People typically love exotic birds. They have beautiful, colorful feathers. They can talk. And they maintain an elegant look throughout their lives.
But it’s their lives that also can cause problems for their owners: Those same birds can live for 60, 80 or even 100 years. When you take a Macaw in as a pet, there’s an excellent chance it will outlive you.
And that’s just one reason why an exotic bird can be displaced from its home. Life changes, such as marriage, divorce and the addition of children can, which can leave a bird in need of a new place to live. And if it goes to a new family, it might only be a matter of time before another situation occurs and the cycle starts all over again.
But Wesley Chapel resident Patricia Norton is doing everything she can to prevent that from happening. Her original plans to open her own veterinary clinic more than 13 years ago changed when she decided to do something very different to help animals.
“I found that the need for a sanctuary was greater than the need for another vet clinic,” she said.
So Norton did just that, turning the one-acre property where she lives into the Florida Exotic Bird Sanctuary. It’s now the nation’s second-largest bird sanctuary in the United States, she said, and with 370 feathered residents currently, it’s actually the largest still accepting new birds.
With a small staff and some volunteers, Norton’s organization houses them, supplies them with 1,500 pounds of food (costing around $2,500 a month), and has a veterinarian visit the location every week to maintain their health. The birds are nursed back from injury or sickness if necessary, paired up when possible, and acclimated to their own species as well as an outdoor climate.
The end result is a safer environment, happier birds and a place for them to spend the rest of their lives, she said.
Norton, the organization’s president and executive director, is more comfortable with the title “Birdmother.” She’s also very hands-on when it comes to creating a safe environment for her lifelong guests.
The sanctuary builds its own cages, with the founder designing all of them herself.
“I lay awake at night designing,” Norton admits. “It’s something I enjoy. After about 13 years of building cages, I’ve pretty much come up with what I think is the perfect cage to meet all of their needs at a lower expense.”
Bird owners often help with the expense of building the cages their birds will use.
Those cage designs not only allow for more flight and interaction with fellow parrots (as well as isolation for those whose behavior indicates they’re not ready for full assimilation), they’re also designed to prevent adding to the overpopulation problem. Parrots that are accepted will never be adopted or sold into a private home, and the sanctuary doesn’t want them breeding, either.
Even though the birds can mate, they won’t lay eggs if the environment isn’t conducive to nesting, Norton said. The sanctuary designs cages so that won’t happen, meaning the birds can enjoy companionship without adding to its ranks.
Since there is no lack of parrots that need a good home, there are always more of them waiting for a spot than the sanctuary can accommodate. Rather than refuse new admissions, Norton wants the sanctuary to accept all requests, with room to grow. That means finding a bigger home for the sanctuary so they can provide a bigger home for more birds.
“We have probably another 200 on a waiting list, which is why we’re really needing to expand and put the funds together for the expansion project, not only to purchase the property, but to build new flight cages,” she said.
The sanctuary has selected a five-acre property in Hudson as its new home, and Norton’s goal is to have 1,000 birds under its care within the next five years.
While the changes are necessary, they’re also expensive: Norton estimates the new property will cost around $300,000, and must be raised even while the sanctuary goes through its estimated $6,000 in monthly operating costs. The sanctuary is more than a year into a capital campaign, called “Spreading Our Wings,” and is open for tours by appointment to raise awareness and attract interested donors to their cause.
They also keep their community presence high by participating frequently in Fresh Market at Wiregrass, the first and third Saturdays of each month at The Shops At Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel.
But regardless of their location, Norton is determined that the sanctuary will remain a safe haven where owners can bring their parrots with a sense of relief and a clear conscience.
“I’ve had people get in their cars and drive all the way from Michigan, Wisconsin and all the way across the country to bring parrots here,” she said. “And that’s only because they feel very secure that these birds are going to be safe here.”
For more information about the Florida Exotic Bird Sanctuary, or to schedule a tour, visit FlaBirdSanctuary.com, or call (813) 545-5406.
Published Feb. 12, 2014