Here’s a riddle. How is building a relationship with an animal like taking a trip?
You’ll feel like a stranger, there might be diarrhea involved, and you’ll learn things that will change you forever.
Pet Travel Thursday – The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
Although the point of Pet Travel Thursday is to review books that talk about traveling with pets, I decided to break away from that constraint a little by reviewing a film that will make you want to travel to see some amazing animals in their wild (although not native) state.
Documentary filmmaker Judy Irving had been filming seabirds around San Francisco when she began noticing a flock of parrots. People told her about the man who fed the parrots and studied them.
But as the filmmaker got to know Bittner better, she saw the relationship he had developed with the birds. He had observed the birds so carefully and so long that he was able to distinguish between them, recognize their offspring, and understand their natures. The resulting film, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, explores the relationship between a man and a flock of parrots.
Animals Change Us…If We Let Them
When Mark Bittner began observing the birds, it was just idle curiosity. Where did they come from? Could he coax them into approaching him for food?
He didn’t think the birds would have a big impact on how he lived or thought about animals.
But then he met Tupelo.
During several springs, young parrots came down with a mysterious illness. In their weakened state they were vulnerable to predators and even other parrots. Bittner would occasionally bring one of these ill birds into his home to keep it warm, feed it, and give it a chance of recovering enough to be released.
Tupelo was an affectionate bird. At night, Bittner would pick her up to rest on the bed beside him while he read. One night, when he picked her up, Bittner felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude. At first, he didn’t understand what he was feeling. But he came to realize it was coming from Tupelo.
When it was time for bed, the fragile bird had to go back on the floor so she wouldn’t be crushed. And as he placed Tupelo on the floor, he again experienced a rush of emotions coming to him like a message—regret, sorrow.
When he awoke, Tupelo was nowhere to be found. He eventually found her dead, under the heater.
In watching the film and reading Bittner’s book about the birds, I got the sense that he was shocked by his response to Tupelo’s death. Afterwards he was unable to speak to anyone for three days. And he felt burdened by regret for not being with Tupelo when she died. He hadn’t meant to be changed by interacting with the birds. But he was.
Bittner mentioned a few times in the film and the book that he was afraid of being considered eccentric. And he had trouble talking to a local bird expert because he tripped over his words trying not to be anthropomorphic. But eventually he couldn’t escape from the fact that he had developed relationships with some of these birds. And that they weren’t really that different from us.
As Bittner stated in the film, “They’re afraid of death. They’re afraid of injury. They’re afraid of being alone. Like us.”
Seeing the Wild Parrots in San Francisco
Yes, it has beautiful architecture. And the setting on the bay can’t be beat. You’ll find great food and bookstores. But when I got off the ferry, my first stop was Telegraph Hill—to look for the parrots.
It was late in the afternoon. Dozens of birds were sitting in the trees as I walked up the Greenwich steps. The loud screeching was unlike anything I had ever heard on a city street. And as the flock got the alarm, they took off in a rush of green that stood out against the grey sky.
Many people think you need to escape the city to experience nature. But nature is stronger than buildings and paving and human destructiveness. If humans disappeared from the earth, nature would reclaim Manhattan in a matter of months.
Nature—yes, altered by human intervention—is everywhere. And a huge flock of wild parrots is one way nature expresses herself in San Francisco.
Something Wagging and Wild Parrots
If you’ve been coming by Something Wagging This Way Comes for a while, you know that I’m fascinated with the human and animal bond. And not because I’m an expert on it or particularly good at building relationships. But because I believe we need to be open to life-changing experiences to be fully human.
Learning from and loving animals is one, very powerful life-changing experience.
It doesn’t have to be. You can have a dog that you let out in the back yard and pet absent mindedly while you watch tv just like you can travel to a new country and never eat anywhere but McDonald’s or make no attempt to speak a new language.
Learning what animals think and feel and what motivates them is exciting. It opens us up. That’s what Mark Bittner learned from his involvement with the parrots in his Telegraph Hill neighborhood. And it’s what we learn every day with our own dogs, cats, bunnies, birds, guinea pigs…
In future reviews for Pet Travel Thursday, I hope to explore ways that traveling and animals can open us to new ways of viewing the world. Can you help me?
What books have you read about pet related travel? Anything you can recommend?
And don’t forget to stop by my review at A Traveler’s Library where you can see a trailer for the film and learn more about the amazing setting.