Julie Weiss Murad was having a week that seemed a month long, and it was only Tuesday when she sat down to talk about her life's work, an education, rescue and sanctuary organization for parrots.
She'd already spent a day in funding meetings, and most of another dealing with an accident that resulted in the death of a cherished horse. Stress and sadness lined her face, and she was visibly tired, but not so much as to pass up an opportunity to talk about parrots. Her nonprofit organization, The Gabriel Foundation, is a leader in the movement to provide a safey net for unwanted birds, but like any group that relies on the kindness of strangers, the going gets rough, even in the group's home base of Aspen, Colo., a community known for the wealth of its residents.
"How do I make my passion the passion of others?" she says. "The need is truly overwhelming."
Parrots have become increasingly popular as pets in recent years, and too many of the people who are drawn to their beauty are unaware of the challenges of keeping an animal only a generation or two removed from the wild. Birds are messy, and some can be very loud. Unless purchased from a reputable breeder or bird shop that understands the importance of good health and socialization and proper handling after purchase, problems such as biting can pop up, and few bird owners know enough about normal bird behavior to cope.
Birds are also given up when a bird owner marries, or when children arrive, or sometimes just because the owner tires of the work involved in keeping such a high-maintenance pet. Then, too, the long lives of parrots can leave them vulnerable -– with lifespans measured in decades, some birds outlive their owners.
For all these reasons and many more, too many parrots end up going from home to home before ending up in a place like the Gabriel Foundation, if they're lucky, or facing euthanasia if they're not. Few community shelters and humane groups are equipped to handle birds, which makes parrot sanctuaries even more important.
More than 100 birds who beat the odds currently live at the foundation, which Murad founded and named in honor of a hyacinth macaw who died because of a lack of understanding about proper care. In the last three years, the group has taken in 250 birds and placed more than 150 in new homes.
"By the time we get a bird here, the bird has usually gone through between three and six homes," said Murad, who then points out an Amazon named Winston, for whom the foundation is home No. 14.
Although all the birds are available for adoption, the truth is that many will never leave. They're too traumatized by past abuses to be handled, or too old, or too ill. Still, the foundation has its share of success stories, and will have more. Murad's in no hurry, though: Prospective adopters have been heard to complain it's easier to adopt a child than one of the Gabriel Foundation's birds. The foundation requires an extensive interview and plenty of education, and a three-month probation before any adoption is judged final.
"We want to make sure that the home any of these birds goes to is the last one," says Murad.
Murad is keenly aware of the limitations of her group, and others like them. "You can't save them all," she says sadly. The key to turning around the sad situation is education, she insists.
"How many people really make an educated purchase when it comes to birds?" she says. "How many pet stores will provide enough education to care for a bird properly?" The answer in both cases, says Murad, is "not enough." Even though parrots can cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars, people still buy them on impulse, and pet stores often don't or can't educate people –- or even possess the willingness to do so if it will stop a big sale.
Murad is dedicated to changing both situations, and she and others like her are making progress in helping people to provide what parrots need. "Love, respect, patience and positive interaction," she says.
All that, to be sure, but also a lot more support for organizations like the Gabriel Foundation.
PETS ON THE WEB
The Gabriel Foundation's Web site (www.thegabrielfoundation.org) offers information on the nonprofit organization, its programs, and the birds currently in its foster program. The site also provides information on the group's upcoming seminar on parrot rescue, foster care and placement, and the ethics of such groups, to be held Feb. 4-6 in Las Vegas. (If you don't have Web access, The Gabriel Foundation can be reached at P.O. Box 11477, Aspen, CO 81612; (970) 923-1009.)
Food, check. Dishes, check. Water, check. Leashes, collar and ID tags, check. Clean-up bags, check. A well-mannered dog is pretty easy to travel with, and even easier to pack for. No changes of underwear, no toothpaste, no summer reading, no sunscreen. But on my own recent trip from Colorado home to California with my youngest dog, Heather, I was reminded of one item I forgot to pack -– a penlight.
When you're traveling with your dog you haven't the luxury of just opening the door to let your pet into your yard to take care of business. You have to be in attendance, at the other end of the leash with clean-up bag in hand. I quickly realized that Heather's schedule included one after-dark outing, which made clean-up impossible. The first time it happened, I got up at first light the next morning, found and disposed of the mess. I picked up an inexpensive penlight that day, and for the rest of the trip was able to bag it even in the dark.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I was wondering what breed of cat I have. She is a very common cat that lots of people have, but I can't ever find her pattern in books that list types of cats or on the Internet. She is black and her stomach and paws are white. -- C.S., via e-mail
A: I get this kind of question a lot. Someone adopts a gray kitten from the shelter and wonders if the cat is a Russian blue, or where they can buy a cat of the "calico" breed.
The truth is, the overwhelming majority of cats aren't any "breed" at all. At most only one cat in 10 is a purebred. Most cats are what veterinarians call "domestic shorthair" (DSH) or "domestic longhair" (DLH); in earlier times they would have been called "alley cats." These cats are purely random-bred, and any number of coat patterns can be a result, even some that resemble those of purebreds.
"DSH" and "DLH" sound so dry, and "alley cat" so disrespectful of the important position cats hold in our hearts. Personally, I would love to see the endearing British name for random-bred cats catch on -– "moggie."
Since you didn't say that your cat was purchased with a pedigree, I'm guessing she is indeed a moggie. The pattern you describe is what most people refer to as a "tuxedo cat," a handsome animal who's always ready for a formal occasion.
"Tuxedo," "calico," "tortoiseshell" and "tabby" are words that describe cat markings, not breeds. The familiar stripes of a tabby are the most common of all cat coat patterns, and like other patterns it shows up not only in random-bred cats but also in many purebreds.
Q: I am 14, and I have a parrot, an Amazon. I just wanted to know if there was any way I can tell if it's a male or a female. -– A.N., via e-mail
A: While it's safe to figure parrots themselves can tell the girls from the boys, in most of the species we keep as pets, it's not possible for us to just look at a bird and sort things out. As befitting an animal for whom aerodynamics are important, the reproductive system of birds is internal, with nothing on the outside to provide any clue.
Some species are indeed "sexually dimorphic," meaning that males and female are marked differently. The most striking example of this can be found in eclectus parrots, in which the genders are marked so differently they were once thought to be different species. The male is a bright green, while the female is a vivid red and purple.
For most parrot species, however, you'll need the help of a veterinarian to determine gender. Most commonly, a blood sample is drawn and the DNA tested to reveal the gender of an individual bird. Birds can also be surgically sexed -- the veterinarian will go inside a bird to determine not only what kind of reproductive organs are present, but also if they're normal and mature.
Many people don't know and don't care what gender their parrot is. If you're one of them, choose a nice unisex name like Jan for your pet. If you have to know, call an avian veterinarian to discuss your options.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to WriteToGina(at)YourPetPlace.com.
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