Spike & Willie Go Home
Imagine being at home, minding your own business, when suddenly someone invades your property, throws a net over you and stuffs you into a black sack. You’re kept in the sack for days not knowing where you are, who has kidnapped you or where you are being taken. You know you are traveling because the noise outside your black cell changes, as does the temperature and the people handling you. You hear one strange dialect, then another. This scenario sounds like fiction, but it is not far from the truth for Spike and Willie, Green Wing Macaws (ara chloroptera) who were wild-caught and smuggled into the United States nearly twenty-five years ago. For almost a quarter century, this mated pair lived in cages a few feet square.
We do not have much of a history on the macaws, nor do we know exactly how old they are. We do know that they were smuggled into the US and sold as a breeding pair. We know of two owners, one for twenty years and one for two years before they came to PIGS three years ago. We know they’ve spent most of their lives in cages, and that they’ve never learned to fly properly.
Green-wing Macaws are beautiful, intelligent birds with vibrant red and green feathers. They are a high-maintenance species, and because of their intelligence, require their caretakers to be one step ahead of them. They are easily bored and need various toys to keep them stimulated, or they will find other ways to relieve their boredom, such as feather plucking. Spike and Willie are a bonded pair, which means they are married! Once bonded, they only want each other, and no other interaction with animals or humans is welcome. They are amazing to watch and act just like an old married couple. They preen each other, fret when the other isn’t near, play together and even have little squabbles.
These are not birds that can be handled, but because of their intelligence it was easy to work with and around them. They learned several verbal commands such as “step-up,” where they would step up onto their perch or if we needed to move them, onto a broomstick that acted as a perch. They knew “go home” which meant to return to their cage. They knew “back,” which meant to stay away from my fingers, hands and arms as I reached into their cage to clean it out. We settled into a nice routine and agreement. We would feed them, clean them, water them and let them play outside their cage. We never attempted to touch them, and for that the macaws agreed not to bite off our fingers. They would take crackers out of the hands of the people they trusted. They spoke a very few words, including “hello,” “ha-ha,” and “step-up.” We did our best to meet their needs and respect their space, but when it came right down to it, we could not give them what they really needed, which was the freedom of their native habitat. They wanted to be back home in the tropical forest; not in a small cage in West Virginia, indoors for months at a time, with artificial heat and hand-made toys.
I kept promising Spike and Willie that one day soon they would go home. I begged them to have a little more patience with us! But getting them home was not a simple matter. Like most psitticines, Green Wing Macaws are on the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) list of endangered species. They are native to twelve South American countries, and we had no records indicating from which country they had been taken. Because each population has slight genetic variations, CITES will not permit birds without a provenance (or record of origin) to be reintroduced to the wild. The next best thing would be to return the macaws to South America to live in a controlled outdoor habitat.
Fortunately, friends from Brazil put us in touch with IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental protection agency. IBAMA operates RIOZOO, the zoological gardens in Rio de Janeiro. And happily, RIOZOO had just built an enormous 40-foot high outdoor aviary, the Viveirao, complete with waterfall, stocked pond, an abundance of Atlantic rainforest vegetation and many other species of birds. We sent pictures and information about the birds to RIOZOO, and within a few days, they agreed to accept them. That’s when the real work began.
Because CITES controls reexport of macaws, we had first to obtain permission from the US Fish & Wildlife Service. This took three months. Next, we had get permission from the government of Brazil; another three months. Then, there were the arrangements for flying at a safe temperature that extended theentire route from Baltimore to Rio. We purchased tickets and airline approved travel crates and feeders. The birds had to be examined, microchipped and certified healthy within ten days of departure. And finally we had to get all our paperwork notarized both by Fish & Wildlife and the Brazilian Embassy. Start to finish, the project took seven months!
With the flight booked, we had ten days to get a health certificate from a USDA approved avian vet. Luckily, one of the animal hospitals we work with had a USDA avian vet on staff! An appointment was scheduled within ten days of the flight. Off to the vet we went. Sounds easy…not for two large birds who didn’t like the looks of their new travel crates!
A little fear set in as we tried to formulate a plan for getting Spike and Willie into the crates without stressing them. We came up with a great plan, but Willie had a plan of her own! We went into the room where the cage was kept and closed the doors and windows. We set up the travel carriers on the floor and reached for the broomstick (their portable perch.) Willie took one look at the broomstick, then at the crate, flew down to the ground, walked across the floor and into the crate! Okay, sometimes we humans over think a solution before there is a problem! Spike followed and within minutes both were safe and secure in their crates. Did they know?
We set off on the forty-five minute drive to the vet. The entire ride, Spike and Willie chattered away saying “hello” and “ha-ha” as we wound down country roads. They were quite curious as we sat in the lobby, and watched the dogs and humans walking by. In the exam room, I politely warned the vet and tech that Spike and Willie were a bonded pair. They were very professional, but when they left the room for supplies I heard a little grumbling. I couldn’t blamethem. I too moan whenever I know I’m about to handle an untamed animal. Thankfully, our tech was well experienced in handling large parrots and everyone survived the exam and micro chipping without a scratch. Spike and Willie were much quieter on the way home.
Once obtained, the signed health certificate went to the USDA office in Baltimore to be approved. Next it was hand-delivered by PIGS President Laura Knox to the Brazilian Embassy in Washington, DC. They wanted us to leave the papers there for a few days. We complied with some trepidation, because we knew we had toget the birds on the plane within ten days of the vet exam or we’d have to start the whole process over again! The papers were signed the day before the flight was to leave.
The final step was to gather the birds up and place them one final time in their travel crates. I swore to them that this was the last time, and that soon they would be home. Spike and Willie must have believed me because they went into the crates without hesitation! We filled the crates with shredded newspaper, a bowl of water, fresh grapes and seed. We even stuck a few toys onto the sides for in-flight entertainment. All of the staff said our good-byes and wished them a safe flight home and a wonderful life.
One of PIGS' staff members drove forty-five to meet Laura, PIGS' President, at a road stop to hand over the birds. Laura proceeded to BWI airport where she checked the birds in, along with the all-important signed paperwork. Within a few hours they were airborne and on their way home.
For the next twelve hours we held our breath. Finally, one of our Board Members broke down and called our contact at IBAMA on her cell phone. She was with the birds; they had made it, happy and healthy, and were just pulling in to RIOZOO.
Spike and Willie now live in a huge free flight outdoor aviary in Rio and they are thriving! They can smell the smells, see the sights and breathe the air of their native habitat. With luck and a little rehabilitation, it is expected that they will start to fly. But we think a picture is worth a thousand words.