October 16, 2012 @ 11:00 AM

In Gonzo’s memory
Our African Grey

Gonzo was born in the wild.  He was captured 26 years ago, banded and brought to the US.  His first mom chose him from a cage full of surviving young, scared African Greys at a local pet store.  She immediately set about the task of taming him. I can only imagine the difficulty of socializing a frightened baby bird that had been ripped from its homeland and natural habitat.  I understand the two of them spent many frustrating hours closeted in the bathroom…she would equip herself with a towel and treats and attempt to coax Gonzo into allowing a human’s touch. 

Although I have little details of Gonzo’s early days, apparently bird and owner drew their respective boundaries and came to a woman vs. wild understanding.  Gonzo was made comfortable in a large cage and he was the focal point of the family’s living area.  He learned to talk, mimic, whistle (oh how he loved to whistle) and carry on conversations.  The very few times we saw Gonzo over those years, it was noticeable that he was a plucker.  Was it possibly from his early stress?  Perhaps from both adults in the household being heavy smokers?  Maybe because his diet was peppered with too many sunflower seeds?  It is hard to know the real reason for his pink little belly. To some he may have looked like a skinny, plucked chicken but to me, he was a beautiful bird.

Gonzo was loved.  Nevertheless, as often happens within a bird’s lifetime, circumstances change.  His mom believed she had developed allergies to bird dander.  Her life style was altering as well and she wanted to find Gonzo a new home.  She offered him to our family and of course, I said yes!  When I was a youngster, my family always had a bird of some sort….from Parakeets to Myna birds.  I myself, in adulthood, had various small birds, eventually graduating to owning a cockatiel.  I had always longed for a large parrot…their beauty and intelligence captivated me. Therefore, with much excitement, we brought Gonzo into our home.

He was 18 years old at the time, the same age as my youngest daughter, Abigail.  They immediately bonded and became after school pals.  She taught him many words and sounds, some of which were not so pleasant on the ears!  He took great delight in calling to her when she would arrive home.  The conversation would go like this…

Gonzo:            Hey
Abi:                  What?
Gonzo:            Let me out!
Abi:                  No!
Gonzo:            Out!
Abi:                  No, I’m not letting you out!
Gonzo:            Let me out RIGHT NOW
Gonzo:            Ebeee, Ebee-Gail

Then a few “raspberries” would be hurled back and forth between the two.  It was quite comical.  He learned the sounds of the house, as many Greys do.  He would mimic the squeak of the kitchen cabinets, the beep of the microwave and answer the phone with a hello.  He learned to whistle to the dog, and call his name when he thought it was time for our Moe to come in from outside.  He would even make the same crunching sound that Moe made when he ate his kibble!

It took Gonzo almost two years to completely trust his new family.  He went from a bird that would not come out of his cage without being toweled (so his mom said) to a happy, maturing bird that loved to sit up at night and watch TV (commenting on various dialog) or badger us until someone would stop to pet his head over and over and over again!

Gonzo is somewhat to blame for our house that is now home to several parrots!  We enjoyed him so much that when we realized how many parrots were in need of permanent homes, we opened our hearts to a few more.  I could almost see Gonzo roll his eyes every time we would wheel a new cage through the back door.   
All the same, Gonzo was a confident bird and he was king of the flock.  He knew it and all the other birds knew it.  It was as if an unspoken bird code was laid down by the Gonz!  Most of our adopted birds came with “baggage”.  Some neglected, some frightened, some with little socialization…all needing love and patience.  However, Gonzo was our bright, unflappable bird!

Fast-forward 8 years.  Gonzo wasn’t much of a cuddle bug, happiest when we would pet his head, not usually wanting to be held.  We had Gonzo in our laps one evening in September, giving him some much-needed attention.  Nothing seemed wrong at the time.  The following two weeks were very busy for us and we hadn’t the opportunity to hold him again, only scratch his head in passing.  In late September, in apprehension, I realized that he’d been quiet all weekend, seemed hungrier than usual and not sitting outside his cage, as he was free to do. I cupped him in my hands and felt something horrible.  His keel bone was sharp, his breast concave.  I placed him down to examine him and his balance was off as well. 

With anxiety, I took him to our avian vet.  I knew something was terribly wrong and I knew the minute she held him, by the look on her face, that it was very serious.  The prognosis was not good.  He was diagnosed with Avian Borna Disease and his symptoms were already advanced.  His life was held tightly in the grip of ABD and there was little hope.  His was actually starving.  Gonzo was eating constantly yet he was retaining none of the nutrients from his diet.  His organs were shutting down and he was getting weaker by the day.   It was decided to begin scheduled hand feedings, daily antibiotics and the human drug, Celebrex (that has shown signs of success in treating the disease).  I was armed with the hope that something could be done to turn his health around. 

Each morning I would feed the flock, wrestle with Gonzo’s feeding, pack him up in his travel cage and off to work we would go.  I really think he quite enjoyed the 40-minute commute to and from my office.  I have six roundabouts to travel through on my route and I thought he would find it difficult to perch on the drive. However, with each turn, I would take a glance back at him, see him gripping tightly to his perch and hunker down as if he was surfing.  His eyes would be bright and he would bank with the curves like a pro.  I started to call him my surfer bird and shout to him to hold on as we approached a tricky turn.

The feedings were very difficult…Gonzo hated it; I hated putting him through it.  His only happiness came when he got a special treat afterwards for being a good bird.  My emotions were like a roller coaster…one minute seeing an improvement; the next feeling the pain of loosing the fight.  Surely, the formula was filling his little belly.  Certainly, he would gain his strength back!

I had much trepidation about his follow-up visit a week later.  The day of the visit, I believed there was a bit more spark in his eyes and he actually made our “love” sound a couple of times although remaining quite and sleepy the majority of the time.  I thought to myself, if he’s gained any weight, any at all, I would continue the feedings and we would get through this.

Sadly, we discovered he had lost another 2 grams… a rapid weight loss in one week, a fatal sign for any parrot.  I was faced with the harsh reality that he would not get better.  My vet was very patient with me, giving me the time to come to terms with the decision.  However, I could not bear to let him suffer any longer.
I held Gonzo in my lap, scratched his head, petted and held him tight until he fell gently to sleep.  I watched as the vet stroked his pretty-red tail feathers and then took him from the room.  I knew then that she had given us this precious week to be close to Gonzo, to give him our undivided attention, to let him know he was loved.

As I cried and closed the door of an empty cage, I suddenly remembered the dream I had the night before.  It played to the same finish.  However, in my dream, I had asked for Gonzo’s band to be removed…I was heartbroken that in the chaos of my emotions I didn’t make that request  At that moment, the examining room door opened, the vet peaked in and asked if I would like to have Gonzo’s band. Yes, Yes, Yes!

A few moments later, as I held his round metal band in my hand I realized the significance it represented.  Gonzo had come full circle in his life.  From a wild bird, banded, brought into our home, into our love, into our hearts, and now released to fly wild and free once more……