Life with Lola
This interview with Karen Windsor is republished in memory of Lola and in celebration of his family and friends at Foster Parrot.
Foster Parrot established and operates The New England Exotic Wildlife Sanctuary located in Hope Valley, Rhode Island. The permanent care sanctuary hosts a diverse array of exotic species, primarily parrots.
Here, Karen describes the sanctuary and answers a few questions about trans-species life:
“Foster Parrots’ sanctuary facility houses hundreds of different species of parrots and several species of mammal and reptile as well. It’s a wonderful opportunity to see the extraordinary ‘cultural variations’ (i.e., species-specific behaviors and flavors) amongst the residents and to observe how they interact with one another in this highly unnatural setting.
“Bird and animals, like humans, can and do live a trans-species lifestyle. We have seen Mourning doves bonded with cockatiels. We have seen Quaker (Monk) parrots live symbiotically and in complete harmony with Patagonian cavies. We have seen cockatoos love and care for Amazon parrots. We have a dog who parades peacefully around the sanctuary with complete respect for the parrots, tortoises and cavies. (But she is intolerant of the peafowl). At home this dog has learned to live with and sleep with two cats, and the two cats live peacefully with the parrots, and sometimes parrots, cats and dog are all on the same bed with their humans.
“Trans-species living is a way of connecting with the animals in our life and on our planet in a way that links us all as essential parts of the earth’s tapestry. But the fact is that humans have all but broken their ties to this essential fabric. We are not connected to our earth and we fail to be connected to animals in any kind of meaningful way. This disconnect frees us completely to be as destructive as we need to be in order to fulfill our human desires without caring much about the impact on our planet or on other species. Imagine if, from a very young age, all children were taught to connect emotionally, empathetically and respectfully with animals of all kinds. If trans-species living were a part of our basic human value system, think how different would the earth be today!”
What are some of the personal challenges you have encountered such as conflicts in personal relationships, work, psychological, and any changes you have made?
Karen: When I first joined Foster Parrots and began to work beside Marc Johnson (the man who would become my husband seven years later) I thought he had a “personality disorder,” and I told him so. I thought he was bipolar. He never forgot that and has brought it up several times in recent years, trying to explain to people about the extraordinary highs and incredible lows that define our life at Foster Parrots, Ltd. He says to people, ” She thought I had a personality disorder. Now she knows.”
There are so many triumphs. We get that big grant. We make a big difference in the life of a parrot. We complete a construction project. We get a letter from Jane Goodall. We get to help bats. We orchestrate a successful fundraiser event…There are so many moments that fill us with pride and a sense of purpose and accomplishment.
And then there are the terrible low points. We live with an enormous amount of grief. We have lost and continue to lose birds who are our close friends, our family. We have forged deep connections with these individuals over many, many years… and we lose them. No matter how hard we try and despite our best efforts, we cannot reverse decades of captivity, or the repercussions of captivity. We cannot give them back the sky or the flight or the freedom in a natural world that their physical bodies were designed to experience every single day. We lose our cherished friends to things like heart disease, cancer, reproductive disease. So we carry a tremendous amount of grief – and the sister of grief: guilt. Because of how often we fail in our mission… and fail the birds. We take personal responsibility for every loss and every failure.
Can you describe how your personal mission affects your life and perceptions? How, for example, it influences your everyday life—what you eat, your social relationships, attitudes, and habits?
Karen: I believe that when your personal mission and your “job” is animal rescue and care, your personal mission is your life. There can be no divisions between your professional life and your personal life.
My husband, Marc Johnson, and I are responsible for the life-long care and security of over 550 parrots and other displaced exotic animals now residing at the Sanctuary. We never have the luxury of not carrying that responsibility. The birds and animals have to be taken care of every single day. The grant proposals have to be written whether it’s Monday, Sunday or Christmas day. The problems of the sanctuary or sudden medical emergencies have to be addressed as they happen. People call or e-mail and need guidance or support relative to their parrots, and this does not always conveniently occur between the hours of 9 and 5. My husband and I will likely both be deceased in 30 years, but our parrots won’t be. This is a responsibility that extends beyond our lives. The weight can be overwhelming.
But this mission is our life. We wake up every day inspired and motivated. Because of what we do, we have felt the deepest kind of grief and despair, and the most intense joy, fulfillment and happiness. We are hopeless and hopeful. We are angry. We have beliefs and convictions that drive us, that force us to be bigger than we are, and to do more or act in ways that we are not always entirely comfortable with. But at the end of every day we know that we have walked a good path. There’s a kind of inner peace or self-fulfillment that can only come from working for the benefit of something bigger and more important than ourselves.
Because we have chosen to live our lives in the service of animals, it is an all-encompassing mission, and is not species-specific. We spend summers pulling over and delivering migrating turtles safely across the roadways they have wandered into. We have, many a time, jumped out of our cars and stopped traffic to safeguard the crossing of families of geese. When someone calls us in the middle of the night because there’s a chicken in a tree in their backyard or because a red-tailed hawk was found on the side of the road, we have an obligation to help. When the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut was closing down its bat exhibit last year, 40 geriatric South American leaf-nosed fruit bats were facing euthanasia because there was no place willing to take them. We didn’t know a thing about bats, but we jumped in and learned everything we needed to learn because 40 old bats needed care.
Because I love animals I choose not to eat them. Consequently, there are few times that I sit down to dinner when someone doesn’t comment on my food choices, defend their own food choices or apologize for choosing meat in my presence without any prompting from me whatsoever. Because parrots/animals are central to our life, most of my husband’s and my activities and the vast majority of people we spend time with are also parrot/animal related. I suspect that, amongst our friends who do not care much for animals and who prefer to get together socially to watch sports, or compare recipes for preparing duck, my husband and I are sometimes passed over for an invitation. That is not a bad thing.
Is there a difference between relationships with members of other species and those with humans?
Karen: This is a funny question for someone who works with parrots. I think that the “contrived” answer to a question like this is, “Yes! Relationships with animals are more honest! Animals do not judge!”. But the honest truth is—parrots are judgmental! Dogs may not pass judgment, but parrots sure do. Parrots can reject a human based on their looks or their smell or their sex or their level of self-assurance. It is totally personal. It is entirely based on something that they perceive to be wrong with you in particular.
But I do believe that we are different in our relationships with animals—even parrots—because we relate to and interact with them on a more honest and less complicated level. Animals give us permission to be ourselves. And parrots give certain people who they approve of permission to be themselves.
Can you describe your relationship with someone who is not human and their sentience?
Karen: Lola is an old, wild-caught Green winged macaw (male!) who was brought to Foster Parrots in 2002. He was missing an eye. He had broken bones in his feet and in his wings. He had no tail at all. A bald spot on the top of his head revealed a slightly concave skull fracture. These were all old injuries suffered at some point in his distant past, leaving him with a seizure disorder that would periodically grip, shake and paralyze him. It was speculated that he had been the victim of a dog attack. But the real tragedy lay in the fact that, subsequent to his injuries, he was delegated to a dog crate and kept in complete isolation in the basement of his guardian’s home for several years.
Because Lola was prone to seizures it was necessary to keep a close eye on him and this precipitated a relationship between he and I that has spanned for nearly a decade. I wish I could relay a fairytale story of a close human-avian bond, but the fact is, Lola has only ever been marginally interested in relationships with humans. He made it clear from the start that he was all about the birds. He would make vocal contact with macaws he could hear in other areas of the sanctuary and was delighted when we were finally able to pair him with a young female Green Winged Macaw named Amadeus.
I have held and comforted Lola through hundreds of seizures, His body will flinch at the sudden touch of a hand, but if I leave my fingers on his body he will relax and allow me to caress the stiffness out of his paralyzed right leg. He will lift his chin so that I can gently scratch the sensitive area under his lower mandible. He will relish the feeling of my fingertips on the soft white skin of his face. It is the only time he will allow himself to be caressed or loved at all, but I know that, sometimes, he milks it and lets himself enjoy the comfort far beyond his recovery. Sometimes he will close his one eye and fall asleep in my lap.
I have spent a great deal of time thinking about Lola’s experience in his former basement prison. Surrounded by darkness, the passing of day into night into day only perceptible in the movement of distant shadows. Waiting. Waiting. Receding into his mind to find companionship in his memories.
One day I was working in my office with Lola and his mate, Amadeus, sitting contentedly atop their cage across the room from me. I was at my computer watching a video my husband had taken during a trip to Brazil of wild Green Winged Macaws feeding on palm nuts and calling back and forth to one another. Lola suddenly perked up. His one eye began to dilate and began to return the calls of the wild macaws with great excitement. Amadeus, a young, domestically bred Greenwing, had no reaction at all. She did not understand the dialect of the birds in the film. But Lola sure did.
Lola is an old, old bird. He seemed to be failing at the sanctuary this past year. We thought he was dying. It was a hard decision to make, whether or not to separate him from his companion, Amadeus. But she was young and vibrant and playful and could sometimes be hard on her elderly partner. We made the decision to pull him and take him home to provide “hospice care”. Well, as it turns out, Lola was not ready to die, but he does need the space and the peace in which to be old and to wind down. Like an elderly old fellow he naps quite a lot during the days, resting on his shelf and snuggling into a fleece blanket. He shares a sunroom with three Amazon parrots and a Hawkheaded parrot and he enjoys knowing there are other birds nearby and feeling the sun on his back. The brightness of the room helps him to see, as the vision in his only eye is beginning to fail now. He can become quite animated and vocal when he decides to exchange calls with our two other macaws who live in another section of the house. He often engages both my husband and I in lengthy, indecipherable conversations. He has a hardy appetite and relishes pomegranate seeds, mashed sweet potatoes, juicy orange wedges and buttered whole grain toast.
After all of these years we’ve been together Lola still does not welcome petting. Only when a seizure has ripped through his body and left him partially paralyzed will he surrender to human love and comfort. I will lay him down on my chest and gently pet him and massage his stiff leg. He lays his head down and listens to my heartbeat. But when he’s done with me, he’s done, and then he rejects me completely. It’s ok. For all the pain and all the loss this old bird has suffered at the hands of humans, I deserve to be rejected. At the same time I am also certain that he knows how much I care for him.
Do you have contradictions in your life between what you envision and believe and how you actually live? That is, are there constraints you encounter that disallow you to live out all of your beliefs?
Karen: I think that the one thing I struggle most with, perhaps, is my lack of compassion for my own species. I want to have a good heart. I want to have a pure and selfless spirit and to be peaceful inside… like Jane Goodall… like my friend LoraKim Joyner. But I am not yet evolved enough to rise above my prejudices or my judgments toward people. I find it hard to rise above my cynicism.
I think that living a trans-species life where we are connected by the heart or empathetically to other species should include being able to empathize with and understand the collective culture of our own species as well. I find it difficult, though, to forgive humans for being human. We hurt one another. We destroy the earth. We cause unimaginable suffering to animals. How can this be forgiven?
But then… humans are also… overwhelmingly good. Sometimes the good and selfless actions of people bring me to tears. There is an amazing video that can be found on YouTube called One Love/Playing For Change/Song Around the World. Go ahead and find it. Watch it! It is an incredible demonstration of the goodness and interconnectedness of humans all over the world. Watching it always fills me with emotion and pride and love for my species.
And then I come back to my personal world. It’s a world where flighted wild animals have been pulled from the sky and delegated to cages. Or where these beings have been domestically bred to live their lives in cages without ever knowing they were meant to own the sky. It’s a world where my husband and I work in our very small way to help keep forest habitat in Guyana intact, while oil and lumber companies lay down their money and make plans to build roads and start drilling and cutting. It is very hard to forgive…
What is your vision for an ideal 'trans-species world'?
Karen: Birds and animals are all around us at all times, but the tragedy lies in the fact that the majority of humans have lost their connection to animals and to their earth. People do not recognize that they, too, are animals, and that they are a part of and are dependent upon Nature. This kind of perception (or lack thereof) gives us permission to be selfish, self-serving and destructive. I believe that if compassion and empathy toward animals were fundamental lessons in the upbringing of every child, then we would live in a vastly different world. Not only would it be a world in which less violence was inflicted upon animals by humans, but there would be less violence of humans towards one another. Our technological and industrial development would be drastically more ecologically sensitive and sustainable. Our world would not be dying.
In an ideal “trans-species world,” a child’s connection to animals, which I believe is innate, would be encouraged and nurtured. And this would give rise to a world of adults more grounded in their earth.
Photo credits: Foster Parrots, Ltd.