who founded Serenity Park, ‘‘Parrots 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.’’
Before I leave it to you to read Siebert's essay, here are a few more snippets. ‘‘'You can look in their eyes,' Love said, returning with Bobbi, 'any of these parrots’ eyes, and I myself see a soul. I see a light in there. And when they look at you, they see right into your soul. Look around. They’re all watching. They notice everything. It’s intense.'"
Siebert also notes, "Veterans, of course, share similar psychological scarring, but whenever I asked any of them how it is that the parrots succeed in connecting where human therapists and fellow group-therapy members can’t, the answer seemed to lie precisely in the fact that parrots are alien intelligences: parallel, analogously wounded minds that know and feel pain deeply and yet at a level liberatingly beyond the prescriptive confines of human language and prejudices."
"Nearing Serenity Park’s exit, I decided to turn back and step inside Cashew’s quarters for a moment. I had only to nestle close to her perch and she immediately hopped on my back. Crisscrossing my shoulders as I had watched her do with Lilly Love, she stopped at one point for what I assumed would be the parrot equivalent of a kiss. Instead, she began to clean my teeth: her beak lightly tapping against my enamel, the faint vibrations strangely soothing. Immediately afterward, she took a brief nap in my shirt’s left breast pocket — it felt as if I’d grown another heart — then re-emerged and crawled to the top of my head. She strolled about there for a time before plucking out one of her own deep blue-green feathers and then descending to gently place it on my left shoulder. I have it still."
I can't say enough about Siebert's excellent essay and I hope you will read it and share it widely. It could be a life-changer for many people in need.
Note: Most unfortunately, parrots are part of the despicable, unimaginable, and unforgivable trade in exotic pets (please also see). Please also see "Captive Grey Parrots Suffer From Social Isolation Loneliness" and "Psychological Disorders in Animals: A Review of What We Know."
Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). (Homepage: marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)