We cannot undo buying Bagel, but we are trying to do right by her in spreading awareness about the plight of parrots: that they’re endangered animals, that they’re too intelligent and free-spirited to be pets, and that too many end up in bad situations.
We’re two people who live in New York City with an African Grey parrot named Bagel.
We bought Bagel from a pet store in Chelsea in late 2011. Back then she was a scraggly, clumsy bird whose wings were cut dangerously short. The pet store employees barely knew anything about parrots, and she wasn’t handled much. Clumsy and timid, she spent a year at the pet store before she went on deep discount. People usually want just-weaned, cuddly babies – not a barely-socialized bird who had already overstayed her welcome at the store. We couldn’t bear to think what kind of home she’d end up in, so we bought her and took her home.
We thought we were rescuing her, but it turns out we were just contributing to a pet trade that continues to oversaturate the market with millions of disposable, miserable pet birds. And despite how hard we try to make her happy, every day we experience firsthand how challenging it is for her to repress her wild nature. We hope that Bagel’s story can convince those who are interested in parrots to conserve them in the wild, instead of buying them to be pets.
In 2011, we were living in an apartment in downtown Manhattan. There was a nondescript pet store on the next block we had walked by every morning and never thought twice about going in. One night, out of curiosity, we wandered in the narrow, florescent-lit store, sandwiched between a sushi restaurant and liquor store. A single African Grey parrot lived in a bare cage in a room deep in the back of the store among finches, budgies, lovebirds, and rodents. We were both surprised that such a budget store would carry a large parrot, and wondered how long she had been sitting there.
It was the most curious thing seeing an African Grey in person. We had both seen YouTube videos of Alex the Parrot, who seemed insanely intelligent; he was able to count, identify colors, and even make demands for his favorite foods. But no one tells you how demanding they are. A common perception is that birds are good apartment animals, much lower maintenance than dogs. We felt ready to bring an animal into our lives; a parrot would be a piece of cake.
We started visiting this bird almost every week. The pet store staff, though well-intentioned, didn’t know much about the care of parrots. She wasn’t out of her cage much and always sat in the same spot, looking bored. Her wings were over-clipped almost to her muscle, and her red tail was missing most feathers. She was always so gentle and seemed genuinely excited when we came to visit. We felt bad for her.
Several months later, on a chilly December morning, we were on our way to the F train, until a quick change of heart brought us in the opposite direction to get bagels for breakfast. On the way back, we stopped by the pet store. The Grey was out of her cage and we were so excited to hold her. We also noticed a new price tag on her cage; she was on sale because no one wanted an “older” bird with little socialization – despite her very long lifespan of 60 years.
The scraggly bird from the pet store is now named Bagel, after our detour that fateful morning. She is a beloved member of our family and we’re committed to being her forever home. Her colorful personality and antics never cease to amaze us. She’s constantly observing, sizing us up with her bright and curious eyes. She laughs when we laugh and interjects with her irresistible, Elmo-like voice at all the right times. Like any other parrot in captivity, though, she comes with her baggage, but has a heart of gold. Her left wing is permanently damaged from over-clipping. For what she’s been through, she handles it really well. We don’t take for granted everything she gives up to be with us.
By all accounts Bagel has a great life with us. She has a healthy diet of fresh organic grains and vegetables, a big cage with a consistent rotation of new toys; she’s included in all our activities, spends the majority of her day outside her cage, and gets dozens of hugs and head scratches a day. She’s the queen of the house.
And yet, her life in captivity will forever be substandard to life in the wild. Every day, we can see firsthand how frustrating it is for her to repress her wild instincts. Flocking with her own kind, finding a lifelong mate, and flying free in a forest are what she’s naturally wired to do. Sadly, she will never get to do any of these things. It didn’t take long to realize that despite our trying to make her life as good as possible, she does not belong in our home.
In our continuing quest to improve her life, we’ve combed the Internet for resources. What we come across most frequently is how to teach your parrots tricks; how to get him to stop biting; how to get him to talk; how to suppress every natural behavior he exhibits. We wish that along with telling the world how smart Alex was, that Irene Pepperberg would have told everyone how endangered his kind is, or how he’s really more like a toddler than a pet. As much as we love Bagel, we wish that we had known about the epidemic of abandoned parrots before we bought her.
We cannot undo buying Bagel, but we are trying to do right by her in spreading awareness about the plight of parrots: that they’re endangered animals, that they’re too intelligent and free-spirited to be pets, and that too many end up in bad situations. We need to take care of the birds we have tamed, and protect their relatives in the wild. We hope you join us.