Birds of Paradise provides a safe perch for rescued parrots
Sitting on the porch of Debbie Huckaby's home in East County, Elvis was seeking attention.
The umbrella cockatoo could hear Huckaby giving an interview about her Birds of Paradise Sanctuary & Rescue, and he was feeling left out.
While saying "Thank you ... thank you very much," might have been the perfect way to draw a reporter's attention away from the dynamic Huckaby, that phrase, strangely enough, wasn't in the parrot's vocabulary.
A long, ear-piercing squawk did the trick instead. Huckaby looked over, and laughed.
If the nonprofit, located on Water Line Service Road, is Huckaby's baby, then the 372 parrots currently residing on site are her grandchildren, and Elvis is one of them. Each has a distinct personality, and Elvis is among the most flamboyant.
In some ways, it was the perfect time for Elvis to speak up. Huckaby, who founded Birds of Paradise Sanctuary & Rescue in November of 2011, was asked about her favorite rescue stories. Elvis, it turned out, came center stage.
Huckaby remembers bringing Elvis to the rescue from a bad situation, and she remembers his first words to her.
"You're bad," he said.
"It breaks you heart," Huckaby said softly, staring down at the ground with the knowledge someone repeatedly told Elvis that phrase.
It is the world Huckaby has embraced, taking parrots and other exotic birds from sometimes abusive and neglectful homes and trying to provide them with the surroundings that will allow a tranquil life.
"Every bird that comes in is evaluated on an individual basis," Huckaby said. "I have conversations with them."
In the case of Elvis, Huckaby was able to connect with the bird, and convince him he would be safe in his new home.
What does Elvis say these days?
"I'm a good boy," Huckaby said in her best parrot voice. "He never said that before."
Veterinarian Michael Bonda, of East County's River Landings Animal Clinic, has seen Huckaby in action and has been impressed. "He tells me I was a cockatoo in another life," Huckaby said.
"Her knowledge of birds is excellent and she has a knack for cockatoos," Bonda said. "They seem to bond with her ... it is definitely unique."
Bonda, who helps Huckaby by treating, on average, two birds a week, said the rescue is a necessary facility.
"Our issue is so many unwanted parrots," he said. "It's a problem locally, nationwide, worldwide. Many of the parrots are long-lived animals and most people aren't aware of the intensity of their care. It is care that goes on for 30 years, if not longer. And there is no government agency for funding."
Huckaby admits she feels the rescue is left out of the community picture, at times, as dog and cat rescues draw more attention. She said education is a key, and she forges ahead.
The main problem seems to be not getting over run by the need. With almost 400 parrots on the grounds, she expects that number will continue to grow. She expects more than 1,000 birds in the not-too-distant future if pet owners don't change their habits.
In May, she received a call from a distressed relative of a North Port man who had died suddenly. The man obviously had been in ill health and made no plans for his 15 parrots.
Although she said the man's original idea to help the birds — she called them the North Port 15 — was well-intentioned, it had gone wrong. When she picked up the birds, they were suffering from serious neglect.
"There were roach-infested cages," Huckaby said. "It was a hoarding situation gone bad."
She came upon one bird, a green-winged macaw. "He told us his name, Billy, the first day," she said. "He was like, 'Let me get out of here.' He was the most vocal."
Other birds were not as fortunate. They cowered in the back of cages, frightened about what their fate might be.
"One little Indian ringneck is still terrified three weeks later," Huckaby said. "She still flails when I get near her. Something bad happened to this bird."
Eventually, if the birds don't warm to humans, they go into the rescue's aviary where they can live on their own. The ones that eventually do want human interaction can be adopted through a strict process which includes three visits to see if the bird likes its potential human family. If not, the bird doesn't leave.
Huckaby, as the executive director, is the staff's only paid employee and 40 volunteers currently help. She always looks for more volunteers and she said she is on the verge of hiring another full-time employee to be on the grounds so she can be free to educate the public, as she did June 20 when she was the guest speaker at the Long Island Parrots Society in New York.
While the grounds have several outbuildings, 32 birds live inside Huckaby's house or on her porch. She said she has one room all to herself.
Those 32 birds are her personal birds or have special needs. Three blind birds live in the 1,500-square-foot house, including 74-year-old Peaches. Huckaby knows the names of all the birds on the property.
Using funds she raises, Huckaby creates as close to a natural environment for the birds as possible. "This is sort of an ecosystem," she said. "We give them things to play with, ground to dig in, palm trees, vegetation."
An average of 45 birds a year are adopted, and her current waiting list to come to the facility has 10 birds. She does keep a few emergency slots.
"We get movers, people going into apartments, a lot of elderly," she said. "Birds typically outlive the owners."
It's a tough job, but one she embraces.
"This is a lifetime commitment," she said. "I work 14 hours a day. But I've taken birds from Alaska, from Wisconsin. People trust me for quality of care. Our parrots are loved."
She said she wants to talk to legislators about the care, or lack of, concerning parrots. Often an impulse buy, people think they can feed them seed and that's it. "They need fresh fruit and veggies," she said.
Sysco donates food and veggies to the rescue each week and Huckaby said it has been vital. "They give us fantastic stuff," she said.
Meanwhile, she works with her birds on site, bringing them a sort of peace.
Some people might call her a parrot whisperer. "I hate that terminology," she said. "I am just intuitive when it comes to parrots. They have a sense of security when I am present.
"You know, they can change your mood in two seconds. I walk into the bird area, and they are intuitive to what I need as a person. Well, not all of them. Some don't care.
"But they are amazing creatures. They will say, 'Come here, I love you.'"