LETTS, Iowa – The shift begins at 7 a.m. with a cart full of bowls loaded down with the special of the day. Mike Hutchison said that it takes him approximately three hours to get all of his guests fed — an hour and a half if he shoots through it.
They’re a tough crowd to please, but the way he moves in and out of cages, through hanging rope and wood beams, Hutchison seems to have figured it out. He has had plenty of time. Hutchison is the founder and director of the Iowa Parrot Rescue in Letts, Iowa.
“First off, it was my wife’s fault,” Hutchison said. His wife Abi Hutchison was the assistant director of an after school program and one day in 1997, a mother sent her home with a canary. Soon, a friend eating dinner with them saw the canary and asked if the Hutchisons would take their bird. As these things tend to go, birds kept coming. They began keeping the birds in the living room and then they took over the bedroom. There just wasn't enough space. Hutchison had expanded the birds' living space into another bedroom and even up into the attic.
“Within only six months, there were nine birds in the house,” Hutchison said. “It grew organically. It was one room at a time so when somebody said, wouldn’t it be nice if we had a dedicated facility, we said, 'absolutely.'”
They received the seed money from an anonymous donor to build a facility down the hill from their house. Mike incorporated the Iowa Parrot Rescue and filed for nonprofit status. The facility went up in 2008. Then the Recession hit.
When disaster strikes, economic or environmental, Mike will often experience a spike in people trying to get rid of their large birds. As he walks by the fluttering figures, he’ll introduce them by saying, “Oh she’s a Katrina bird,” or “he’s from the recession.” Disaster has a way of filling up the place.
“We were running 25, 30 birds at a time,” Hutchison said. “And when the recession hit, suddenly we are running 75, 80. We had 100 (birds) a year coming in and being adopted.”
With rescues like this one so few and far between, Hutchison said that without the work they do, there might not have been anywhere for them to go.
“If we weren't here, people would be putting parrots on Craigslist, putting them on classifieds, and they would be transporting them to New Mexico or Colorado where there are opening. All of the sanctuaries have really long waiting list,” Hutchison said.
Hutchison knows that many of the birds will outlive him. They have a life span comparable to a human. With that long-term responsibility, it can be hard to find a home for them.
“A lot of these guys, you couldn't actually sell. In the first place, there is a glut on the market,” Hutchison said. “People have just bred so many, and most of these birds have been mishandled. They've been abused. They've been neglected. Some of them are in bad shape like these pluckers.”
“Pluckers” are what he calls the birds that have begun pulling their feathers or the feathers of their partner out. Hutchison said it’s akin to chewing on fingernails as a nervous habit.
“It's usually a depression. Sometimes it's chemicals in the air. Smoke. Air cleaners,” Hutchison said. “It becomes habitual. And then they don't stop and the follicles get scarred over.”
Knowing what can happen through mistreatment, Hutchison said he sets strict limits on how many the rescue will take.
“We won't overload. Once we hit capacity, then we have to find a home before we can take any more in,” Hutchison said. “We cannot give them a natural environment. We cannot make a perfect place for them. To do it perfectly, just these Macaws would have to have 100 square miles. It would have to be tropical with the right nut trees and fruit trees. Can't do it. We do the best that we are able with our resources in this climate zone.
"If I had my own way, none would be here. They wouldn't be pets. They'd be where they belong -- in the wild.”
After all, it’s important to remember that these are wild animals. Unlike dogs and cats, parrots were never domesticated, he said.
“These guys are at most two or three generations out of the jungle. They don’t have thousands of years of being bred to be around people. They aren’t bred to be dependent. They aren’t bred to be tamed. They aren’t bred to be taken care of."
This past year, the Iowa Parrot Rescue got a $50,000 grant from Bob Barker’s DJ&T Foundation that provides assistance to animal welfare organizations. Hutchinson used the money for improvements, including the addition of large solar panels for the rescue's roof in March.
“At night and on cloudy days, we're buying electricity,” Hutchison said. “But on a really clear day, we're generating twice as much as we are using. My electricity bill last month was seven bucks. Before these panels, it would run about $200.”
The facility received a new air conditioning system in June and in July some builders constructed an enclosed outdoor area for the birds to sunbathe in. Many of the birds outside are the huge and colorful residents that you imagine when you hear about a parrot rescue.
“The little guys fly in and out on their own,” Hutchison said. “But the big guys— they're just lazy. They only come out here if I carry them out. It depends on the weather and how they feel. A lot of them don't actually like to be out that much.”
Among his flock, Hutchison has a Macaw named Betty Boop. Betty has the elongated features of their bigger cousins but is just a size smaller. She has a brilliant green body and categorically refuses to be placed in her cage in the evening. Without a place like the Iowa Parrot Rescue, hard to handle birds like her might not have a place to go.