Birds of a Feather

December 23rd, 2010 by Charles Siebert

This inter-species therapy program at Los Angeles’ Serenity Park is a restorative haven for rescued parrots and war veterans alike.

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This past summer, as she often does in her line of work, Lorin Lindner took part in a panel discussion in Los Angeles about post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Lindner, a clinical psychologist, has spent more than twenty years trying to help war veterans overcome their trauma. After the panel, she spoke in private about the difficulties of penetrating the very thick walls of despair and disassociation that returning war vets often build around themselves.

It’s a challenge that Lindner, now in her mid 40s, decided to make her personal responsibility back in the waning days of the Vietnam War. She was too young then to act on her outrage over that conflict’s ruinous effects on soldiers, including the rejection they often felt upon returning to their own country. But she’d eventually start her career as a counselor with a Los Angeles-based trauma recovery program called New Directions. In the typical group therapy sessions, she said, the vets would sit about in circles, cross-armed and tight lipped, refusing to open up about what they were going through. Then one day, she hit upon a different, less orthodox approach, one that she has stuck with ever since.

“I took the vets to talk with other trauma victims,” she said, smiling cryptically. “Just not ones of their own species.”

The following day, I decided to take up Lindner on her invitation to give me a tour of the revolutionary new sanctuary she has founded for trauma victims. Her directions led me to the far edges of the grounds of the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in West Los Angeles. I parked in a dirt lot just behind the outfield fence of the UCLA baseball stadium, got out, and followed a narrow dirt path through a verdant, jungle-like patch of palms and eucalyptus to a pair of opened gates marked “Serenity Park” – a name belied at that very moment by a deafening squall of squawking parrots.

“You came,” a very excited Lindner exclaimed as she walked out to meet me and then led me inside. “Come along, I’ll show you around.”

Set there before me were two long, parallel rows of giant, walk-in wire pens that contained an array of brashly-colored birds; the fine mesh of the pens arched so high into the surrounding forest as to meld with it, seeming to render the birds wild and free again. Each one peered wide-eyed and nodded knowingly as Lindner introduced it: Gerard, an African gray Lindner rescued in 1997 from a woman who kept him in a drawer because she couldn’t afford a cage; Samantha, a salmon-crested cockatoo that had been abandoned in a for-sale house because the owner felt she went perfectly with the living room décor; Bobbi, an Indonesian cockatoo named for the way she dances and bobs to music and human affection; Lola, Corky and Sherman, giant macaws who all outlived their owners, as long-lived parrots often do, and were lucky to end up at Serenity Park, where the three are now inseparable.

On and on it went: cockatoos, macaws, Amazons, Indian Ringneck parakeets, all orphans of human keeping, yet still dependent on our continued company and affections. Anything but the “bird-brained” mimics of popular conception, parrots are extremely sensitive and social, two traits that, as scientists are now coming to understand, impel the evolution of larger, more sophisticated brains like our own. Such brains are at once highly perceptive and more susceptible to psychological wounding. When Lindner first brought a group of homeless vets to help with the construction of a new parrot sanctuary she was building in nearby Ojai, Calif., there was an instant, tacit dialogue and understanding between the respective outcasts.

“It was incredible,” Lindner says. “I’d been working for weeks to get these guys to open up and here they were cuddling and cooing and talking with the parrots. It’s not the sort of thing you read about in psychology textbooks, but the results speak for themselves.”

What soon evolved is the sort of symbiotic relationship only we humans could fashion: an inter-species therapy program, aptly named “Birds of A Feather” by Lindner, in which parrots and humans heal each other’s psychological wounds through common, empathic communication. The parrots no longer manically rock back and forth out of loneliness, or refuse food, or self-mutilate by plucking out their own feathers. The vets, in turn, begin to come around as well. A number have been able to break the cycle of drugs, alcohol and homelessness thanks to the deep connection and sense of responsibility they’ve come to feel toward other beings in similar need. They are also being paid for their work at Serenity Park as keepers – for many, their first jobs since returning to civilian life.

The keepers aren’t the first thing one notices on first setting foot on the grounds, amidst the squawking blotches of sentient color perched all around. One disabled vet, a former Desert Storm Marine named Melvin LaRue, had fallen into long-term substance abuse after leaving the service and lost his job; now he rolled past in a pickup truck and waved. A current supervisor of operations in charge of hiring and training new veterans, he also just earned his commercial driver’s license.

Soon another vet, Matthew Simmons, stepped up and introduced himself. A strapping, tautly-built, fast-talking figure in a sleeveless T-shirt and camouflage cargo pants, he immediately commandeered the tour, taking me into the pens for up-close meetings with the various parrot patient-therapists, giving the lowdown on their personalities and peccadilloes even as they crawled around on his shoulders, nibbling and pecking at his ears. Lindner stood by all the while, proudly looking on.

Simmons, it turned out, had been a special-ops officer in Iraq, a veteran of both Desert Storm and Desert Shield. He would go in undercover in advance of a planned attack, to work out the logistics and retrieve specific coordinates. He wouldn’t talk about what he’d experienced while in action, but when he returned to the small Ohio town where he had once been a high-school football star and college All-American, he said, he was a hollowed-out shell. He medicated his pain with heroin, alcohol and prescription drugs; eventually he lost his six-figure job as a computer software manger. Repeated group therapy sessions at his local VA Center worked to no avail. As a last resort, a clinician who’d heard of Lindner’s work in Los Angeles actually prescribed “parrot therapy” for him.

“It’s strange,” Simmons said. “They’re so smart and so sensitive, but there’s no pressure to try to explain to them what you’ve been through. And somehow that is what allows you to.”

Simmons so took to his new role as parrot keeper that he turned down his former company when they offered him his old job back. He is now the manager of Serenity Park, overseeing the progress and welfare of both the parrots and his fellow vets. He has also started his own successful cage-building business in the greater Los Angeles area to help people who keep wild parrots as pets to at least give them the best life possible. And somewhere in the midst of it all, he and Lindner fell in love. Just last year, they got married.

“We had the ceremony here, of course,” Lindner beamed as an adoring gallery bobbed and squawked all around. “Right in front of the whole family!”

Charles Siebert is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and is the author most recently of “The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals.”