The parrots come in all sizes, colors and temperaments. And the numbers just keep growing. In fact, the Washington home of Diana and Rick Waltman might just as well be called the "Birdhouse," since it houses the dedicated couple's Angels in Flight (AIF) rescue program and little else.
"We are slowly but surely moving ourselves out of the house to accommodate the birds," says Diana Waltman. "Besides the kitchen, bathroom and our bedroom, the parrots have taken over."
Right now 37 macaws, seven cockatoos, eight African grays, seven Amazons and one eclectus share the couple's 1,750-square-foot house in Federal Way, midway between Seattle and Tacoma. If you haven't been counting, that adds up to 60 birds.
Expenses Run About $900 a Month
Food, veterinary bills and assorted expenses run about $900 a month. Occasionally, somebody sends a check, but donations don't add up to much, says Waltman, who has applied for and been turned down for various grants over the years.
"The most rewarding thing is to get an abused parrot and be able to turn his life around," Waltman says. "We had a couple of cases where birds were dropped off at our door just days from dying. I won't say no to a bird that needs AIF. We're giving them a second chance at life, and if we don't, who will?"
Each new occupant in the Birdhouse comes with his own story. One came from as far away as Alaska, but most are from the Seattle-Tacoma area. Some arrive at the Waltmans' door after an impulse buy turned into a disaster, and some come from families in the midst of a divorce. Some turn up after a well-meant purchase went awry.
Earlier this summer, Waltman remembers, she got a frantic phone call from a woman looking for help. "She explained that her family had gone to a bird store to see about obtaining a parrot. She told the shop owner that the only experience they'd had with birds was owning a couple of cockatiels, but they wanted to move up to a bigger bird.
"They looked around and found Bubba, a beautiful cockatoo, that had been there for about three months on consignment," Waltman continues. "The family fell in love with his looks and size and asked about the price, his age and background. They wanted to know who had owned him before and why they were selling him.
"To put it mildly, the pet-shop owner was not completely honest with them and was more concerned about making a sale," says Waltman. The family paid $1,200 for Bubba plus another $700 for a cage and toys, and took the bird home. Then, disaster struck. After settling into his new digs, Bubba began to bite everything in range and proceeded to scream constantly.
"Bubba knew he had this family buffaloed," says Waltman. "Parrots know when someone is afraid of them. After three days of being unable to handle Bubba, they called the shop owner, explained what was happening and asked for a refund or to work out some form of exchange."
The shop owner agreed to take Bubba and put him back on consignment. The family became irate and that's when the woman contacted AIF. Waltman settled down to deal with Bubba, and after hours of patient work, she finally got him under control. The parrot has stayed on with the Waltmans, continues to get better and has bonded tightly with Rick.
The Alaska story is all about an African grey called Bongo, whose owner had died and left a wife who had neither the time nor the inclination to take care of the animal. "Her father found out about us and asked me to fax them information about our program. He was impressed and Bongo was flown down here several days later."
In mid-July, AIF received three beautiful green-wing macaws and an eclectus from a man who was devoted to them for several years. A little less than a year ago, he married, and his new wife didn't get along with the parrots. One or the other was going to have to go. Not surprisingly, it was the birds.
Waltman figures the birds - and their supplies - are worth somewhere close to $8,000. But the owner didn't seem worried about selling them. "His only concern was that they go to a very good place and never be separated. That means they'll be with AIF forever," she believes. "The agreement also contains a clause that he may visit them at any time."
The Waltmans are very particular on the new homes for AIF birds. Applicants begin the process of adopting a bird by filling out an exhaustive form and being interviewed.
Recently a couple who had tried for years to have children came to the Waltmans to see if they might be good candidates to adopt a bird. They had always been parrot lovers, says Waltman, and after several rapport- and confidence-building visits, the couple took home Papa, a red-lored Amazon.
The Waltmans founded AIF in April 1999. "It was a matter of following my heart and making a dream come true," says Waltman, a one-time court reporter. "Our inspiration came after we drove to Wyoming in the fall of 1998 to rescue Lyle, a huge blue-and-gold macaw who was living with my brother. The bird was on the verge of going insane due to neglect."
Lyle, who wasn't used to people, had a tendency to be mean and aggressive among strangers. But with months of patience, understanding and whole lot of love, Diana Waltman says Lyle became a new bird.
"That incident had me wondering, how many more Lyles are there out there?" she adds.
Today she and her husband, an auto technician, spend countless hours nurturing "these characters," which, she says, are no different than a dog or cat when it comes to requiring attention.
"Some people leave their bird for several days or a weekend and return thinking everything's fine. Eventually, the bird becomes depressed and it's downhill from there. This affects the bird's health and psyche to a point it can impact his relationship with the owner. In the process, many birds strike out on a course of self-destruction by plucking out their feathers."
Waltman says patience, time and commitment are the key traits an owner should bring to a relationship with a parrot. "They love to talk and be held, just like other companion animals," she says.
AIF doesn't charge owners for rescuing their birds, but the Waltmans encourage donations (which usually range from $15-$50). Adoption fees range from $300-$700, based on the amount of veterinary bills AIF incurs, the time spent rehabilitating and training the bird and his value. "The bottom line," she says, "is making certain it's a happy marriage between owner and bird."