"They're a little emaciated, I would say," said Christi Zotto, who took two ragged red-and-green refugees into her Annapolis house on Saturday. "You can tell they haven't been on a proper diet. Their feathering isn't as good as it should be."
The parrots were among more than 100 exotic birds discovered in early August at a squalid breeding operation outside Nashville. Lasandra Walter, the owner of the Hookbill Haven Aviary of Portland, Tenn., pleaded guilty to animal cruelty last week, reported The Tennessean newspaper of Nashville.
"The animals were living in deplorable conditions without food and water. The place had not been cleaned," said Scotlund Haisley, founder and president of Animal Rescue Corps, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. "They've been traumatized their whole lives. But we've certainly seen a sparkle in their eye and a shine on their coats since they've been getting attention."
Seven birds were found dead at the aviary. Haisley's group worked with local law enforcement to keep the survivors temporarily at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. The parrots, cockatoos, parakeets and lovebirds got food, fresh water and clean cages while vets performed checkups.
The next step was contacting bird-welfare groups such as the Columbia-based Bailey Foundation to find foster homes for the evacuees.
"As you can imagine, it's been an exhausting several weeks, we're pretty tired, but we're obviously thrilled," Haisley said by phone as he drove to Annapolis on Saturday. "What an amazing journey for these animals. The suffering has ended for them."
Haisley, who previously worked for the Humane Society, founded Animal Rescue Corps in January. The group relies solely on donations, he said, adding that the bird rescue will cost about $50,000.
All but six of the surviving birds had previously been placed elsewhere in the country, either in sanctuaries or private homes — not an easy task considering that "traditional shelters do not take parrots usually," said Beth Lindenau, executive director of the Bailey Foundation.
Lindenau accepted the last six birds, natives of Central and South America, from Haisley. Volunteers in Annapolis, Columbia and Pennsylvania will take care of them until permanent homes can be found.
Exotic birds command hundreds or thousands of dollars, an incentive for unscrupulous breeders to raise and market them in cruel, factory-style conditions, animal activists say.
"People know about puppy mills, but virtually nobody has heard of a bird mill," said Lindenau. "What we're seeing is a number of organizations cropping up across the country to try to meet the problem of parrot homelessness."
Zotto, her husband and stepdaughter already shared their home with seven birds before she agreed to take the two rescued Mexican red-headed amazons. Her bird habit started in the 1980s with a cockatiel. The number of her feathered roommates grew along with her knowledge about bird abuse.
"The more I looked into it, the more I found that there are just a lot of parrots going from home to home to home," she said. "I've just really come to love and respect these guys. They're really intelligent and they don't deserve how they're being treated."
The next step is to bring the new birds back to health — "try to get them more socialized, get them on a good diet, get them used to interaction," Zotto said.
"If there happens to be a good home and a good match available" when they recover, she'll be happy to send them on, she said. But, she added: "I will keep them if no family is available."