Sally Blanchard is a woman with a mission and not a great deal of tolerance for those who don't see things as she does.
A behaviorist and editor of her own magazine, The Pet Bird Report, she happily admits some people don't agree with her in-your-face style -- especially the owners of pet shops she has had shut down. But she says she's not as bad as some would paint her.
"In my 25 years of working with parrots, I've made a lot of friends and a lot of enemies," she said. "A lot of people say I'm anti-bird shop, that I'm anti-breeder. I'm not. I'm pro-bird is what I am."
"I'm in favor of anybody who cares to do the very best thing for their parrot," she says. "I know I'm not the only one putting good information out there, but I'm probably the most obnoxious one doing it."
Blanchard, a woman with a piercing voice and a easy laugh, was as full of herself as a scarlet macaw in full feather recently at a three-day conference in Oakland, Calif. She organized it herself, drawing top speakers and several hundred participants from around the world, including breeders and pet-shop owners.
The Pet Bird Report conference offered seminars on raising birds to be good pets (think socialization) and training buyers to be good owners (think education). Positive methods of building trust and solving behavioral problems were emphasized, along with good nutrition and a solid partnership with an avian veterinarian.
More than 4 million parrots are kept as pets in the United States, said panelist Mike Reynolds, director of the World Parrot Trust, and about a quarter are cared for inadequately. Frustration over behavior such as noise-making or feather-picking push many people over the edge, prompting them to give up their birds or stick them in an out-of-the-way place, like a garage. Either is a bad option for an intelligent, social animal.
"People say to me, 'I love my parrot' or 'I love parrots,'" said Blanchard. "I also hear them say 'I love my new watch,' 'I love this car,' 'I love my new blouse.' The question I always have is 'define love.' I don't think 'loving birds' is what it's all about. It's about respecting birds. Seeing them as entities that have intelligence and needs.
"The people who understand this, the people who really care about the needs of these birds are also the people who reap the rewards. They're the people who develop the kind of relationship with birds that really has meaning."
Judging from the dedicated parrot lovers who attended Blanchard's conference, the numbers of such owners are going to grow. And that can't help but make a difference in the lives of those birds who need help.
Blanchard herself shows no sign of losing sight of that goal. "Someone will tell me they found something I said someplace, sometime that made a difference, and that makes it all worthwhile."
PETS ON THE WEB
The Pet Bird Report Web site (www.petbirdreport.com) offers some good content along with information on how to subscribe to the magazine -- which I highly recommend -- and upcoming events. It's a good place to keep up on the latest for your feathered companion. You can also reach the Pet Bird Report at 2236 Mariner Square Drive, No. 35, Alameda, Calif. 94501-1071, or call (510) 523-5303. Six issues per year are included with a $24 annual membership to Blanchard's Pet Bird Information Council.
Richard Torregrossa has a pair of hits on his hands with "Fun Facts About Dogs" and "Fun Facts About Cats," a pair of books from the same people who produced "Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover's Soul." The books ($9.95 each, Health Communications Inc.) offer a blend of interesting and useful tidbits, from myths to behavior to health. Where else are you going to find out that 80 percent of dog owners buy their pet a Christmas gift, or that Shakespeare and President Dwight Eisenhower both hated cats?
Q: I have two dogs, both 16-plus years old. My female, a terrier/poodle mix is blind, has allergies and is in poor health. My male, a toy poodle, has cataracts and his vision is very bad, too. They have been together for about seven years, inseparable. He acts as her seeing-eye pal when they go outside. I have pretty much made the decision to put Wendy to sleep. She appears to be miserable, has no pep, and I feel as if I would be doing her a favor.
I don't know if I should put both of them down at the same time. I know that when the male's owner died a few years ago, he grieved for a long time.
I really don't know what to do. It is a difficult decision; these are like my kids. -- K.R., via the Internet
A: No matter the circumstances, the decision to euthanize is never easy. Your love and compassion comes through in your letter, and I know you will do what is best for your pets.
Is your male relatively healthy (considering his age) aside from his vision loss? If his appetite is good and he seems to feel OK, I wouldn't worry too much about his vision. I've known quite a few blind dogs, and they do surprising well, as you've already seen with Wendy. After all, dogs don't need to read the newspaper, pay bills or watch TV. Once blind dogs learn the lay of the land in their homes, they can function quite well in such protected circumstances.
Health is one consideration, but it's not the only one. Your male will most certainly miss his mate keenly. While I have always found animals (and people!) to be more resilient than we imagine they can be, grief is still a very real consideration here.
I don't think you can make a wrong decision here if you keep your pets' needs foremost (as you already are). It may be best to let them go together, but you are the only one who can make that decision.
You may find it helpful to talk to others who understand. Many schools and colleges of veterinary medicine offer pet-loss support lines staffed by veterinary students who can listen and help. These programs are free except for the cost of the call. The oldest of these programs -- and the pattern for the others -- is the hot line at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Their center is staffed 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., Pacific time, Monday through Friday; call (530) 752-4200.
Q: I saw an article in the newspaper about domesticated skunks as pets. Do they make good pets? -- G.M., Kansas City, Mo.
A: Skunks are at best a challenging pet, says veterinarian Linda Randall, a board-certified companion animal specialist whose Medina, Ohio, Cloverleaf Animal Hospital deals with exotic pets.
"They aren't difficult to keep in terms of environment, housing and feeding," she says. "But they're very destructive. They will chew, get into everything, tug, pull and swallow anything they can. They're very dexterous with their hands."
They also smell, she notes, even after they've had their scent glands surgically removed. "You have to get them used to bathing," said Randall. "Fortunately, they seem to like the water well enough if you get them as babies -- no more than six weeks -- and start them with baths, nail clipping and so on.
Randall adds that the animals also shed rather remarkably and can be nippy. The latter can be a serious problem, since there's no rabies vaccination available for these pets. "We vaccinate with a product approved for ferrets, but we make the owners sign off on the risk," she said.
That risk increases when the animals reach sexual maturity, which is why Randall strongly encourages spaying and neutering no later than 12 weeks. But even that won't remove the potential threat of biting, she says. "They will bond to certain people, but not to others. And if they bite you, you're at the health department, and you'll probably have to put them to sleep."
If you still want to go forward -- and if they're legal to keep where you live -- you're looking at a pet with a lifespan of seven to nine years. Females run about 5 to 6 pounds, and males, 7 to 8 pounds (although Randall has one patient that tops the scale at 13). Recommended housing is a wire cage with room for a litter box. "Most will use a litter box," says Randall. "They're very clean."
No one really knows for sure what the best diet is for them, she said, because there hasn't been a lot of study. Randall recommends ferret food or a high-quality kitten food.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is the editorial director of the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Write2Gina(at)aol.com.
4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600