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"This was a normal living room a year ago," Marc Johnson explains as he steps into a room now brimming with brightly-colored birds. A dozen red and green macaws make themselves comfortable atop their open wire enclosures or perched on the rope strung around the room like Christmas garland. There is a chorus of "hellos," and Floyd, a gregarious blue and gold macaw, shifts his weight from side to side, dancing with delight at Marc's arrival. Floyd should be glad to see Marc, who converted his own home into the headquarters of Foster Parrots Limited, a non-profit rescue and adoption service for mistreated and unwanted pet parrots like Floyd. Some 200 birds representing 44 different species - most of them large, all of them loud - now call Marc's New England farmhouse home.
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Marc cares for the birds full-time, aided by just one paid employee and a flock of up to 20 volunteers. "And at the end of the day," Marc says, "I never feel like I've done enough."
These two facts mean parrot populations - especially when bred for profit - can mushroom out of control.
While many pet parrots are well taken care of, a neglected bird reacts more dramatically than a less than pampered pooch. Without lots of attention and intellectual stimulation, neglected pet parrots can develop psychological problems uncannily similar to humans - aggression towards others or compulsive self-mutilation. Most of the once-beautiful birds in Marc's care have plucked themselves clean.
Marc gives the birds away for free, but finding potential adoptive parents who live up to Marc's exacting standards is not easy. Marc carefully screens prospective parrot owners, ruling out anyone under 25 years of age, anyone with a 9-to-5 job, cat-owners, owners of some types of dogs, etc. One caller asked for a bird to match the décor of a newly renovated room.
"We have a strong anti-breeding stance," he explains as he slices up apples for the birds, carefully removing the seeds. "Years ago, dogs were in this position. The media exposed puppy mills, but now we're making the same mistakes with birds."
"The pet trade packages birds as a convenient pet," says Marc. "Pet stores make you think tidy pellets are enough for birds. They don't tell you you'll be cleaning sweet potatoes off the wall."
Humble Beginnings, Lofty Goals
Ten years ago, Marc Johnson was a potter, living in a three-room apartment in Cambridge, MA. "I got a bird to keep me company," he recalls. "I didn't recognize the sadness of that bird. It came to me over many years."
The room across the hall from his bedroom doubles as an office and quarantine ward, a strawberry iMac against one wall and five caged birds against the other. In the cage closest to the window, Sonny, an otherwise beautiful cockatoo, wears an Elizabethan collar meant to keep him
from picking at the ghastly wound on his chest.
"I don't think it's my role to decide," he says with certainty."I like to try everything I could possible think of first."
"I do this seven days a week," he sighs. "I never go on vacation, it's hard to get away even for an afternoon. I can't do it much longer."
He may not have to; the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Animal Cruelty (MSPCA) visited Marc's home recently to better understand the scope of the problem and how to solve it.
"We're trying to do good," Marc comments. "Every bird will give back what you put into it."
A Good Read from PBS