The first parrot I ever fell in love with was a yellow-naped Amazon belonging to a person I was interviewing. The bird, whose name I've long since forgotten, snagged my earring and snapped it in half with one bite of his powerful beak.
The owner was mortified. I just laughed, relieved that my earlobe was undamaged, even if my earring was in two pieces on the floor. And I learned a valuable lesson: If you're going to have a parrot, it helps to have a sense of humor. The birds certainly do, and they like it best when the joke's on you.
It seems as if I have egg on my face a lot lately, since the arrival of Patrick, the Senegal parrot who joined my family a couple months back.
I had to be dragged into owning a parrot, even though I've always been fond of them. With three dogs, I thought I'd reached my limit on the number of beings I wanted to feed, fuss over and clean up after. But I've got a soft spot for a hard-luck story, and Patrick had a good one.
He'd been brought in to my friend Carla's hospital to be put down, but she couldn't do it. He was too sweet despite the feather-picking that drove his owner crazy, and she asked her client if she could find him a new home instead. (Thank heavens for veterinarians like Carla!) She nudged me gently for three months before I would even meet the bird, knowing (as I myself suspected) that once I met the little green charmer I'd melt.
I never had a chance. The bird jumped on me at Carla's house and started to snuggle. After a day at my house I knew his "trial period" was over.
Not that there haven't been challenges. I'd had Patrick only a few days when my oldest dog, Andy, mistook him for an hors d'oeuvre and nearly did him in. Andy has never been talked to the way he was when he had the bird in his mouth. I shook him, screaming in panic, and the dog dropped him.
Patrick spent two days in bird intensive care at our veterinarian's, with me hand-feeding him kernels of corn (his favorite) to keep his strength up. The hospital staff didn't think twice about my visits -- they know me so well -- and Patrick was back home quickly.
Hysterical screaming isn't a dog-training technique I usually recommend, but I can't quibble with the result in this case. Andy hasn't looked at the parrot since. As for the two retrievers, they aren't interested in the least. Patrick and Heather, in fact, have a friendship developing: He flips my youngest dog fresh vegetables from his dish, and she loves him for it.
I can't imagine now how I ever survived without a parrot. His feathers look much better these days as Patrick sits on my desk while I write, now and then using his beak to pick out a letter on the keyboard. In the evenings, he sits on me as I read or watch TV, all of us together, the dogs, the bird and I. I've grown quite efficient at changing cage papers and wiping up the occasional mess, and learned that it's a waste to feed him lima beans, since Heather gets them all.
But most of all, Patrick has confirmed something I've always really known, deep in my heart. Size really doesn't matter. Patrick isn't even 6 ounces in weight -- Senegals are among the smaller parrots -- but he's got a heart as big as any pet I've ever had. Like many parrots, he has a sharpness that turns "birdbrain" into a compliment. He learns quickly, although "obedience" is a concept he clearly believes is better suited to dogs.
He makes me smile every day, in many ways. I'm sorry now I waited so long to bring a bird into my life, but then again, if I had years ago, I might not have Patrick now.
And that would surely have been a loss. The little second-chance bird is No. 1 in my book.
PETS ON THE WEB
I've never understood why some of the folks who keep pot-bellied pigs favor names such as Porkchop or Ham. To me, that's like naming the cat Coyote Bait, or naming a canary Friskies. Seems to me you'd give your pet an insecurity complex, but what do I know? Still, you can't doubt that one pig named Bacon has owners who are crazy about him, because they've put together a Web site that's part homage and great resource. Bacon's page (www.petpig.com) has the requisite pictures of the charming porker, but it also has lots of information on caring for these pets, plus product and book recommendations and links to rescue and sanctuary organizations. Best of all: a nifty feature that enables you to send a electronic pig postcard to an e-mail pal. Bacon's site is sizzling!
The plain wooden dowels that come standard with any birdcage are boring, both to look at and to perch on. Your bird will love it if you substitute natural branches, and it probably won't cost you a dime if you have access to trees to take trimmings from. Branches from most fruit trees (apple, almond, peach and all citrus) and such others as ash, elm, dogwood and manzanita make wonderful perches. They feel good under your pet's feet, and provide both entertainment and exercise when your bird chews them up. Scrub with detergent and rinse thoroughly before putting in your bird's cage, to make sure you're not exposing your pet to any pesticide residue. When they get chewed up, just replace.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: My cat bites me with no warning. I'll be petting him and he'll nail me, digging in with claws and teeth. He doesn't usually bite hard enough to break the skin, but it still hurts. Help! -- T.K., Portland, Ore.
A: Human stupidity (from the cat's point of view) in misreading or ignoring body language earns more than a few cat lovers a scratch or bite from time to time -- the result of missing a cat's "I've had enough" signs. The classic example is the cat who, while being petted, grabs the hand that pets him with teeth and claws, just the way you've described your cat doing.
In fact, these "out of the blue" attacks rarely are. Before the bite or clawing, a cat gives out subtle (subtle to us, anyway) signs of diminishing tolerance for physical attention. Primary among them: an increase in the stiffness and twitching of the tail.
The problem often starts with petting your cat's tummy, a vulnerable area for any animal. Your cat may even offer his belly out of love, but after you start to pet, he becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the attention. Miss the signs, and you're going to get nailed.
Watch your cat's body language. If he's tensing or his tail starts twitching, stop petting right away. Doing so will not only spare you claw and teeth marks, but stopping before your cat strikes also slowly builds up his trust in you and his tolerance for physical attention.
Q: We got a Rottweiler puppy for Christmas. How old should he be before we can start protection training? -- A.R., via the Internet
A: One of the reasons people get big dogs is for protection. Should you go the extra step and have yours trained to respond to a threat with aggression? For the overwhelming majority of pet owners, protection training is a stupendously bad idea. Your dog will likely be imposing enough in appearance alone to provide all the deterrent you need.
Once a dog learns to be aggressive, putting the genie back in the bottle is hard. The best you can do is work to keep your dog under tight control. That's what people do who compete in the sport of (BEGIN ITALS)schutzhund(END ITALS), and it's among the most demanding of dog sports, requiring constant practice and training by knowledgeable, experienced dog folks. If someone else trains your dog and you haven't the time or personality to keep up the training, you could have a real time bomb on your hand.
Want another opinion? Ask your insurance agent. A dog who's been trained to attack and does so may be seen in a vastly different light than one who bites "accidentally," as far as your carrier is concerned. You may even have difficulty finding homeowner's insurance if you own such a trained protection dog.
It's better to get a security system if you're worried about crime. You get discounts for those, not lawsuits.
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.
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