Lorin Lindner had been pursuing a career as a psychologist when Sammy came into her life. Not in the market for a pet, the abandoned Moluccan cockatoo had other plans. But rather than being a distraction, Sammy ended up steering Lindner’s life in a direction that blended her passion for her profession, and her love of animals. Turns out Sammy wasn't the only parrot in need of refuge, and thus Serenity Park was born. Serenity Park is a special sanctuary on the grounds of the Greater Los Angeles Veterans Administration Healthcare Center. While the veterans there, many suffering from PTSD, often find it difficult to open up to humans, feathered friends like Sammy are another matter. Here Lindner talks about the healing bond between wounded birds, and wounded warriors.
“Now why would I go do a fool thing like that?” Thomas muttered under his breath.
“I heard that!” I said, smiling. “For one thing, that’s an order, for another, you might like it.”
One of the benefits of working with veterans is that they’re used to being told what to do by a superior officer…and they do it. So when I approached Thomas with the novel idea of talking about his trauma to Rainbow, a magnificent Green Wing Macaw, sure he balked a bit but he went straight to that aviary and sat on the chair placed in there for that very purpose – to share a story. Army veterans coming out of combat are not wont to talk about their traumatic experiences in the military to anyone: not their therapists, not their spouses, and certainly not their commanding officers. Somehow, talking about it with someone who won’t tell anyone else makes the telling a tad safer.
In childhood, many of us had an animal companion who was our best friend. Holding and petting the soft fur or feathers of an animal is a primitive joy that harkens back to our shared evolution. We grew up together - as a species and as individual beings – and there is great comfort in that eonslong yet very personal link. Parrots are the third most popular companion animal in the United States. Having someone to talk to, who can actually talk back, is a unique quality for a household pet.
At Serenity Park Sanctuary, on the grounds of the Veterans Healthcare Center in Los Angeles, the parrots are the major ingredient of a therapeutic work environment for the men and women veterans all of whom are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries. What the parrots offer is something these veterans failed to find with years of therapy, PTSD groups, psychotropic medications and the locked wards of the psych hospital.
Establishing a bond with a parrot provides the groundwork for the development of a sense of safety and trust. You can’t get very far in a relationship without both of those fundamental tools. And having a relationship with the parrots is having a relationship; they improve communication skills by getting the veterans to talk, as Thomas did, sitting on the chair in the aviary.
A command from a supervisor is not the best way to begin a relationship but Thomas had seen other veterans in deep in conversation with parrots cuddled in their laps or leaning down from their shoulders. He figured he had nothing to lose. With Rainbow on a perch just above Thomas’ head, a conversation was begun.
What is unique about this place is not that the veterans talk to the parrots, it is that the parrots have also suffered from traumatic experiences – from capture to decades-long solitary confinement.
There are plenty of programs using animals to help people but here both species – human and parrot - suffer from very similar trauma-based disorders and both are healed from the relationships they develop. The parrots help the veterans increase their ability to empathize and forgive, and guess what? Vice versa.
Thomas will tell you that he, like many other veterans suffering from PTSD, might not be employed if he had to work indoors, confined to an office cubicle with people on all sides. “The tranquility of this place is what attracted me at first,” he says, but then adds, “but the birds are what keep me here.” At Serenity Park, care-giving for the parrots gives veterans back the sense of purpose they lost when they left military service. “I joined the military after 9/11 because I was needed, I felt valued by what I was doing.” The parrots help the veterans find a way to serve again. The bonds the vets make with the parrots provides a well-spring for veteran recovery and the parrots benefit as well!
Bobbi Socks in her sweater
Beauty in the eyes of the beholder
US Navy veteran, Matthew, and Picasso
Learning to trust is step one
Army Ranger and Dandy
Army Ranger shares his heart
Army veteran, Jeff, and Stevie
Birds of a feather
Lorin Lindner, author of Birds of a Feather, and Cashew