Over the years, there have been numerous heart-wrenching quotes that perfectly put into perspective the true co-existence of animals and humans.
“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man,” Sir Winston Churchill once said.
“You can tell a lot about the soul of a man by the way he treats animals,” injects philosopher Immanuel Kant.
And, “Owning a macaw will bring you peace and serenity,” said absolutely nobody ever!
It was never a part of my overall plan to own a bird, and certainly, I never intended to own a macaw. In fact, I don’t even agree that these birds should be held in captivity and sold as pets.
But here I am, writing this with the big blue chicken perched happily on my shoulder, observing my every move and frustratingly contributing to the typing, much to his own amusement.
My faithful office companion and ghostwriter in this scenario is Rio, a rescued 2-year-old blue and gold macaw. Well, at least that is my description of him.
My mates, however, have a slightly different description—the living breathing chainsaw with the sole purpose of inflicting damage to most things beginning with the letter F, namely friends, furniture, and fingers!
In a previous life of late nights, partying, spontaneous vacations, and an abundance of friendly house visitors, I often get puzzled over pet-owning humans who had become slaves to their beloved beasts. These mates disappear from the pub early to let the dog out or sit with the cat or feed the fish. I was always of the belief that pets were supposed to enhance one’s life, so it just didn’t seem particularly normal to me. Fast forward to my current state of affairs and I seemed to have miraculously, without noticing, crept over to the ‘dark side’ and became ‘one of them’—an animal person!
Now, as a committed animal owner, it is quite remarkable that we are able to convince ourselves with things as to what exactly constitutes normal. Waking up daily at 4:30 am to chauffeur Rio and the dogs to the desert for their morning whizz around is quite normal now. Wandering around a supermarket in a constant sleep-deprived daze with a Jurassic park sized poop sliding down my back is also quite normal. Discreetly shopping for toys for Rio in the baby shop and lying to the assistant in great detail about our non-existent human baby is extremely normal. Being questioned by the police finding me upside down in a community waste skip at the side of the road hunting for suitable garden hedge branches is just another example of a normal life for the macaw owner!
From a very early stage, I realized that if this little mobile zoo consisting of Winston the bulldog, Mouse the Italian greyhound, spook the ‘not quite sure’ cotton wool-pan scrub-hamster, Timber the Huskie, and of course, Rio, had any chance of working out.
I am often asked how long it took me to train my animals to all get along. The answer is I didn’t. They just do.
Well, that’s not the whole answer.
My only contribution was to appeal to their basic instinct regardless of their species. Dogs are pack animals and birds are flock animals. In all cases, there is an alpha male that sets all the rules through conditioning and behavior. Apparently, that’s me!
Personally, I prefer to go by the rule to conform more than perform. And by that, I mean I’m not really into animals performing tricks. I prefer to allow them just to be what they are. Certainly, in the case of Rio, he is a bird, so I let him be a bird and fly freely outside!
Free flying for a captive bird is certainly not for the faint-hearted. There is absolutely no guarantee that your beloved pet won’t give you a second thought as he disappears into the sunset! However, in the case of Rio, I decided after months of bonding, that he did absolutely see us as his flock/pack and I questioned why he would fly off rather than sticking with his mates. All the animals followed the same routine—eating together, napping together, playing together, and spending equal amounts of quality time with Daddy aka me!
Rio would dutifully follow me around the house so I questioned why it would be any different outside. The desert seemed a perfect environment to train—not many distractions and not many places to land somewhere high if it all went wrong.
Rio wasn’t actually that fit, so if he did fly, he wouldn’t get very far. To a large extent, he had been raised like a dog—he came when called, he would fly off and chase a ball, he flew low to stay next to the dogs, and on occasion, he would even land on them.
I chose not to use conventional methods such as treat rewards or ‘clicker training,’ as I wanted him to come back to us because he wanted to, not just because he was hungry. Well, all of the theories paid off and although it was slightly nerve-wracking the first couple of times he did exactly what was predicted, he hung around and came back when he was called.
The next step was to introduce him to the horses. In the knowledge that a happy dog is a tired dog, I applied the same mentality—a happy Rio is a knackered one! So I allowed him to accompany me when training the polo ponies. At first, he loved the fact that there was a ball involved and just assumed that the polo mallet was just an extremely long and convenient perch that I was riding around with! Then, there was the discovery of the racing.
I am hugely fortunate to work in an environment that allows me to keep him exercised and stimulated. As a result, I do not go through the pain, guilt, or emotional trauma that many macaw owners face by having a caged bird and a regular job and limited time to play with their chosen pet.
Most people with the smallest amount of compassion would be horrified at the thought of a dog being caged every day for its entire life. It’s only when you consider how intelligent parrots are that this scenario is no different.
Especially when the agony is prolonged, as macaws can live up to 60+ years. The notorious, obnoxious reputation of parrots that bite their owners and scream the house down is nothing more than unimaginable frustration from a bird whose carnal instinct is to fly freely, discover new things, and integrate as part of a flock and find a life long mate.
So whilst I don’t feel it is my position here to give any advice, I would urge anyone who is considering macaw ownership to think long and hard of the reality and consequences of adopting a demanding, screaming three-year-old child who will stay demanding, screaming three-year-old child for the rest of your adult life!