Picture a perfect spring day: warm sun, light breeze, cottony clouds bright against a vivid blue sky. At Joe Carvalho's place, perched above the golf course in an area of million-dollar homes in the San Francisco Bay area, flamingos are visible through a bank of windows, their pastel pink a nice contrast to a well-manicured patch of lawn.
Flamingos? Isn't that a little kitschy for a million-dollar home? You look again, and then one of the birds you thought was plastic bobs its head, and another one stretches a stick leg forward into a graceful walk.
At the Carvalho home, you see, the flamingos are real. And so, too, are the storks, the cranes, an owl, a pair of Andean condors, and a flightless bird from New Zealand called a cassowary. Add a flock of raucous parrots to the mix, and you've got the heart and soul of Joe Carvalho's life and his business. His Friends of a Feather troupes, more than 200 birds and a handful of human performers, play to enthusiastic crowds in Europe, and at three Sea Worlds, two Busch Gardens and the newest hotel in Las Vegas, Mandalay Bay.
What makes the shows so spectacular is that the birds are loose -- free-flying and under voice control, 20 birds a show, seven days a week, five shows a day.
"I've always felt a bond with birds," says Carvalho, a lean, darkly handsome man for whom show-biz patter seems to come as easily as his love of birds. "The better the bond, the better the trust. I just love to see them fly."
He sees it daily, training his birds over the open space below his home. While the more unusual species, the storks and the condors, get shorter turns overhead, closely monitored, the parrots spend hours out and about. He brings them from their nighttime cages in two and threes and tosses them up, blue, yellow and red feathers flashing as the macaws spread their wings and fly.
"It's a very, very risky thing," says Carvalho, who doesn't recommend free-flying for pet birds. "Timing is everything in the training, and if your timing's off, you can lose a bird. You read them as well as you can, prepare them as well as you can."
"I've taken the risks, but I've also taken the losses. And I've been very fortunate -- 98 percent of the birds I've lost I've gotten back."
The risks seem worth it when the birds are aloft, so breathtakingly rare the chance to see such beauty in flight. He demonstrates their biddability with a pair of scarlet macaws named Thelma and Louise, although those are just their stage names -- they haven't been sexed and might not even be female. But it's good shtick, and the pair fly huge loops around the golf course, attentive even at a distance to the signals of Carvalho. He sends them around again and then waves them in, both landing gracefully on his arm and getting sunflower seeds for their reward.
Carvalho's is a seven-day-a-week job, hard work to be sure, all the caring-for and training, not to mention traveling and the challenges of running an international business. But he'd choose no other. He's happy with his birds, and his birds are happy with him.
"I'm blessed," he says. It's hard to argue with him.
PETS ON THE WEB
No matter your level of interest and expertise, if you like fish, you'll like Fish Link Central (www.fishlinkcentral.com). This well-organized site, suggested by a reader, offers information on all kinds of fish-keeping, from goldfish and guppies to the most elaborate saltwater reef systems and outdoor ponds. It also features plenty of fish pictures and links, along with chats and an ask-the-expert forum. Even if you're not that interested in setting up a tank of your own, you can have fun here, with fish e-mail postcards and a handful of computer games, such as fish concentration. The site also offers a goldfish you can "pet" with your mouse (once the program loads, the fish swims to the place you put your cursor, even jumping out of the bowl). Full of both FAQs and fun, Fish Link Central is one fine place for fish fans.
If you're feeding your bunny a diet of commercial pellets only, you're likely shortchanging his nutritional requirements. Rabbits need roughage to stay healthy over the long haul, and one of the easiest ways to put indigestible fiber in their diets is to allow them 24-hour-a-day access to grass hay such as oat or timothy. Not only is hay good for their bodies, it also helps with the boredom that's part of every caged animal's life. In addition, rabbit experts suggest adding a variety of fresh leafy vegetables to the diet, such as parsley, carrot tops, broccoli leaves and dandelion greens, along with other vegetables and fruits such as carrots, melons, apples or pears. Give fruits and veggies a good scrubbing before offering them to your pet.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I am a dog person and am interested in joining a dating service geared to veterinary members. Do you know of a vet dating service? I am interested in dating someone who loves pets (especially dogs). -- D.N., via the Internet
A: Now here's an interesting opportunity for some entrepreneur. Perhaps I should suggest to my colleagues at the Veterinary Information network that they add the notation "available" or "not available" to their online veterinary locator service, VetQuest (www.vin.com/vetquest/vqpublic.html).
Believe me, you're not the first person to have this idea. You can go to any dog show, obedience or agility trial and bump into unattached people who would love to find another person who doesn't flinch at the idea of a stray dog hair on the butter cube from time to time. The supply of such people is sadly limited.
And think of the money you'd save. I think of the checks I write to my veterinarian as "the college fund" -- for his kids, not mine. I don't begrudge him a penny of it, however, for he's a wonderful veterinarian (and happily married, or I'd see about setting you up).
Long answer to a short question: No, I don't know of any dating services for hooking up pet lovers with veterinarians. I figure it's not that good of an idea anyway. With the luck most people (and when I say most people, I mean me) have with romance, the veterinarian that you (BEGIN ITALS)could(END ITALS) live with, you might not want treating your pets. And the one who's good for your pets might drive you crazy as a mate.
On the other hand, maybe you should start such a dating service. Or go to veterinary school. Then you'd find plenty of dog lovers eager to hook up with you.
Q: Are dogs supposed to get a new rabies shot each year? I was under the impression that it was a one-time deal until I received a postcard informing me otherwise. -- E.L., via the Internet
A: Your dog needs to be re-vaccinated at regular intervals determined by the local or state law in your area. While many places require vaccination every three years, others insist on an annual vaccination.
When it comes to rabies, the laws aren't really for your pet's benefit; they're for yours. While the risk of contracting rabies from your pet may be small, the disease is deadly if not caught early. People do die from rabies, which is why the law is so unforgiving on the topic of vaccinations.
If you have questions regarding the law in your area, call your local animal-control agency.
Incidentally, while the focus of rabies prevention has traditionally been on dogs, cases of feline rabies are not uncommon. Even if a rabies vaccine is not required by law in your area, public-health officials strongly urge vaccinating cats as well. And more and more places are requiring it.
The bottom line: Keeping your pets' rabies vaccinations current is just good common sense.
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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