Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Case of the Psychiatric Parrot

DAVAO CITY -- Imagine seventeen years of solitary confinement in a cell about as big as an airplane restroom. Imagine that the walls are immoveable bars that allow you to see the big, wide world out there, seemingly denied to you forever.

What would you do when you’d want to lie down and dream? When your feet want to run? Or when your eyes alight on a blushing flower, a twinkling star, maybe a future lover that your arms can’t quite reach? With very real limits to mobility weighing you down, the frustration would be enough to make you tear out your hair, render you a bird-brained basket case.

Kado was made to live in a cage for seventeen years. Denied his dreams of flight and freedom, he passed his days plucking out his feathers as fast as they grew. For variety, he would go at it with a vengeance, sometimes breaking skin with the violent force he employed. It’s tragic how self-mutilation became the only choice Kado had for stimulation.

Kado was lucky he got to Dr. Roberto “Bo” Puentespina before the end of his days. When he arrived in Malagos Garden last August, Kado was completely bald. Today, he is the picture of good health, his iridescent feathers gleaming green, intelligent eyes flashing with the lambent sheen of avian dreams that seventeen years of neglect have not been able to dim.

“He was a psychiatric parrot,” claims Dr. Bo, Malagos Garden’s resident veterinarian, his gaze coming to rest gently on the quiet bird who has since stopped doing the avian version of tearing out one’s hair, thanks to the intensive efforts at rehabilitation in the last nine months.

Kado looks like he now dreams good dreams. It is hard to imagine that this parrot lived through desolate times. Lord knows it could have gone on longer, as parrots are reputed to be among the longer living birds.

Parrots belong among cage birds that people keep for pets, valued for their colorful plumage and the novelty of their vocal imitation. But just because Kado is cage bird is not an excuse to put him in one and forget about his needs. Parrots are known to respond to the affection and company of humans, and some humans – the proverbial pirate, for instance - actually prefer parrots to wives.

“If only people are more responsible pet owners,” muses Dr. Bo. “If only they come to understand the little needs of these animals.”

Then Kado and his ilk won’t suffer at the hands of men. Peaceful coexistence.

For now, Kado is the before-and-after story that helps Dr. Bo bring his message to the people who come to watch the bird show. A regular crowd-drawer, the show educates the audience on bird behavior, habitat requirements, diversity, and options for man-bird interactions.

Last year, the bird show started to go on tour. In September this year, the bird show is scheduled to start a three-month stint at the Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife in Quezon City. It is a “Mindanao to the world” opportunity to bring Dr. Bo’s message within reach of a wider audience.

And about time, too. Consider that insofar as endemism is concerned, the Philippines has 185 species of true blue Pinoys in these birds. I don’t really know how experts define the term “threatened species” these days, but the 2004 biodiversity situationer provided in Agham Mindanao vol 2 ranks the country as the fourth endemic-rich hotspot for birds, with 56 of these irreplaceable species now losing its habitat to pollution, destruction, and incursion.

The Malagos Garden Bird Show gives a tantalizing glimpse of the diversity of birds that can survive in Mindanao, some coming from as far as Africa and the Amazon jungles in South America. They come in all sizes and shapes, in various hues and plumage, some flightless while others so – pardon the trite expression, but it applies – awesome in flight. Meat-eating, snake-eating, fish-eating, fruit-eating, seed-eating – all of them prove that food is a primary reinforcer, which is why Dr. Bo mounts his show at mid-morning and mid-afternoon at feeding time.

I shared with Dr. Bo my appreciation to observe his methods for psychiatric rehabilitation. He, in turn, got excited at the mention that I touch on the principles of animal conditioning when I teach Learning Theories and Cognitive Psychology, and that I’ll definitely be scheduling a field trip to his bird show with my students next time. He volunteers to bring his bird show to the campus where more students could actually watch those principles at work.

Wow. Talk about driven.

Men on a mission are like that. I could hardly fault Dr. Bo for his zeal. Where the birds in the Philippines are concerned, time is a luxury. We have to convey to the next generation this desire to protect them. I hope some of the kids who watched the show came away wanting to be veterinarians, game foresters, and ecologists.

And as for Kado, he is a living example that some psychiatric cases don’t have to stay caged. Evidently, all he needed was a little help from someone who really understands. The way he’s progressing, who knows he might eventually end up in the Philippine Senate.

(Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan's column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to gail@mindanews.com. "Send at the risk of a reply," she says).

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