by Lisa Gregory | photography by Kelly Heck
When Kipper, a blue-and-gold macaw, first came to Ruffled Feathers, a sanctuary for rescued parrots and other exotic birds, she kept repeating, over and over, “Kipper’s getting better” and “It’ll be all right.”
Not the typical “Hello” and “Where’s the pretty bird?” phrases one might expect to hear.
According to Gil Stern and Yvonne England, co-founders of Ruffled Feathers, Kipper belonged to a family whose children tortured her. For example, when curious whether an eyeball would pop if you poked it with a stick, they experimented on Kipper. The macaw was never taken to a vet, and today she is blind in her left eye. She was repeating the words often spoken to her.
“Every bird here was either abused, neglected, unwanted, surrendered, or tortured,” says Stern, who along with England is also a rehabilitation specialist for the facility. But all of them, from finches to macaws, have found a haven with Ruffled Feathers, and in the most unlikely of places: the North Hanover Mall.
Mall manager James Ling says that, to his knowledge, North Hanover Mall is the only mall in the nation to have such a facility. “I felt like it was a really unique use of space in the mall,” he says.
It has been a good fit. “It’s great for our needs,” says England of the large space and hardwood floors in what was previously an American Eagle store.
Since opening its doors last November, Ruffled Feathers has become quite a draw for bird lovers
and shoppers alike. The sanctuary, operating solely on donations and volunteers, is responding to a serious need. According to the Ruffled Feathers website, almost 85 percent of all exotic birds are “flipped” or “rehomed” within three to four years of being purchased.
The birds, says England, tend to get very attached to a single person and require lots of interaction and attention. “It’s like a two-year-old with feathers,” she says. “I tell people: If you have a busy life, don’t get a bird.”
Birds can also have long lives, often outliving their owners, which contributes to the problem. In fact, one of the oldest birds at the sanctuary, a blue-fronted Amazon parrot named Sam, was born in 1947. Because of the creatures’ longevity, Ruffled Feathers encourages owners to make plans for a bird’s well-being before illness or age makes it impossible to care for it.
You don’t want a situation “where the bird is passed on to a family member who then passes it on to the 9-year-old neighbor down the street and so on,” says Stern. In such a circumstance, “You end up with a bird that is plucking its feathers and biting.”
Some rescue stories are disturbing. Abby, an umbrella cockatoo who loves to chirp “Abby Girl,” has a misshapen lower beak. According to Stern, her owner became annoyed at the screeching noise she was making one night (her way of communicating) and took what Stern believes was a hammer to her.
He has picked up a blind bird who was bound for a “crack house,” Stern was told, had she had not been taken in by Ruffled Feathers. And Stern says he has removed birds from hoarding situations, including one home in which there were 70 cockatiels.
Most of the birds coming into the sanctuary are traumatized and have taken to plucking at their feathers, often leaving nothing but skin. “Typically, the birds we get exhibit some level of stress,” says Stern.
“But with holding and cuddling,” says England, “these birds are brought back to life.”
Then there are those who try to do right by the birds in their care by giving them to Ruffled Feathers.
Neil Doherty, for example, purchased an umbrella cockatoo for his teenage son. Doherty, who had owned exotic birds previously and has a great affection for them, soon discovered that the bird, named Happy, had not been adequately handled by previous owners, making it difficult for his wife and son to interact with it.
“I could have sold him,” he says. “But he had probably already been sold how many times.”
Instead Doherty placed Happy with Ruffled Feathers. The family has since developed a strong connection to the sanctuary and even donated a used vehicle to the sanctuary.
Happy seems happier. “He’s with other birds,” says Doherty. “It’s perfect.”
Ruffled Feathers takes in birds from as far as New York, West Virginia, Ohio, New Jersey, and North Carolina. “People tend to find us,” says Stern, who adds that the long-term objective is to someday establish a national sanctuary in Florida. In the shorter term, he says, he would like to expand the sanctuary to a local farm.
Most of the birds are there to stay. And while birds at the facility can be adopted out, it is not done lightly, says Stern. “It’s not about you finding a bird, but you being the right person for that bird,” he says.
And with more and more birds arriving, the financial challenges the facility faces are growing. According to Stern, the facility spends between $4,000 to $5,000 every four to six weeks on pellets and seeds alone. The sanctuary has a wish list of donation items on their website and welcomes any financial support.
Volunteers like Shari Shaffer play a very important role, cleaning cages and providing food and water. Shaffer is so committed to the birds and their well-being that she has become an assistant manager. And in the process, she has developed an especially close relationship with a Moluccan cockatoo named Z.
Z was a breeder bird whose mate died. Considered no longer useful, he was isolated in a room by himself. Sad and lonely, he began plucking his feathers and ended up with a hole in his chest from the constant plucking. “My heart went out to him,” says Shaffer. “He was just a broken bird.”
Shaffer and Z have since become inseparable, with Z even making overnight trips to Shaffer’s house and accompanying her at her job as a hairstylist. And because of such dedication, Z and birds like him are thriving at Ruffled Feathers. “Gil and Yvonne are doing fabulous work here,” says Shaffer.
In fact, when Z’s owner stopped by several months after Z came to Ruffled Feathers to see how he was adjusting, “he was impressed by how healthy and happy Z was,” says England. He then asked if Z, who had been so devastated by the loss of his mate, had found a new companion.
Without missing a beat, England replied with a grin, “Yes, and her name is Shari.”