Written by Sue Randall (Johannesburg, South Africa)
Published on: May 7th, 2012
By Sue Randall (South Africa)
Seven years ago, a little bird fell into our lives. My friend Johann and I were living in a small community in the mountains, and one day the gardener brought two baby birds to me. He had found them under a tree. The adult birds were calling like crazy in the trees above. We looked everywhere for a nest, wanting to put the babies back, but found none. It had probably been destroyed in the previous day’s storm.
I phoned a friend who did bird rescue work, and she told me what to feed the babies and how to keep them warm. It was the first time I had looked after baby birds and it was one of the most intense experiences of my life. Baby birds are known to “imprint” on humans—but we humans do exactly the same back! Johann and I were very upset when, on Day 5, the smaller bird walked out of the sleeping box and dropped dead. It had been a runt. We had nicknamed the babies Chubby and Skinny, not realising that even Chubby was undersized. Skinny was far smaller and probably never stood much of a chance.
When Skinny died, we started facing up to the fact that Chubby was disabled. I had noticed her deformed legs on the first day but had been so intent on providing food and warmth that I had barely stopped to think. By the time our friend confirmed that Chubby was too disabled ever to be released, Johann and I had bonded very deeply with the bird. Euthanizing her seemed unthinkable. Chubby was a really happy and friendly little bird. She did not seem to be in any pain from her legs. We believed that she wanted to live and that she had come into our lives for a reason. But she would never be able to walk properly, or to grip a branch. I knew she needed shoes or prostheses. The Grey Lourie (also known as the Grey Go-away Bird) is quite a large bird, and fitting shoes to Chubby’s legs would be possible in a way that it would not be with a smaller species.
Johann and I were not living in a good situation. We did not own the land we lived on and we would have to borrow the money to build an aviary. But my main concern—which soon became an obsession—was making shoes for Chubby. If I could not find a way to do that then euthanasia would indeed be the only option. I tried making shoes out of denim, neoprene, rubber. Nothing worked. I could not attach the shoes firmly enough that they did not fall off or twist around the legs. We seemed to be losing the battle.
Yet Chubby was playful and she was learning to fly. She seemed blissfully unaware that her feet did not work and that we might not be able to save her life. I thought of all the people in the world who have disabilities in every imaginable body part, all the prostheses and adaptations that have ever been designed for humans. This was just a little bird! Her needs were so much simpler. And yet I could not find the way forward.
My sister had broken a finger a few months earlier and suddenly she had a brainwave. She suggested that I contact her hand therapist and ask for some offcuts of finger-splinting material. I called her therapist and she said she would be delighted to help. The next day Johann collected the splinting material from her rooms in the city. As soon as he got home we started experimenting. Within an hour we had made Chubby’s first pair of shoes! For the first time ever she was able to walk, run, and balance without difficulty. She became even more playful and happy, and trundled around in her little shoes as if they had always been part of her.
A friend donated some money to help us build an aviary, and Johann and a neighbour put it together. It had to be specially adapted because of Chubby’s disability. She would never have feet that gripped, so we built a network of little ladder ramps and put up flat planks instead of branches. Now Chubby was able to fly, feed, bath, preen, run around, and sun herself independently.
Our bird rescue friend brought another lourie to us because its legs were deformed in almost the exact same way as Chubby’s. This bird also needed shoes, and we made them the next day. We called her Scruffy because her feathers were such a mess. She was a juvenile, almost a young adult. Her story was tragic. She must have fallen out of the nest and broken both legs, which then healed in a broken position. Humans did not intervene until it was too late, but her bird parents had kept her alive by bringing food down to her on the ground. Scruffy had miraculously survived. Her injuries were old and inflexible by the time she came to us and our friend estimated that she was 3 or 4 months old. The people had noticed that their dogs were excited about something in the swimming pool enclosure. They kept an eye out and soon realised that there was a young bird in there, and that her bird parents were bringing her food on the ground. The humans finally intervened, and Scruffy ended up with our friend and then us. She was extremely traumatised and had no long feathers in either the tail or wings. It was clear she had never flown.
What would you do, knowing that a juvenile bird had been kept alive for so long by its parents after a major injury? Would you simply euthanize her? We couldn’t. And so Johann and I now had two louries that wore shoes! Neither bird seemed to be in any pain. Chubby seems to have a genetic problem. We don’t think her legs were ever broken the way Scruffy’s probably were. Some of Chubby’s tail feathers persistently grow upside down. Our friend thought that her leg deformity might have been caused by a lack of vitamin B or calcium. But Chubby’s upside-down tail feathers suggest something stranger.
Both birds had to go through a process of learning what they could and could not do. Scruffy’s feathers took about 3 months to regrow, and she then became such a strong flier that Johann nicknamed her Superbird. She is the only bird I have ever known that could turn right angles in mid-air just for the fun of it. She has an independent spirit and it took her a while to learn that she could not land on the only real branch in the aviary. Once she accepted that, she stayed on the flat planks. She was extremely active and seemed to love life. The process was similar to that which any disabled person must go through. You have to learn your limits, and that means testing them and making some mistakes. It’s not easy. It’s life. It doesn’t mean you need to be euthanized.
People started to send us more birds that were either juvenile or injured and needed a rehab aviary and then release. We raised and released a green pigeon, several mousebirds, a crested barbet, a rameron pigeon (a second “ramie” was too disabled to be released, and died young), a thrush, and two bulbuls. After we had been doing intensive bird rehab work for two years, I started to decline new cases. I was exhausted and money was a real problem. The other people living in the community wanted me to leave. I could not bring myself to do so and entrust the birds purely to Johann’s care.
Our third lourie, Kwê, is mildly disabled. He has a semi-lame leg and is slightly undersized (as are all three birds). He was found in 2007 on a neightbour’s lawn, as a juvenile with a broken leg. Johann called him Kwê after the Afrikaans name for the Lourie, “Kwêvoel.” (The word “kwê” is onomatopoeic, as is “Go-away”.) Johann took Kwê to an avian vet the same day and the leg was set, and the vet gave him a good chance of full recovery. Indeed his leg healed well, but a small bony protrusion remained at the top of the fracture area and the leg has always been prone to re-injury. As Kwê has aged, he has become slightly more lame; his leg now has about half the normal function.
Once Kwê’s leg had healed, we gave him many opportunities to go wild. He sometimes refused to go out of the aviary at all, but on other days he would have a long flight out. Occasionally he even stayed out overnight. But he always came back to the aviary and his two beloved disabled girls. These days he is less interested in going out and usually just sits on top of the aviary for a couple of hours. All three birds carry on loud and animated conversations with the wild louries in the area.
In 2009 Johann and I, together with the birds, were ousted from the community. We were taken in by Johann’s brother on a nearby farm, but I was not allowed to stay more than a few months. I used up my savings rebuilding the aviary. My worst fear had come true: I had to tear myself away from the birds who had been the centre of my life for nearly five years. Johann took enormous strain as he had to learn all the roles I had previously performed. The birds all got sick and needed cyclical antibiotic treatment for more than a year. The canaries which we had kept together with the louries since Scruffy’s arrival all died. I drove back to the farm every 2 or 3 weeks to visit the birds on weekends. The drive took 2 hours (one way) and the frequent trips exhausted me. But it was the only option to euthanasia—which we discussed more than I care to remember. My visits gave Johann his only respite from bird care. For me, it was the only way to continue my relationships with the birds I had raised and still loved more than anything else.
I had to get used to having very regular and bad nightmares about the birds. When I had major surgery at the end of 2011, Johann fetched me every second weekend because I could not drive myself to the farm. Scruffy has suffered most because of my absences. She no longer flies around like Superbird. She has “bird PTSD” and needs gentle physiotherapy, which I give her whenever I visit. She had started to decline even before I left, but my long absences do not help. When I am back in my tiny rented home in the city, my days start with a text message from Johann about the birds, and end the same way. Every ten days the birds’ shoes need to be taken off, washed and refitted. If I cannot be there, a neighbouring friend helps Johann.
I had given up hope of living with the louries again. The experience has been the hardest of my life and it is all about money. We live in a country where millions of people don’t have proper homes. Who cares about three disabled birds? But there is so much suffering in the world, most of it inflicted by humans, and Johann and I have just been trying to offset that a little. We have given the birds a chance at life, but we have been swimming upstream against a very powerful current. However, at last we have some hope. The friend who helped us to build the very first aviary is putting in an offer to purchase a property where Johann and I could live together with the birds again, in peace. The kindness of one person stands to transform all of our lives.
Chubby is now 7 years old and has been wearing shoes all her life. Kwê is 5 years old. Scruffy is 6 ½ and she too has been wearing shoes all her life, apart from those first traumatic 3 or 4 months on the ground. We know that she might not survive until we can all be together again.
If you find a baby bird, try to put it back into the nest. If you can’t do that or if the bird is injured, you should take it to an animal rehabilitation centre. When Chubby landed in our lives, we had no experience with bird care and lived a 2-hour drive from the closest bird rehab centre. We had no idea that we were not supposed to keep Chubby and that she was “supposed” to be killed because her legs were deformed. By the time we found out that you need a permit to keep a wild bird, it was too late—Chubby had shoes and other birds had started arriving. Most of those were successfully rehabilitated and released into the wild. But because of the louries, we never even applied for a permit. When I enquired about the possibility of getting one and told the official we were already looking after two disabled wild birds, he told me (unofficially of course) to keep a low profile and carry on caring for them without a permit. He said that if we applied for a permit, he would probably be obliged to euthanize the birds, and having heard the story he did not want to do that. The permit requirement is meant to stop people from capturing healthy wild birds to breed or sell. What a strange situation! We wanted to comply with the law but were advised not to try. At least we were dealing with a human being who had a heart, but the bureaucratic system would have been much harsher. For many years we followed his advice and did not dare to publish anything like the words you are reading here.
There is a difference between euthanizing a disabled baby bird on the day you find it and having to contemplate doing so months down the line. When you care for a disabled creature of any species, a bond of love and trust develops. Euthanasia must take place before this happens, or if it is clear that the animal is suffering and will never have a good quality of life. With our birds, shoes (prostheses) and a specially adapted aviary have enabled them to have a good quality of life. We have been fortunate in having two local vets and a homeopath help us with advice and medication for the birds whenever necessary. Two avian vets have given us occasional telephonic advice. The fact that we have three disabled birds of the same species also makes a difference. Louries are very sociable and it would not have been good to keep one on its own. But we were simply unaware, at first, that keeping a wild bird requires a permit. Our friend did not tell us straight away; she thought we knew.
If you find yourself in a similar predicament, having read this story, think very carefully! Caring for a permanently disabled bird takes more than a permit. It takes a huge amount of love, energy, and commitment, and setting up an aviary is expensive and requires secure land. Setting up a specialised aviary is even more challenging. And yet we believe that these beautiful gentle birds appreciate the safe environments we have created for them. At present I am struggling to save money to build yet another aviary, the third in seven years, but hopefully this one will be the last. A few small donations would be greatly appreciated; currency exchange is such that $100 dollars or £100 would go a long way in South African rands. My email address is email@example.com.
Would I do it again? No! Am I glad we did it? Yes! I hope that all three louries will be able to live out their days in peace until—of their own accord—they are ready to curl up their disabled little feet and fly away…
Will You Help Rescue Others? You'll LOVE Our Work! Before: scheduled for euthanasia at the pound. After: His new family has a huge backyard!