Never underestimate what a kid can learn from having a pet. I was 8 years old when I learned how to navigate a toxic relationship. My teacher was a bird.
The first pet my little brother and I had was a dog named Clancy. Clancy was a fussy Lhasa Apso with lots of flowing hair. He was an incredibly good looking dog with papers and a pedigree. Clancy belonged in a calendar. He belonged at the Westminster Dog Show. He did not belong in a home with small children. Clancy was a biter and his teeth found their way into my brother’s hand one day and that was the end of him. Bye Clancy!
Our next pet was a tabby cat named Frisky. He wasn’t friendly either. Frisky liked to hide under furniture and scratch at us when we tried to engage him. When our family returned from vacation his first summer with us, Frisky had run away. We never saw him again. Ciao Frisky!
All of our pet misfortune faded when we adopted a tiny black Persian kitten named Midnight. He was solid black except for one shocking jolt of white hair on his neck. My brother and I thought he was the best cat in the world. Midnight was a snuggler and he loved to sleep with us at night. As he grew from kitten to cat, we noticed his fierce and predatory nature towards the animals in our backyard. He took down every squirrel, bird, chipmunk and rabbit within a one acre radius. My dad, an avid bird watcher, found Midnight’s appetite for his feathered friends disturbing. In a territorial and emasculating move, he put a collar with jingle bells on Midnight. This collar was a warning to all wildlife of Midnight’s proximity as he skulked around on the prowl. This simple solution allowed countless souls to live another day. Midnight was a paradox of sweet and savage. In our neighborhood, there wasn’t a kid that didn’t want to pet him nor a dog that didn’t fear him.
Our need for pets was insatiable. Having the best cat in the world wasn’t enough. We wanted more and relentlessly begged our parents for birds. Our pleas worked and one Friday, my dad brought home two parakeets. My brother and I named them Donny and Marie. Their large three story birdcage sat on our living room floor. One evening, the entire family was just returning from a grocery store outing and discovered their deadly fate. My mother opened the front door and Midnight darted past her legs and into the yard. As I entered the living room, I saw Donny and Marie’s cage knocked over on it’s side. The cage door was open and there was no sign of a parakeet except for some blue and yellow down floating in the air near the scene. I didn’t piece together what had happened. My dad had the full picture immediately. He sat next to my brother and I to explain how Midnight just can’t help himself. “A cat is going to be a cat and well … those birds were dinner” Ed frankly explained. We buried a few of the feathers in a small box and bid adieu to Donny and Marie!
My grief was short lived. My new dream was to have a pair of lovebirds. When I shared my dream with my mother, she let me know that lovebirds are expensive. We discovered that the two I wanted from Fur, Feather & Fin (our local pet store) would cost around $300. I know my parents thought that would be the end of it. It wasn’t.
I was just about to turn eight. $300 was a fortune to me. That summer before 3rd grade, I dog sat, baby sat, folded clothes, sold old toys, ran errands and washed cars for money. After three long months of hustling mixed with my birthday money from various relatives, I had accumulated $287.
On Labor Day weekend, my mom and I returned to Fur, Feather & Fin. The store was small compared to the Petcos of today. Cages lined the walls from front to back with everything from cats to cockatoos. I ran to the back where I had seen the lovebirds. I saw finches, parakeets and parrots. Where were my lovebirds? My heart sank. They were gone. My mother quickly asked the sales lady if the lovebirds were still available? “I am afraid we sold them” the sales lady responded.
Disappointment was quickly followed by devastation. Wanda asked the sales lady when they would have new birds. “It will be awhile. It could be months.” she said. I was working really hard to keep it together when the sales lady said, “Come take a look at this guy. He’s an African parrot called a Nanday Conure.” A parrot sounded interesting, l thought. “He is trainable. You can teach him to sit on your finger and even to talk. He is the same price as the lovebirds. What do you think?” the sales lady asked. My mom suggested that we go home and discuss it.
Before we left, I went to get a good look at that parrot. I got really close to him. I stared and studied him for a long time. He was about ten inches tall with a black head and green body. There were places of teal on his chest and tail. Red feathers on his legs made him seem painted. He was a work of art.
My new acquaintance paced from side to side in his cage in a menacing and restless manor. I caught his eye and it was black and piercing. His stare gave me the chills. My initial instinct was fear. The black feathers on his head curved down his neck and turned out like a duck tail. At a second glance, his head struck the same silhouette as Darth Vader’s helmet. As I walked away, the Imperial March started to play in my head. Dom Dom Dom Dom Da Dom Dom Da Dom.
I spent the weekend talking myself into getting that parrot. My inner optimist delighted in the details that I could teach him to talk and to sit on my finger. I daydreamed of being Dr. Doolittle at my next Show and Tell at school. My gut kept trying to interject into this conversation in my eight year old mind. “This bird is not what you wanted,” my gut would say. “Not even close. Remember your initial instincts of fear and unease?” my gut would ask. I kept telling myself how wonderful this could be. Eternal optimists can talk themselves into the dumbest of things.
My mother and I did some research at the library. We found a National Geographic book about parrots. My mom looked concerned as she read to me the following passage, “These birds can be mean as well as a lifelong commitment. Parrots can often live for more than 50 years.” I double gulped as I processed this direct warning from a trusted and reliable source. I shook it off. My eternal optimist returned. You are supposed to face your fears right? Plus, I was desperate for a new pet and a talking parrot was going to be perfect! I just knew it.
Sunday, I returned to Fur, Feather & Fin with my dad and $300. I found the sales lady and told her that I decided to get the parrot. I named him Naked as a Jaybird, but my Dad and I decided that we would just call him Jay as a nod to John J (Jay) Audubon. My dad asked me one last time if I was SURE I wanted to get this parrot and not wait it out and find some lovebirds that I had originally wanted so badly. I told him that I was sure.
Fur, Feather & Fin gave us a tutorial on how to take care of Jay. He loved nuts, fruit and seeds. I was shown how to open the cage and get Jay used to the smell of my hand. The sales lady explained that this is how I could train him to sit on my finger.
The next few hours with Jay were the honeymoon period. I showed him off to my brother and every friend in the neighborhood. My parents had decided that Midnight would now stay in the garage so that he wouldn’t eat Jay.
My dad hung Jay’s cage in my room. I was thrilled to have a new roommate. My brother was also excited and decided he was going to sleep with us. We dozed off with no awareness of the trouble headed our way.
Around 2 am, I was awakened by the sound of what I thought was a helicopter. It was pitch black in my room. I couldn’t see a thing. When I sat up, I heard the frantic flapping of wings. It was like a colony of bats descending upon me. I felt the wind across my face as my new roommate swooshed by me. This wasn’t a helicopter or a colony of bats. Jay had escaped his cage and was dive bombing my brother and I while we were trying to sleep. As soon as Jay realized we were awake, he started screeching. The noise pierced my ears and it was nothing like the pleasant chirps one hears from birds in a pet store. This sound was more akin to the shrieks of the Velociraptors in Jurassic Park.
The commotion woke my brother up. I got out of bed and searched for the light switch. My brother started screaming for my parents. My dad ran into my room in his underwear. “What is going on?” he asked. “Jay got out of his cage,” I answered. My dad turned on the light and rationalized that maybe Jay was hungry or disoriented in his new setting. Jay had flown up to the top corner of a large window in my room. Jay would stare at my dad and then do a dive bomb right at him. My Dad didn’t even flinch, but on the second dive, Jay scratched my dad’s face with his talon and I heard my Dad utter the words “G#$ D%@# bird”. My dad told me not to worry and that we would get Jay back into his cage. My dad’s head was bleeding ever so slightly. My eight year old nerves were shot.
My dad reached over and picked up my tennis racket and butterfly net. Jay had started screeching again and my brother ran out of the room to go get in bed with my mother. My Dad channeled his inner Jedi and carefully guided Jay back into his cage with a racket in one hand and net in other. Next, we found some chicken wire and wrapped it around the door to Jay’s cage to prevent him from escaping again. Despite my desperate pleas, my brother wouldn’t come back in my room. He had decided to sleep with my parents for the rest of the night. My dad tucked me in and left the room. I put the covers over my head and tried to relax. Jay would screech every few minutes for what seemed like hours. I hardly slept a wink.
At the breakfast table, I barely ate my cereal and I went to school feeling tired and disappointed.
When I returned home, Jay was in his cage, but my room was a disaster. Jay had been on a nut bender. Nuts were Jay’s passion and he would eat them with great speed and spit the shells out like a machine gun. Jay’s discarded refuse decorated the shag carpet in a three foot perimeter of his cage. Today would also be the day that I discovered that Jay had a gift for multi-directional pooping. Bird poop was all over the cage, the wall and wait for it… the floor. Yuck! Luckily, it was still early days. My optimism was still in tact and my mom helped me clean up the mess. My mother made a special bag out of canvas that had a drawstring and we placed it around the bottom half of the cage to catch nutshells and excrement. It was a genius invention and helped keep Jay’s disgusting habits in check.
I asked my dad to move Jay into the living room. There was no way I would be able to sleep with a parrot in my room.
Jay’s new location was on top of a very sturdy stand right at eye level of an eight year old. I was happy to have him out of my room and I spent the next week getting used to the daily grind of feeding him and cleaning up his poop and nutshells. It was exhausting. I still got the chills when Jay stared at me with his black eyes and his loud screeching made me cringe. This was not the pet of my dreams. Jay had only been with me five days and I already had the dreaded feeling that I had made a terrible mistake. I vowed to keep trying. Surely it would get better.
On week two, I got up the nerve to start training Jay to sit on my finger. We had to prepare for show and tell. I carefully removed the chicken wire that was securing his cage door. I slowly entered my hand inside while talking calmly to Jay. I had been caring for him for a little over a week, so surely he was growing to trust me. He wasn’t. Not two seconds after I entered my hand into the cage, Jay clamped his beak with full torque onto my pointer finger. I don’t know how many pounds per square inch pressure he had in his bite, but this bird was a professional nutcracker and now he had a hold of my finger. I tried to stay calm, but eventually just ended up screaming. My mother came running to my rescue. Luckily, we were able to retrieve my finger with no real damage. My mom went to get her gardening gloves and suggested I use them until Jay feels comfortable with me. I took a deep breath and tried again. Jay kept biting me, but it didn’t hurt so much with the gloves on. I started repeating hello again and again to him and believe it or not, he started saying hello back.
Show and Tell day had arrived. I picked up Jay’s cage and carried him with me to my mom’s van. I sat him safely between my brother and I with a seat belt around his cage. The children of Mrs. Harmon and Mrs. May’s 3rd grade class at Church Street elementary were in for a real treat.
As I entered the classroom, all of my friends ran towards me and gathered around to see my exotic feathered friend. Jay was pacing from side to side in his cage and saying hello as if on cue. This was working out just peachy, I thought to myself. Mrs. May told me to put the cage in the back under a table until it was time for Show and Tell.
Mrs. Harmon took roll, went over the days schedule and started our good morning song. The entire class sang loudly with joy and abandon. A few bars into the song, Jay started screeching along with us. I was having Jurassic Park deja vu. Mrs. May instructed us all to try to ignore the parrot and maybe he would calm down. At first, Jay did calm down. Next, Mrs. Harmon started our math lesson.
We were all learning really important stuff when the screeching started up again. However, this time was different. The screeching was no longer coming from the back of the room. Before I could turn around, I heard the helicopter again. Jay had houdinied out of his cage and was flying around the classroom. “Remain calm students,” Mrs. May said with quick choppy words. She couldn’t fool us, she wasn’t calm. Jay made a beeline straight for Mrs. May and poop bombed her head. Our fearless leader let out a high pitched squeal and tiptoed to the intercom system to call the principal for back up. Bedlam ensued. Twenty-six eight year olds were screaming and hiding under their desks.
The following things all happened very quickly: I looked around for something to wrangle Jay back into his cage and scored a yard stick. My buddy Aaron (the cutest red head at Church Street Elementary) ran over and picked up a large brown grocery bag. Mrs. Harmon ran to close the door to keep Jay from escaping into the hallway. Aaron and I made eye contact and gave a knowing nod to take action. We advanced slowly towards the bird. I first held out my hand to see if Jay would perch on my finger. Jay went from screeching to chomping right on my pointer finger. I was sure I was one finger down this time. The pain was alarming. I called out to Aaron to put the bag over Jay and he did. Jay panicked in the grocery bag and Aaron calmly held him in there. I put on some science gloves and took Jay out of the bag and put him back into his cage. Luckily, my finger was still intact. My heart was beating like a drum. The class erupted with applause. Aaron high fived me.
Mr. Warren, the principal, came in about this time and was glad to see everything was under control. Mr. Warren helped me use masking tape to secure Jay’s cage door to prevent another breakout. Mrs. Harmon and Mrs. May decided to turn the situation into a creative writing lesson and we all had to write a story about it.
When we got home that afternoon, I put Jay’s cage on his stand and went to get something to drink. I got a Tab from our second fridge in the garage and when I returned to the kitchen, Midnight came in the house with me. My mom, my brother and I were enjoying an after school snack of Coke products of choice and homemade peanut butter crackers. I read them my story about the incident and my brother did a spit take when I revealed Jay pooped on Mrs. May’s head. We laughed and laughed.
Our laughter was interrupted with familiar screeching from the next room. The sound didn’t even give me pause until I heard Midnight hissing in chorus. I dropped my crackers and ran to see what was happening. Jay had gotten out of his cage again and he was trying to attack Midnight. When I entered the room, Midnight was on his back legs and swiping his claws in Jay’s direction. Midnight’s fangs were exposed and I knew it was about to get real. Remarkably, Jay was unafraid of Midnight. Jay’s shrieks heightened and he scratched Midnight on the top of the head. Jay then perched himself on our television just out of reach. My brother took Midnight outside and consoled him.
The realization that I had purchased a psychological terrorist with wings hit me like a ton of bricks. I felt ashamed for letting this demon into our lives. I was filled with the dread of not knowing how to fix it.
When I finally got settled in my bed, my brain was spinning a million miles an hour. Jay was making me miserable and I was having trouble seeing a way out. I became nauseous when I remembered that parrots live for 50 years. Jay had terrorized my brother and I in our sleep and all my classmates at school. He violently bit me, scratched my dad and my cat. He verbally assaulted everyone repeatedly with his ear piercing screeching and don’t get me started on the poop situation. In fact, let’s discuss pooping vs defecating. Poop is a word used for cute bunnies, puppies, kittens and babies. It is no longer appropriate for this story. Defecating is the better word choice. Defecating is a word reserved for psychos, miscreants and ne’er do wells. This bird defecated on my walls, my parents, my teacher, my cat and quite frankly, my soul. My relationship with this bird was something I endured, not something I enjoyed. Once again, I asked myself, “How can I get out of this?” My initial thoughts were probably more extreme than they needed to be. I dreamed of letting Midnight into the house while we were out or just releasing Jay into the evening sky.
Everything seemed better when I woke up the next morning. The house was quiet and I smelled my Mom making breakfast. Yay – it was Saturday! I walked toward the kitchen and passed Jay’s cage. At first, I thought he had gotten out again because there was no sign of him. Then I saw him. He was laying on the floor of his cage with his feet pulled close into his body. I thought for sure he was dead. I got closer to look at him and he opened his eyes. He was alive and breathing, but something was horribly wrong. “Mom!” I shouted with panic. My mom ran into the room and said the word shit under her breath when she saw him.
My mom called Fur, Feather and Fin and told them what was going on. The sales lady recommended a local veterinarian that had a speciality in ornithology. My mom called him and we were invited right over.
I put Jay’s cage in my Mom’s van. The ride was a short one. The veterinarian’s house looked totally normal from the outside. My mother knocked and when the veterinarian opened the door, my spidey senses were tingling. This dude was weird. From now on, I will refer to him as Creepy Bird Dude or CBD for short.
CBD’s house was full of birds and they were not in cages. It was disgusting. There was no carpet or flooring. We walked along plywood to get to his kitchen. Homemade shelves lined the walls where birds of all kinds perched. I stopped counting birds when I reached 30. I was only eight, but after taking just a few steps, I was like WTF? I didn’t even know the phrase WTF at the time, but that is exactly what I was thinking in my very own eight year old terms.
CBD put the C in creepy. He looked like the lovechild of Jack Hanna and Bob Ross. He was irrily nice and spoke to me like a teacher would. However, the hairs on the back of my neck were standing on end and I knew that this person was not someone that I would ever choose to be alone with. CBD examined Jay and said he thought that Jay was just severely dehydrated. As CBD doctored Jay, I told him stories of the mayhem that we had experienced since bringing Jay into our lives.
CBD gave us an eye dropper and a mixture he called “Bird Gatorade”. My mother wrote down all the care instructions. As we started to leave, CBD looked at me and said, “If Jay survives this and you want to sell him, I’d love to buy him from you. He is such an unusual bird. I’d pay you $600 for him.” Oh my god! I could smell freedom. I was going to save this bird if it was the last thing I did and I was going to sell him to CBD. I didn’t say any of this to my mother. My mom thought I was terribly sad because the bird was so sick. She kept reassuring me that Jay would get better. I wasn’t sad. After all this bird had done to me, I was only hoping he would live so that I could sell him. My compassion was gone and I was transitioning from victim to survivor.
A few days into the “Bird Gatorade” therapy, Jay was back to normal and terrorizing the Loving household like the good old days. I told my mother that I wanted to sell Jay. She did not try to talk me out of it or ask any questions. She called CBD immediately and we took Jay over to his new home. As we drove away from CBD’s freaky bird manor, a flood of relief came over me and a spark of joy erupted as I counted my $600.
I thought I was sworn off pets for life. However, two years after I sold Jay, another wonderful pet came into our lives. One of my mother’s friends from her ladies’ club was looking for a family to adopt their son’s one year old Weimaraner named Cathy. Her son was getting a divorce and no longer had time to care for the dog properly. She wanted to interview the family -aka us! Cathy was “That” kind of dog.
Our entire family went to meet Cathy. We received the Peachtree City Ladies’ Club seal of approval and Cathy was allowed to come home with us. All you need to know is that Cathy, like Midnight, was an instant member of the family. She was loving and gentle with everyone except for snakes and our mailman.
Relationships with pets teach us many things. The most important: Don’t hang on to the toxic ones too long. Always make room for the healthy ones!