Monday, October 27, 2008

Lessons from the pet store

I work at a local pet store that sells only birds and bird-related supplies. They do not sell a lot of birds, and this is on purpose. Birds are very difficult to live with and people often want to buy birds for the wrong reasons or without doing enough research. Then they see how difficult birds are to live with and abuse, neglect or relinquish them. Rather than add more birds to the world, the pet store prefers to support the birds already out there and help relinquished birds find new homes.

The birds that the pet store raises and sells are all small birds, the kinds that are easier to live with. They have a bird sanctuary full of big unwanted birds for those people who think they can handle a cockatoo, African grey or Amazon. People who think they want a bird like that have to go through a lot of hoops to be approved to take one of these large, wild animals home. This ensures the birds won't come back again. Some of the birds will probably live at the sanctuary forever, especially the ones with unpredictable temperaments or the ones who have pulled out all their feathers. The sanctuary will sometimes provide the latter birds with a little sweater to wear.

I do not particularly like working in retail but the pet store offers a unique experience because I get to work with the animals. Yesterday I helped groom the birds. My job was to hold them while my boss did the actual grooming. Holding them involves putting a choke-hold around their necks so they cannot bite me or the groomer. They are not actually choked. I hold them around the neck under the mandible so that they can't tilt their heads down to bite. I also have to hold their bodies so that they won't wiggle too much and accidentally get a toe chopped off. Grooming involves cutting their toenails, trimming their wings (if that is desired) and sometimes using a dremmel tool on their beaks.

Yesterday we groomed an African gray that had had a bad experience with grooming and boarding at a different facility. No one knows what happened to the bird there, but the bird went into the facility happy and came out terrified. It has taken four years for the bird to learn to step up again.

The groomer had to struggle to get the bird out of the cage. The bird saw the towel coming and started screaming a horrible cry that showed the bird was terrified. He fought coming out of his travel cage with all his might, which only made the experience extra traumatic for him. He lost two feathers in the struggle.

He cried the whole time we held him down. Something about his cries were so heartbreaking that my eyes teared up. What had they done to him to make him so terrified? I wished we could communicate to him that he would be ok, that we would not hurt him. I tried to comfort him with my voice, but we are not the same species. How could he understand?

His nails were half an inch too long. Normally only a tiny bit is cut off the nail. We cut a large curly-cue of nail off. He will be able to grasp normally again. We hoped our efforts did not further traumatize him and set him back on his progress toward trusting people again.

After we groomed the African gray, the groomer gave a Moluccan cockatoo a bath in the kitchen sink. My job was to blow dry the bird. Fortunately the bird enjoyed blow drying. Cockatoos love attention so having someone fuss and touch the bird all over and blow warm air was something this bird enjoyed. As the bird became nearly dry, he seemed to enjoy being hugged and cuddled as I dried under his wings. I enjoyed hugging and cuddling the beautiful salmon and yellow bird, too.

Meanwhile, Dolly, the resident Moluccan cockatoo, who has been hazing me since I started working there, could only look on with hatred and jealousy. If only Dolly would quit hazing me she might get attention from me, too. Instead, she tries to bite me whenever I come by. She doesn't really bite. She just tries to show me she's boss by faking taking a swipe at me. So I wave a stick at her to show her she is not the boss. She runs into her cage and we give each other the evil eye. Funny thing is she never treated me like this when I was a customer. She would let me pet her like she lets all the other customers do.

These are the things you have to deal with when you deal with birds. That is why they are so hard to live with. You never know what kind of bird you will end up with. Will it be fearful and distrusting? Will it bite huge painful holes in you (that has also happened to me too many times to count)? Will it demand constant lovey-dovey attention as it tries to suck you into a vortex you can never fill? Even if the bird has a perfect personality it will likely destroy your carpet, doors, precious personal items and more.

At lunch I continued reading the book I checked out of the library called Writing Down the Bones. There is a story in there of a man who worked as a remote backcountry ranger. He was so remote and alone he spent two months not wearing any clothes. One day he was out picking berries and felt a tongue on his back. He turned around and a deer was licking him! He and the deer went back to picking and eating berries side-by-side. He felt he had reached a state of Oneness with nature at that moment sharing a berry bush with a deer.

I am not naked at the pet store, but I get little chances to make a connection to the animals. It is a similar feeling like making the connection to the Earth when I was on the Pacific Crest Trail. My experience out there showed me at a deep level that I am a creature of the Earth like the birds and other animals. We are all one. If we humans would stop seeing ourselves as separate from nature I am certain that nature would provide for us like it provides for the wild birds and the deer. Instead we separate ourselves and become like pet cockatoos: insatiable vortexes demanding more.

We are not meant to be separate, us and nature. That is one reason we try to artificially add animals to our lives. We are seeking that connection to Oneness we've lost. It works on some level, but the animal ends up having to make similar sacrifices to the ones we have made. As we have separated from the great Oneness, we have both become a little diminished, a little crazy with repetitive behaviors, violence and materialism. Our wants grow disproportionate. We both forget how to let nature provide for our needs and in forgetting become destructive. We both become little black holes of need that try to fill up our wants with artificial love instead of the Oneness that is available if only we stay wild. We humans have become captive wild animals.

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