Virginia parrot sanctuary hopes to spread its wings

AP Photo/The Daily Progress, Sabrina Schaeffer Richard perches in one of the aviaries at The Central Virginia Parrot Sanctuary while volunteer Elizabeth Lautenschlager visits with other parrots.

LOUISA, Va. — When he lost his life partner, Trent began brooding. Unsettled and unnerved by the sight of happy couples, the balding 30-something mostly keeps to himself in the corner of a sunny room in Matt Smith’s home off Ellisville Drive in Louisa County.

Sometimes, Trent hits on his roommate Gracie, Smith said. It never ends well.

“He’s just lonely and wants someone to be with,” Smith said, watching Trent watching Gracie and her boyfriend, Ruby. “Parrots will usually bond for life.”

Trent will not be alone much longer. Smith is in talks to welcome a blue and gold female macaw to his parrot sanctuary, one of less than 10 such accredited organizations in the nation, according to the American Sanctuary Association.

Landlord, caretaker and occasional cupid to 150 feathered wards, Smith, 35, is in his eighth year at the nonprofit he founded and named for a blue-crowned conure he lost to illness.

Project Perry, also called the Central Virginia Parrot Sanctuary, is in the midst of an expansion on its existing 15 acres and Smith has plans to more than double the size of his land. An adjoining 17 acres could be had for $60,000, he said.

He’s nursed a $150,000 annual budget with help from a core group of dedicated volunteers and just hired a development worker and part-time caretaker this year, Smith said. Most funding comes from individual donors, he said.

“It’s been tough for the past two or three years with the economic downturn, but we’re finally in a position to grow,” he said in a recent interview at his home, over the din of raucous “hellos” and “meows” from a few caged birds in his living room.

It’s a necessary anomaly at the facility in flux, which aims to have 100 percent of its birds out of cages and into rooms and aviaries by the end of the year. They are 95 percent of the way there, Smith said.

“Part of what makes a bird a bird is their ability to fly and flock,” Smith said. “They are incredibly social and they need space to be together and be who they are.”

Keeping birds locked up in small spaces for extended periods can exacerbate the behaviors that lead hundreds of people to reach out to Smith for help unloading their “problem” pets every year, he said.

“These are wild animals with wild instincts and when they are caged, that frustration can lead to aggression.

“A lot of times people see it as a nuisance, and it really can be frustrating to have a biting, destructive, loud parrot on your hands,” he said. “We see a lot of deep feelings of guilt from people who got into this for the right reasons, but weren’t equipped to deal with the long-term commitment.”

Some well-meaning people who love animals and want to help can overextend and end up hurting the very creatures they sought to protect, said Vernon Weir, director of the American Sanctuary Association. Weir said he had seen cases where people called themselves sanctuaries and turned around and marketed the animals on Craigslist, a classifieds website.

He said his team looks for warning signs on their accreditation site visits.

“Rustling birds up and sticking them in cages doesn’t cut it for us. If you’re going to spend your life there, I want and expect to see more than that,” Weir said. “We have a lot of faith in Project Perry.”

When a bird comes to Project Perry, it’s likely there for life. And life can easily mean more than 50 years, depending on the health and type of the bird, Smith said.

Smith keeps adoptions to a minimum and generally reserves that option for staff or volunteers, he said. The soaring, open aviaries he has built to house his rescued and re-homed birds are a better match for their needs, he said.

“My philosophy here is to provide a place where birds can live on their own terms,” he said. “It’s a place where birds can be birds.”

The only place at Project Perry birds can’t be? Smith’s room. “Everyone needs a sanctuary,” he said.

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The Daily Progress is published in Charlottesville.

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Information from: The Daily Progress, http://www.dailyprogress.com