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A fluffy white, full-feathered Triton cockatoo spreads its wings inside a Plexiglas cage. It's a magnificent bird, known for its keen intelligence and its advanced ability to talk. And it's for sale here in Parrot Jungle's gift shop. Anyone can have it for $1875. Yes, that's pricey, but apparently not too pricey for a couple and their adolescent boy, who wander into the store during a recent Sunday visit to the park. The child trots over, points to the parrot, and says, "That's the one we saw in the show!" -- referring to the Wings of Wonder showcase in which a variety of birds perform impressive tricks. The boy clearly is infatuated with the cockatoo, and his parents seem no less enthusiastic about the idea of having a pet parrot of their own.
Fortunately for this family, Parrot Jungle breeds practically every kind of parrot, not just for use in the park's shows but also for sale: cockatoos, Amazons (those green pirate parrots), macaws, and the Rolls Royce of parrots, the hyacinth, among many others. Unfortunately for the family and the bird they may purchase, the infatuation stands a good chance of ending badly, especially if the former isn't fully prepared for what lies ahead. After years in a cage (most parrots live up to 65 years), the slightest neglect transforms many parrots from cute and clever companions into shrieking, self-mutilating horror stories. Sadly that unpleasant scenario is common, but clueless people keep buying parrots anyway. And Parrot Jungle, of all places, keeps selling them. Today more than a hundred small birds and close to 40 large exotic parrots are merchandized in a corner of the park's gift shop, a fact that has drawn sharp criticism.
"It would totally go against our ethics to sell wild animals to the public," says Ron Magill, spokesman for Miami-Dade's Metrozoo. "You can take the animal out of the wild, but you can't take the wild out of the animal -- and that goes for exotic birds as well. Parrots are wild and do not make good pets. That's the first thing we say at our bird shows: Parrots don't make good pets. And in the end, it's the animals that suffer.
"The folks at Parrot Jungle are good friends of ours," Magill continues. "We have a wonderful relationship, which makes it difficult for me to say I disagree with them on this. I have mixed emotions but I have to be honest: We have a deep philosophical difference regarding the selling of exotic animals to private people. We need to make it clear that Metrozoo doesn't support selling exotic birds in a gift shop."
Metrozoo itself sells and lends out a limited number of animals, but only to licensed organizations for the purpose of captive breeding. That kind of discretion goes for every member of the prestigious American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which sets national standards for wildlife parks. Even corporate theme parks like Busch Gardens and SeaWorld (both accredited by the AZA) don't sell animals to the general public.
In 1999 the AZA stripped Parrot Jungle of its accreditation for a period of five years -- not for selling parrots (the park wasn't doing so at the time), but as a result of an exhibit at which people fed uncaged birds. AZA inspectors expressed serious concern over the lack of a barrier between birds and people, fearing that the parrots were subject to harassment and the spread of diseases. An AZA spokeswoman reports that if Parrot Jungle reapplies for accreditation, its policy of selling birds to the public -- resumed for the first time in eight years when it moved to Watson Island -- could be grounds for denial. (While the AZA doesn't prohibit animal sales outright, its code of ethics requires "every effort to assure that all animals do not find their way into the hands of those not qualified to care for them properly.")
So why shouldn't Parrot Jungle breed parrots and sell them at its park? It's perfectly legal, pet shops everywhere do the same thing, and obviously there's a market for the parrots. Critics of the practice, and there are many, consider it unethical for several reasons. Amy Rhodes, a spokeswoman for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), says her organization believes that wild animals should not be sold as pets under any circumstance. Some animal activists consider that position to be extreme, though there is general agreement that all parrots are indeed wild, a view shared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which classifies parrots as "Class III" wild animals.
Rhodes, who says PETA has been tracking Parrot Jungle for several years, doesn't expect the place to change its business policies. She refers to a file of past complaints, which range from problems protecting its petting-farm animals to its old business of breeding and selling orangutans. "For them," she says, "it's all about the bottom line."
For its first 53 years of operation, under the supervision of original owner Franz Scherr, Parrot Jungle did not sell birds. It was only after veterinarian Bern Levine bought the place with Richard Schubot in 1988 that the park began wheeling and dealing parrots. Levine, a widely known bird breeder, was unavailable, but in a written statement Parrot Jungle spokeswoman Davia Fernandez defended that decision: "The practice of selling birds is not unethical if the birds are well cared for (which we do), have good health care (which we do), and are properly matched to the buyer (which we do).... It is not a new practice. Now we can provide great nutrition, housing, and enrichment for birds."
There is little doubt Parrot Jungle can take good care of its animals. But Ron Magill and others are worried about Parrot Jungle's visitors, the people who end up buying the birds, often impulsively. "There's no question some of the best caretakers of parrots are private owners," says Magill, "but those are the qualified, educated ones. The problem with what Parrot Jungle is doing has everything to do with impulse buying. You don't sell bunny rabbits at the end of an Easter parade, or black cats on Halloween. It's the impulse buying -- these people who buy parrots at the park do it without a scratch of information, and they aren't prepared to care for them. Every week I get calls from people who want me to take their parrots because they don't know what to do with them. These people paid thousands for these animals and now they want to get rid of them. But we can't take them, so we refer them to places like Wings of Love."
Wings of Love is a nonprofit bird refuge that accepts and cares for unwanted parrots. It was founded in 1993 by Regina Cussell and her husband Marshall. The couple built five large aviaries on property donated by Monkey Jungle in south Miami-Dade. More than 200 parrots are now housed there. Bird refuges like Wings of Love have sprung up throughout South Florida over the past decade. Regina Cussell says the reason for such growth is that people buying parrots are "never told about the screaming and biting, and the fact they start plucking their feathers out and tearing into their flesh" when neglected or abused.
Cussell herself used to work as a bird breeder and seller at Parrot Jungle. Then one day she took a call from a woman who had purchased a cockatoo from her. The bird had severely bitten her eight-year-old child in the face, a wound that required ten stitches to close. Before the angry woman discarded the bird, Cussell offered to take it in. She recalls it as a moment of revelation. "Parrots look at you, they think of you, they fall in love, but it's an unnatural relationship," she says. "These are wild animals constructed to fly free, and nothing you can ever do will make them truly happy."
She'd like Parrot Jungle to see it that way too, but given Bern Levine's 25 years as a successful breeder and seller of exotic birds, that seems unlikely. Metrozoo's Magill, on the other hand, believes Levine's very success may actually prompt a change of heart. "Whatever is said about Dr. Levine's business practices, one thing is for sure -- he's one of the most respected aviculturalists in the country. Which is why I hope he reconsiders selling birds at Parrot Jungle."