Here at Guthrie Pet Hospital, most folks are aware that we have two clinic cats—Sylvie and Felicia. Some people don’t know that there’s one other animal member of our clinic family. His name is Dante, and he’s a twenty-year-old Yellow-Naped Amazon Parrot. Our clients are used to hearing him scream “hello,” “okay,” and “bye” as they move through the hospital. If you’ve ever met him, you’ve also probably been warned to keep your distance from his cage. You see, like many birds, Dante can be less than friendly with people he doesn’t know and trust. He’s also not opposed to biting people who get too close to his cage without his permission. This includes those of us who work at Guthrie Pet Hospital.
For years, I was afraid of Dante. I would go out of my way to avoid him. In all fairness, he wasn’t too fond of me, either. He would rush the bars of his cage when I walked by, trying to bite me. As a pet professional, it was a little embarrassing to admit that I was scared of a bird who’s smaller than 99% of the dogs I interact with every day. It wasn’t until I saw a documentary about parrots on PBS earlier this year that I learned a bit more about his behavior–and decided that I’d try to overcome my fear to increase Dante’s level of mental and emotional enrichment.
I learned, for instance, that wild Amazon parrots are incredibly social birds who live in groups. They have a wide range of vocalizations that can indicate their sex, mood, and even what “neighborhood” they’re from. They’re very intelligent and enjoy social interaction. The more I considered, the more I realized that Dante’s behavior issues likely stemmed from two sources: lack of socialization (leading to fear and anxiety) and boredom. With that in mind, I decided to take a leap and work with him to help alleviate those issues.
How I tamed an angry parrot:
Step 1: Stef Brings Peanuts
The first thing I needed to do was to reset Dante’s emotional response when he saw me. I wanted him to look forward to seeing me approach his cage, rather than become anxious and aggressive. I knew he loves peanuts, so I began bringing him a peanut every time I got close to his cage. Since he got something he really loves every time I was around him, he started to anticipate my presence rather than dreading it. It took time, but it slowly worked. I had to be consistent and patient. I never forced him to interact with me. I just showed up and gave the parrot peanuts. Easy-peasy.
Step 2: Breaking The Boredom
This part took some trial and error. I wanted to give Dante something that would stimulate his interest. Life in a cage can be boring and frustrating. I wanted him to have something new and interesting. New toys tend to scare him, so that was out. He still didn’t want to physically interact with me, so I couldn’t ask him to play games. I finally figured out that he likes parrot videos. So—I started watching videos with a parrot. Instead of movie popcorn, he got more peanuts. He liked it.
Step 3: Sweet Scratches, Please
After we got to the point where Dante wasn’t immediately trying to attack me, we started the slow process of working on him accepting my touch. This started with me having him approach to take his peanut directly from my hand. I let him do the initiating. I didn’t—and still don’t—force him into being touched. It’s a long process to establish trust. We got to the point where he’d let me touch his beak as he took his treat. Next, he took my finger in his foot. Then he bit me. We took a step back and kept working slowly. Eventually, by moving at a speed he’s comfortable with, we got to the point where he accepts head scratches and understands that when I say “sweet”, it means he shouldn’t bite. He still likes to threaten me from time to time, but he’s much more likely to ask for a sweet head scratch.
I’m hoping that Dante and I will continue to build on our new relationship. Since captive parrots can live to be over 60 years old, it’s important to give him the best life possible—full of as much enrichment he wants. He’s also helped me to appreciate how well the techniques I use for training dogs can translate into working with other species.