31 Virginia Macaws
Co-Written by Karen Windsor and Matt Smith
When Matt Smith walked out into the muddy field on the afternoon of May 12th, the scene was worse than he had imagined. Possibly worse than anything he had seen before. It had been cold and raining all day and the air was damp and raw. Matt, accompanied by Project Perry volunteer Bobbie DeBenedetto, Dr. Hillary Cook and Animal Control Officer Patricia Dahl approached the collection of 31 macaws, stuffed into cages that were stacked beneath two open-sided carport frames. Only one frame had a roof. The other was merely draped with a length of plastic tarp that had been blown askew, leaving the birds vulnerable to the elements.
The bird cages had been equipped with automatic feeders holding moldy seed and water dispensers half full with green, dirty water. Most had steel breeder boxes attached to the sides. The birds had been provided with "perches" made of 2X6 lumber. Many of these perches had fallen to the cage floors or had been chewed through, leaving the birds to cling to the mesh walls. The cages were rusted and decrepit, and droppings clung to the wire bottoms and collected in thick piles below the birds.
Droppings were as much as 12 inches deep in some places. Many latches, quick-links and even a wrench used as door fasteners were completely rusted, necessitating the use of bolt cutters in the removal of the birds from the old cages, suggesting that these cages had not provided temporary accommodations but had, in fact, been a long-time housing arrangement. The birds looked rough. They were dirty and nervous. Having been provided with absolutely no toys or enrichments in their small spaces, many of the macaws were plucked, having turned their beaks on themselves or on each other. Skin lesions and nodules were apparent on a number of them. They were understandably fearful and either cowered inside their cages or displayed aggressively when approached by the strangers.
Orange County Animal Control called in Matt Smith, the Founder and Executive Director of The Central Virginia Parrot Sanctuary, (AKA "Project Perry"), to assist in a situation that neither the Orange Humane Society nor Animal Control were equipped to deal with: a massive confiscation case involving 31 macaws.
According to animal control officers, the macaws had been abandoned in a field, accessible only by a 4X4 vehicle due to the rough terrain, and located approximately a quarter of a mile away from the home from which their guardians had been evicted several days earlier. Officer Dahl had brought Matt and Bobbie to survey the home prior to bringing them to the field.
The yard surrounding the home had been piled with mounds of trash and piles of waste that included feces, bird seed, plastic sheets and refuse lumber. Stray cats roamed the property, and an ailing horse had been removed by the authorities from a barn on the property.
Animal Control officials also called upon the assistance of veterinarian Hillary Cook to address the medical needs of the birds. Some of the worst cases were taken directly into veterinary custody. The rest were placed in quarantine at the Central Virginia Parrot Sanctuary or in temporary foster care with experienced CVPS volunteers. Medical examinations and disease testing commenced immediately. Many of the birds presented with respiratory issues, skin sores and infections including e-coli infections, which would prove to be stubborn and require a long-term, dedicated treatment regimen. Over $19,000 worth of medical care was administered to the macaws upon their rescue.
The birds had arrived dirty, smelly, malnourished and terrified of human contact. But in the following weeks at Project Perry, they blossomed. They were bathed, vetted and provided with nutritionally rich fresh vegetables, fruits, whole nuts and pellets. Many were placed in large community aviaries at Project Perry where they were able to roam, stretch their wings, swing, play and fly. They were offered gentle human interaction, and even those birds that had seemed completely unsocialized and unreachable upon their arrival began to respond and to seek playful interaction from their caregivers at the sanctuary and in their foster homes. It seemed that the lives of the macaws had finally turned around. If custody of the birds was won by the Commonwealth, and subsequently signed over to CVPS, several other reputable, accredited sanctuaries, including Foster Parrots in Rhode Island and The Oasis Sanctuary in Arizona were offering permanent sanctuary care to a number of these macaws.
The defendants, Dan and Sally Crosswhite, retained Matthew R. Paulson, to defend them against 27 charges of animal cruelty and 4 charges of animal neglect brought by the Commonwealth"s Attorney"s Office in Orange County Virginia in regards to the macaw case. Reportedly, a "Legal Defense Fund" was established by the Avicultural Society of America, a national organization that promotes the breeding of captive exotic birds for the pet market, to aid the Crosswhites in their defense. On June 20, 2008, the initial date of the seizure hearing, Mr. Paulson requested that the birds be released into the custody of Fred Smith whose "parrot sanctuary" was located in Florida. Fred Smith had reportedly driven up from Florida not only to serve as an expert witness for the defense but also with the defense's intention of placing the birds into his posession. But an investigative phone call by the Assistant Commonwealth"s Attorney prosecuting the case revealed that Fred Smith was actually the Director of the Florida Division of the American Federation of Aviculture, and that his facility was not a parrot "sanctuary" but rather, a parrot breeding facility. The prosecutor rejected the proposed agreement involving Fred Smith but offered the defendants an additional 3 weeks to locate a "certified" avian sanctuary that would be willing to temporarily hold the macaws for a period of 18 months. In addition, if the "restitution" (the vet"s bill) in the amount of $19,559.41 was paid within a 6-month period of time, the birds would be returned to the Crosswhites. If a certified avian sanctuary willing to temporarily accommodate the birds could NOT be located by the defendants, the case would go to trial, and the fate of the macaws would be determined by a judge in a court of law, based on the evidence presented.
There are only 5 accredited parrot sanctuaries in the United States, including The Central Virginia Parrot Sanctuary. There was little chance that any of the accredited sanctuaries would be willing to aid the defense and facilitate the return of the rescued macaws to those who had been charged in their abuse. Matt Smith and other concerned members of the national avian welfare community were confident that no such sanctuary would be found and that the case would go to trial. This would be the desired outcome. Based on the evidence, including veterinary records, photos, testimony from the animal control officer and additional witnesses involved in the case, it was speculated that the presiding judge would not be likely to rule in favor of the defense.
On or about July 1, 2008, Julie Murad, Founder and President of The Gabriel Foundation, an "avicultural parrot rescue and sanctuary organization," was contacted by "an individual acting on behalf of the defendants." Subsequently, Ms. Murad, upon being informed of the circumstances surrounding the confiscation of the 31 macaws, voluntarily accepted the terms of the plea agreement regarding the 31 charges against the Crosswhites. The Gabriel Foundation would take responsibility for the macaws. On July 9th, the morning of the scheduled hearing, Attorney Paulson announced The Gabriel Foundation as the "certified" facility that would assist with the birds. Ms. Murad offered a Loxahatchee, Florida based associate facility called "Luv Them Birds" as the temporary holding station for the macaws for the designated 18-month period. At the end of this period, the birds could be returned to the defendants.
According to statements posted on The Gabriel Foundation"s website, "Luv Them Birds" is a parrot breeding facility run by Julie Murad"s close friend and associate, Kathleen Szabo. Ms. Szabo has been involved with The Gabriel Foundation since its inception, and is also a Gabriel Foundation Board member. She heads Szabo Enterprises, LLC and is licensed in Florida to breed and exhibit specialty breed and hybrid cats as well as parrots. It is unclear why the "Luv Them Birds" breeding facility was deemed acceptable by the Commonwealth"s Attorney when the first breeding facility run by AFA Officer Fred Smith was rejected as inappropriate. But it would appear that the influence and participation of The Gabriel Foundation ensured that the Crosswhites, who had been arrested and charged with animal cruelty in connection with the confiscated macaws, would have the chance to regain custody of the birds.
Following the announcement of The Gabriel Foundation"s participation in the case, and the publication of a newspaper article by the Daily Progress, internet message boards and chat lists across the country came alive with debates over the particulars of the case. Familiar lines in the sand were drawn between aviculturists and welfarists. Despite photo and veterinary evidence of the abuse and neglect suffered by the birds at the hands of the Crosswhites, aviculturists insisted that the birds were well cared for by the defendants and that the legal system had stepped in under false pretenses. Welfarists supported the legal confiscation of the birds and condemned the participation of The Gabriel Foundation, not only for their participation on behalf of the defense, but also for TGF"s close ties to the breeding community.
Also, according to statements posted on TGF"s website, its Founder and President, Julie Murad was besieged by angry phone calls and e-mails denouncing her involvement in the case. Ms. Murad vehemently defended her position, insisting that TGF"s involvement had been mandated by the Orange County Virginia Court and that TGF"s only option was to abide by the ruling of the court. In fact, initial contact to The Gabriel Foundation was not made by an Orange County court official, but by "an individual acting on behalf of the defendants." Ms. Murad was not ordered by the court to participate in this case, but rather her agreement to participate at the request of defendants was accepted by the Commonwealth"s Attorney, made a part of the plea agreement and the Court entered this document as its final order in the case. Julie Murad has not yet acknowledged that she actually had a choice in whether or not to aid in the defense, and that the cooperation of The Gabriel Foundation actually served to facilitate the return of the macaws to their original abusers. To our knowledge, she has not outlined the investigation she conducted before agreeing to aid the defendants. Did she call the animal control officer, Matt Smith or any of the other witnesses to learn the facts of the seizure? Did she call Dr. Cook, the vet on the scene of the seizure and the doctor who had provided on-going medical care for the birds? Did she visit Project Perry"s website or contact any of the many highly respected avian welfare organizations associated with the CVPS to learn of its credentials? What first-hand information did she gather to determine that the defendants deserved to regain custody of the macaws after any passage of time? Had Ms. Murad taken the time to investigate the facts of the case and declined to assist the defendants, the perceived statement of non-support of parrot abuse by a unified rescue and sanctuary community would have forced a much different course of legal action in regards to the fate of the macaws.
On the morning of July 25th, the day of the court ordered transfer, Dr. Hillary Cook, two animal control officers, Matt Smith, two co-directors of Project Perry, a loyal group of volunteers and several from the media were on site at the sanctuary. Dr. Cook medically examined each of the birds prior to the transfer to the Animal Control officers. Despite the quality of care and veterinary services provided to the birds since their confiscation, several of the birds were still in need of medical follow-up care regarding their persistent health issues. One Greenwing Macaw named "Fred" with an acute respiratory condition was of particular concern. After the last macaw was examined and loaded into the back of the horse trailer used by the Orange County Sheriff"s Department to transport the birds, most present at the sanctuary that morning followed them to the Orange County Animal shelter.
Dan and Sally Crosswhite arrived at the county"s animal shelter to retrieve the birds in a non-climate controlled box truck. Spectators and CVPS representatives were shocked. On this 90 degree day, the interior of a box truck will heat like an oven. The only ventilation was a small opening between the cab and the freight portion of the truck. Even though the defendants knew on July 9th that they would be transporting the macaws to Florida, they forced the birds to wait in the horse trailer while they, animal control officers and even the sheriff assembled twenty-plus plastic kennels that they had arrived with at the shelter. The Crosswhites systematically transferred the macaws into individual carriers located in the truck. Although witnesses saw food and water dispensers that came with the kennels, the defendants did not attach these dispensers to the kennels and the Crosswhites did not provide food or water for the birds at that time. In addition, the witnesses to the transfer did not see any ties in the back of the truck to secure the kennels to the sides of the truck. Even furniture is tied down in the back of a box truck to ensure it will not be damaged during travel. Although this great concern was brought to the attention of the authorities, nothing was done.
Box trucks are designed for the transport of freight, not for passengers or living creatures. Soaring temperatures, lack of ventilation and the infusion of carbon monoxide from highway exhaust would not only pose a health and safety risk to the birds during their long journey from Virginia to Florida, but could kill the birds. Grave concerns surrounded the fate of all of the birds, particularly Fred, the Greenwing Macaw who was the weakest of the birds and whose aspergillosis impeded his respiratory function even under the best of circumstances. As cries of protest and disbelief echoed, only to fall on deaf ears, and while cameras snapped photos of Sally Crosswhite flipping her middle finger, the macaws, without food or water, were loaded into the back of the hot truck and taken away by their original abusers.
As of this writing, evidence of the condition of the birds upon their arrival to the Florida breeding facility has not been seen. While Ms. Murad has issued a statement claiming that all of the birds arrived safely, no photographs of the birds have been released, nor has their arrival been documented by officials unrelated to the breeding facility. However, under the plea agreement, the Commonwealth of Virginia has the right to monitor the birds" whereabouts and conditions. We will make every effort to hold Orange County Animal Control officers to their promise to check on the birds and communicate with the Animal Control agency in the county where they are located.
According to the terms of the plea agreement, at the end of the 18-month period, if all conditions of the agreement are met, to include payment of the vet bill, all charges of animal cruelty and neglect will be dropped and the macaws will be returned to them. Thereafter, the fate of these birds will be lost to obscurity. Unfortunately, documented studies of animal abusers show that their cycles of abuse rarely change.
It is unclear why a legal system, which initially stepped in to help 31 macaws from a situation of severe abuse and neglect would, in the end, turn its back on the birds and actually participate in returning them back to those who abused them. Despite protests from the crowd over the obvious inadequate and potentially fatal transportation arrangements designed by the defendants, the authorities were unable to intervene due to Virginia"s insufficient animal protection laws.
It is unclear why, if custody of the abused macaws had been removed from the Crosswhites, who continue to be accountable for 27 animal cruelty and 4 animal neglect counts, those macaws were actually returned and entrusted to the unsupervised care of the Crosswhites on the morning of July 25th.
It is unclear how a "parrot rescue and sanctuary organization" like The Gabriel Foundation can believe in the ethics of operating on both sides of the fence: rescuing unwanted parrots and soliciting funding for their care while simultaneously supporting "responsible" breeding and aligning oneself with the avicultural community. Based on our many accumulated years of experience within the avian welfare field, this co-mingling of diverse issues appears to be a complete contradiction of interests.
It is unclear why, in this day and age, in this Country, legal protection for a species as highly intelligent and socially sensitive as parrots is virtually non-existent. It is unclear why organizations like the American Federation of Aviculture and the Avicultural Society of America, which claim to be dedicated to the responsible care and breeding of parrots, continuously step in to defend despicable and undeniable situations of parrot abuse. It is also unclear why the national animal welfare and animal rights communities, with all their resources and large, well funded organizations, not only fail to organize and extend real help in legal situations of this nature, but still withhold interest in parrot issues altogether. Imagine...Michael Vick being allowed to choose the place to house the poor dogs involved in his dog fighting case, and personally transport them to that facility. Imagine...the hundreds of puppies rescued from the terrible breeding situation in TN being sent to another puppy breeder while waiting to be returned to their abuser? Why are parrots treated differently?
In the words of the head of one large national AR organization, "parrots just aren"t important enough."