A flash of turquoise feathers amidst the foliage. An overly friendly mallard. A lone white goose left on the pond after its counterparts sought warmer waters. Jennifer Belland and her team of volunteers at The Parrot’s Umbrella are accustomed to all kinds of calls from concerned members of the public about pet birds in strange locations. But recently, Belland says the number of incidents has grown exponentially.
“We noticed it last fall. In the spring everybody opens their doors and [birds accidentally] fly outside, but for some reason we started seeing birds outside in October, November. I have one friend who found two budgies outside who are missing feet because they were in the snow in February.”
And no one is looking for them. Belland says that only around one of every 50 lost birds is reunited with its owner. Domestic birds, even larger breeds such as geese and ducks, cannot survive in the wild due to predators and starvation. In June, she opened up another foster home to accommodate the deluge of birds found outside, adding to the organization’s volunteer-operated homes in Northfield, Saint Cloud, Roseville, and Saint Paul.
“Once spring 2021 hit, you could look at any city in the state and there would be [domestic] birds outside. That is when we started to get worried,” Belland explains.
Belland uses the term “pandemic pet” to refer to animals taken into homes when social isolation made people believe they would have time to care for them. She says people often underestimate the time and attention birds require and do not realize that four birds can quickly turn into 40. Eventually, shelters filled and many pets were tossed into the wild.
“We are seeing mass releases of animals. Eighty budgies let go in Moorhead. In two weeks, I got calls from three different people to surrender 15, 23, and 50 finches. Last year we had a call for 75 parakeets from one house.”
In March 2020, Belland became inundated with adoption requests. She foresaw that many people were not prepared to own birds long term. After temporarily halting adoptions for this reason, she discovered that some of those she turned away ordered eggs online and depleted pet stores.
DJ Mans is the owner and founder of Rabbit Rescue of Minnesota. Her organization — with foster homes throughout the Twin Cities and surrounding areas — is similarly overloaded with domestic rabbits, both surrendered and found outside.
During the early pandemic, Mans had record-breaking adoptions — as high as 18 per month. “People were home; they had the time, energy, and desire to have a new pet. Now we are finding [domestic] rabbits on the street,” she says. For comparison, three rabbits were adopted in September 2021.
Since 2018, Mans and her team “take in the rabbits that nobody else will.” These are rabbits that have been dumped outside, raised in meat farms and fur farms, and surrendered by owners who “will not make time for them anymore.” Rabbit Rescue dispatches volunteers to capture “freed” pets in the wild.
Mans says a large part of her work is education around care of domestic rabbits, which do not belong in cages and cannot survive in the wild. Mans’ organization does extensive background checks, home visits, and follow-ups with adopters. “There are other places in town where you can go in, write a check, and take a bunny. We just do not do it like that,” Mans says.
Belland agrees that pet stores have a role to play in the current crisis for not properly educating people. The pandemic paused education outreach efforts many rescue organizations conducted in stores. “If someone wants to buy a bird, [many chains] cannot say no [due to corporate policy]. They also cannot take them back after 30 days,” Belland says.
Most of the birds found outside are only a couple of years old. If well taken care of, smaller birds can live 20 years. Larger birds can live up to 90 years. “These are more than pets — these are sentient beings that help people,” Belland says.
Belland was working as a behavior therapist when she experienced an incident at work that resulted in traumatic brain injury. She recovered in the company of her pet cockatoo. “He was basically the reason I stayed alive,” she says.
Belland founded The Parrot’s Umbrella in 2018. In addition to rescuing birds, it helps prevent surrender through a variety of free support and education initiatives. Depending on a person’s needs, volunteers clean cages, temporarily house birds, work with those in recovery to rebuild their caregiving skills, and even help with veterinarian bills.
“Our senior citizens have had their birds for 20, 30, 40 years,” Belland says. “I do not think that getting older means you should have to give up the things that are important to you.”
Adding to the overload are birds whose owners were hospitalized due to Covid-19. She is also handling requests from family members who have “inherited” flocks.
One bird has been with Belland since February. His owner was supposed to exit transitional care in June but is still waiting for home care because of staffing shortages. A woman who contracted Covid-19 now has a heart defect. “What we were expecting to be a boarding foster situation turned into a surrender,” Belland says. “She bought her bird to keep her company last summer.”
Belland is also seeing increasing incidents of violence against animals. She attributes the rise to people working from home and feeling pandemic-related financial and emotional strain. Sometimes threats against an animal mean there is violence against others in the home.
“I break up fights at least once a week on the phone — people screaming at each other. That is not normal,” she says. (The night after our interview, Belland fielded two violent calls. In one instance, an animal in the home perished.)
Belland has numerous “secret homes” throughout the state to board birds whose owners are escaping violent situations. She has three cockatoos currently in her care that recount hateful speech in mimicked human voices.
“Most [domestic violence] shelters do not take birds,” Belland explains. “We had a couple of clients who had to go into hiding or were working on getting orders of protection. There were threats against their animals, so we boarded them until they were safe.”
Many volunteers with The Parrot’s Umbrella have backgrounds in human services. “If they want, we will work as a team [with clients] to get them resources,” Belland explains. But “the calls that we are getting now are much further along than we can necessarily help with.”
“A lot of bird people do not have kids. Their birds are like their families,” Belland says. “We try to keep families together, but we are having a really hard time lately.”