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Tova Gabrielle

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The Naked Bird
By Tova Gabrielle
Tuesday, February 03, 2004

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birdie psych. 101

If you want to know what’s wrong with your pet, don’t look at the pet, look at the dynamics in your home. As a people therapist who has also worked with pets, I've found that when pet owners say, "We can't do a thing with him," they're revealing more about themselves than their pets.

In the movie The Horse Whisperer, the protagonist explains that his principle in working with animals is nuts and bolts: If the owner is nuts, the horse bolts. Poor relationships with pets often reflect poor relationships between humans. The culture in which we live causes us to lose touch with our nature and animals’ nature. We have lost our ability to respond to animals appropriately because we have lost our innate intelligence.

People have asked me over the years if the birds I have rehabilitated have feelings. It has been hard for me to bite my tongue and not ask, "Do you?” While the ethics of domesticating parrots is questionable, I have tried to educate humans and rescue those among these birds that are in distress.


Craig and Lynn were the distressed human parents of their adolescent African Gray parrot, Elvis.

"We don't know what to do. We've tried everything. We can't bear to put a restraining collar on him again – he gets so mad. Will you take him and see if you can get him to stop plucking himself?"

I told them that I'd work with him for a month and took him home. Half hoping they'd either get him a mate or release him to me, I provided him with a companion and immediately made a fuss over him, repeatedly telling him how beautiful he was to assuage his high anxiety. I've never met a bird who doesn't strut and cluck and get full of him- or herself when praised.

A month later, having become attached to Elvis and fearing for his future well being, I reluctantly returned the bird, who no longer plucked himself. I suggested that they get him a companion and give him lots of compliments. (Although it is a popular misconception that providing a companion makes a bird unfriendly, the truth is that it makes it less desperate.)

After I returned him, Elvis began plucking himself again. This time, Lynn seemed unconcerned, as if she had acclimated to his distress, as if this aberration was just the way he was.

Lynn had told me that Craig had hand-fed Elvis. Elvis, therefore, should have bonded with Craig from birth. Apparently, however, either they never did bond, or, more likely, Craig had that nasty way some fathers have of turning on their adolescents when they start to spread their wings.

Craig, like Elvis, was a neglected loner. He had become grumpy since a stroke had left him with a limp and low energy. A former social activist, he now hung around the house feeling useless. Perhaps it was too much of a reflection for him to see their obviously intelligent bird also sitting around the house doing nothing.

One day, Craig had a houseguest, Larry, who hid his hatred of their bird from them. Lynn left the house to teach her writing classes at a community college, and Craig went off to poke around in the barn. Larry slept in. That night, Lynn and Craig walked in the door of their farmhouse with arms full of fresh vegetables from the garden to discover that Elvis, badly plucked, had really done a job on himself. Lynn threw down the kale and cried, "Oh Elvis, what have you done?" Craig scowled at Elvis and sighed resignedly as he carried the kale over to the big enamel sink. Elvis threw his food and growled at Craig. He nipped Lynn for the first time in his life.

Every morning, Elvis normally awakened Lynn and Craig with a sweet, "Hello Momma, Hello Papa." But the morning following this event, they were awakened by their houseguest's voice: "Hello Momma. Fuck You Poppa." It was Elvis, perfectly imitating Larry. That evening, Elvis greeted them again in Larry's voice, this time saying, "You stupid ass! Fuck you." Lynn abruptly told Craig that Larry had to go. Craig agreed.

Every morning after that, it was the same greeting: “Hello Momma. Fuck you, Poppa.” Craig, who usually ignored Elvis, did not take this as a joke. Lynn explained to me that Craig had always been jealous of her relationship with the bird, and that he was bitter about the competition that had developed ever since Elvis had "dumped" him for her.

Months later, I attended a gathering at their house, and noticed that Elvis was plucked clean again. He hissed at the other guests. I began playing catch with him and Craig was astounded: "He plays?" I didn't know how to answer such a question, so I didn’t, maintaining my focus on Elvis and telling him how smart and pretty he was. Craig just watched us, shaking his head and remarking that he couldn’t get over it. Elvis and I were throwing a toy back and forth; the bird was perfectly attuned to my actions. Craig said he never knew he had it in him, and I wondered where his imagination was.

I knew that if I said anything to Craig about how he abused Elvis, it would only provoke more bad feelings from him toward the bird. I imagined that Craig had lost too much in life to lose face by acknowledging what he was doing to Elvis. But I also suspected that he, like Elvis, craved interaction, despite his loner stance. Perhaps his relationship with Elvis grew out of desperate and depressed attempts to interact, much like those of a child or adolescent who prefers to evoke negative responses from others over none at all.

"Here, you try." I held out the toy to Craig.

"No, I don't know how to play with a bird. I wish I did."

I looked away from Craig and into the clear, piercing eyes of that bird. He was suffering. What is it, dear alienated being of the sky, you virtual angel? The bird looked back, mournfully, and then I just knew: Elvis plucked himself because Craig belittled this great being. Craig abused Elvis as an outgrowth of his frustration over his situation. The bird was desperate.

"Lynn," I asked later, "does Craig make fun of Elvis?"

She rolled her eyes and exclaimed, "All the time! He calls him ‘Stupid’ and ‘Hey, Ugly,’ and ‘Pest,’ and he goes around the house saying, ‘Damn noisy animal, who does he think he is?’"

We agreed that these constant attacks were making Elvis miserable. Craig was not aware that Elvis felt those taunts and was hurt by them. But Lynn noted that now that she thought about it, it had always been after a taunt that Elvis had plucked himself.

"There is a cold spot in Craig," she confided. "You can actually feel it on his chest. I can't seem to warm it. I just can't get him to stop. It's like a game, a joke. The bird's feelings are just not real to him. I think he truly saves all up his frustration for Elvis. The more I tell him to stop, the more he makes fun of him, and then he derides me if I persist."

"Well, I can find him a breeding situation." (I heard my words and mused to myself that I could be referring to her husband and not the bird.)

"What can I do?” cries Lynn. “I just can't bear to part with him. He's my baby. Maybe someday I will be able to let him go, but not yet. He's the only real comfort I've got." (And I briefly wondered which of the two males she was referring to.)

I told her that in the wild, no birds ever pull out their own feathers, that this is an aberration.

Elvis jumped down onto her shoulder and put his head, the only part of his body that wasn't plucked, on her shoulder. Theirs seemed to be the primary relationship in this household. No wonder Craig was so obnoxious toward this sensitive, intelligent bird.

I believed that this situation could heal Craig if it could lead him to heal his attitude toward the strange bird that he, himself, had become since his stroke, the strange bird who couldn't walk straight, let alone fly.

"But poor Elvis," I said.

Lynn answered, “I know, I know. I can't pretend to believe that he's just an animal. I know Elvis suffers. But so do I."

I wondered if Lynn and Elvis would cement their bond and exclude Craig. I wondered if Craig would learn to play – but responsible like Craig often get the playfulness ground out of them, and women like Lynn often don’t have enough time to straighten out the tangled web of their loyalties and needs.


I've never met a bird I didn't like. I have always, however, had trouble with humans, whom I sometimes think are lower on the chain of evolution than those truly transcendent beings upon whom, perhaps, our notion of angels was originally patterned.

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Reviewed by Regis Auffray 3/21/2005
I really enjoyed reading this, Tova; and there's a lot of meaning ellicited. Thank you. Love and peace to you. Regis
Reviewed by Shirley Cheng 8/27/2004
I agree with you on what you said in this piece. I like this... African Grays are special animals, but then, all creatures are special in their own way. Humans simply have to open their eyes and hearts to realize the fact. All creatures need love. Mistreated animals, like children, will feel devestated and exhibit their feelings, like plucking feathers in parrots' cases. They need love and attention!
Reviewed by Dan Summerfield 2/11/2004
Reduce this to 250 words and you have a terrific poem here. Actually, with only one more line, that last paragraph is a poem in itself.

Dan S.
Reviewed by Ed Matlack 2/3/2004
Tova, i am so happy to receive from you something, as I have wondered if you died or not, LOL! I love the last paragraph, specifically the fact that humans are lower on the chain of evolution, and i think as well on the food chain...LOL! Excellent, hon, Ed & rufuz

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