We recently chatted with Irena Schulz, founder of the avian rescue Bird Lovers Only, which is best known for being home of Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo. Just over two years ago, Irena posted a video of Snowball dancing to the Backstreet Boys and this Medium Sulphur Crested Eleanora Cockatoo skyrocketed to viral video fame.

Irena estimates (between the Bird Lovers Only YouTube channel and other places that hosted copies of the video) that Snowball’s dance moves have been seen at least 15 million times (if not more). Together, they’ve appeared on Letterman, Leno, Ellen, Bonnie Hunt, Inside Edition, Good Morning America, Animal Planet, CNN, MSNBC, FOX and hundreds of other TV and news shows, plus commercials, scientific journals and blogs, avian magazines and blogs, and radio shows around the world.

Irena took time out of her busy schedule to do an interview and answer some questions about Snowball’s amazing rise to popularity.

Tell us how this all started – what’s the story of Snowball’s Backstreet Boys video?

Snowball was relinquished to us in August of 2007. The owner (a very nice gentleman) brought his favorite CD to show us how he likes to dance. We played the [Backstreet Boys] tune while Snowball stood on my arm and a few seconds after the song started, this bird boogied his feet off!!! He was kicking his feet way up in the air in time to the music, bobbing his head, swaying, headbanging, the whole nine yards….all on my arm!!!! So we had to film this. This was just too unbelievable.

We put it on our blog www.birdloversonly.blogspot.com around Labor Day of 2007. We did not have a You Tube account and did not think to place this on there. We just wanted to break up some of the boring, monotonous educational information that we were posting with a video of a bird dancing his heart out. If you go to our blog and search back…that original video is one of the first 2 or 3 posts on our blog.

It was first seen on our blog and that was emailed around. I didn’t generate this, I just put it on the blog. Someone or perhaps a few people saw this in an email and decided to put it on their You Tube channel. This generated even more emails…it traveled around the world. It looked as thought the initial You Tube channel user was from Russia, but it has since been taken down by You Tube (the channel was still there, but the video was taken off). That video had generated 5 million hits on their channel at the time it was removed.

Another You Tube user urged us to put up a YouTube channel of our own and put him up there…she had even helped us get started with creating one. So his fame was complete accident…we hadn’t even done anything to encourage this…it just happened.

What did you do once you realized it was going viral?

I realized it was beginning to go viral when I began hearing from famous people. The biggest shock came when I received a call from The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno in Sept of 2007. I thought it was a crank call at first, but soon realized it was real. Especially when I opened my email and found an email from the show’s producer. What did I do? I knew I was not in the driver’s seat so I just went along for the ride. I’m a very spiritual person and I believe that everything happens for a reason…and only God knows what those reasons are. So I don’t question it…I just go along with it.

What do you think made Snowball’s Backstreet Boys video so popular?

The fact that it was ridiculously funny. In a world of overwhelmingly sad news, people want something that will make them forget how awful their day, week, month, year, or entire life is going. They need a release. Snowball was their release. They watched his innocence, his zest for life, his enthusiasm, his appreciation for music, his child-like playfulness, and his self-indulgent bow at the end to show he knew it was a “job well-done.”

What kind of interest did the video generate in your organization?

Many tv programs, news shows, newspapers, etc came for stories and interviews. Although questions were asked about our rescue and we were happy to give details about how large of a problem the rehoming situation is with parrots, those pieces were always edited out of the story because everyone wanted to know about Snowball. So one can go back to your previous question…the reason why the “sad” part of the story was always edited out was because people wanted the “happy” parts. When you find a release in your life (something that will make you happy), why would you want to ruin it with sad news? And I’m sure that’s how all the producers, reporters, writers felt…they were coming for an enlightening, happy story…they wanted this to stand out amongst all the terrible news in the world.

We received an exponential growth in calls and emails from people wanting to relinquish their birds. And…people would apply to adopt a bird, come here on the pretense that they were interested in adopting a particular bird, then ask to see Snowball. Then they’d leave without adopting. Many people were coming here…some were upfront and honest about just wanting to visit Snowball since they would be in the area. Visitors came from all over the country.

When someone sees Snowball’s videos on your YouTube channel, they see a “donate” button next to them. Has this been an effective way to turn interest in Snowball into support for your organization?

Yes, having the donate buttons have helped. I’m not sure if I would call it “effective.” The economy is bad and people are just not donating like they used to. There have been some steady donors …they donate on a monthly basis. Most donate in order to receive Snowball DVDs, shirts, etc.

In the subsequent videos you’ve uploaded, have you tried to emulate his earlier success to keep interest going?

No, we never intended to emulate the success of the first video. In uploading videos of him dancing to other songs, we wanted to show that he does like more than just the BSB. And with time, he has created new dance routines which are shown in subsequent videos. We teach him nothing…he creates these moves himself. Snowball LOVES to dance. So why not let the camera roll while he’s having a great time? If it turns out to be an entertaining video, we place it on You Tube for all to enjoy.

Music is therapy to Snowball…Snowball is therapy to millions. The scientist in me (I majored in molecular biology and worked as a researcher) continues to videotape him to capture him analyzing a tune, or snubbing it because it’s beneath his exquisite tastes. LOL

The main reason we don’t “try” to emulate his first viral hit is going back to my spiritual beliefs. Everything happens for a reason. If he is to have another viral hit, it will happen by accident. If he does not have another viral hit, that’s fine too…that would mean that there is a deeper purpose for his increasing fame than just his entertaining videos.

What are some of the most interesting places where the videos have appeared/or where people saw it that you’ve heard about.

Where do I begin? We have had 3 different Japanese film crews come here to film for different shows. We had a crew come here to shoot a commercial for a company in Sweden. Honestly, he’s been in hundreds (no exaggeration) of tv shows, news programs, magazines, newspapers, and radio shows around the world. I hear about his video popping up on the Bonnie Hunt Show (three times), Ellen (four times)…these are separate occassions.

The silliest requests come from two programs that I turn down each time they contact us…America’s Got Talent and The Gong Show! I hear about his videos appearing on blogs, programs, etc weekly. Not everyone is familiar with Snowball, so when they do see his video for the first time, it’s all over the blogs again.

What are some highlights of Snowball’s rise to fame?

There are two categories of highlights that I would need to lump them in. One category would be the actual appearances or experiences of being on certain programs. I was very impressed with Mike from the Mike and Juliet Show when we were there. He was actually late coming on stage because he came up to talk to me before the show. He was a genuinely nice man…not full of himself as so many others can be.

After Snowball and I were on the Mike and Juliet Show, we broke to commercial and I was about 20 feet or so away from Snowball. Juliet was leaning towards Snowball, holding out her hand to have him step up on her hand. I saw the “look” in his eyes and he began slithering towards her. I quickly ran to scoop him up just before her hand was within striking distance. I’m sure she was not happy that I didn’t allow her to ‘play’ with Snowball, but what she didn’t realize is that I had saved her pampered skin from vicious bites if I hadn’t.

Another amusing highlight was being on Letterman when Dr. Phil was on. I remember walking out after our segment and walking face to face into him with Snowball on my arm. One would think I could find some profound conversation to engage with this man…instead “Oh. Hello.” came out of my mouth and that was it. He did say hello in response, but I’m sure he wondered why I breezed by him without even asking for an autograph. Answer: although Snowball was wonderful with me while appearing on these programs, he was very ready to attack others…hence, we moved on to an area where he could invoke the least damage. There are way too many highlights to go into over the last two years (almost), so let me touch on the other category of highlights that really mean much more to me.

Those highlights are the quality people that I’ve met and befriended through Snowball.

I have a great deal of respect for the individuals who have come into my life because of Snowball. I befriended some email friends…these people started out as fans, but we continued writing to one another out of pure enjoyment of one another. The researchers that I now collaborate with on Snowball studies are extraordinarily wonderful people…very humble, personable, humorous, and yet professional.

And there is one highlight which I have to mention that I hold a special place in my heart for. A girl who just graduated from the eighth grade in New York. She began writing in emails last summer. She addressed all emails to Snowball. I didn’t know much about her, but she didn’t write much and what she did write was very hard to understand. She misspelled many words so much time was spent just trying to figure out what she was saying. Her name is Abby. When I wrote back I would sign the emails “Love, Snowball.” One day her mother wrote to me from her own email address. She explained that Abby was autistic and did not relate well to people, but she related beautifully to animals. The email from her mother was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read. She thanked me for writing to her as Snowball because her friendship with Snowball had made a difference. So when I write to Abby as Snowball I ask how her grades are coming along and I praise her when she earns good grades. I will correspond with this lovely little girl for as long as she chooses. She introduced herself as Snowball’s #1 fan in her original email last year, but she is my #1 highlight.

What’s the best thing to have come out of this?

Two things. 1) I’ve been able to reach many, many more people regarding responsible bird ownership through educating them on their needs, habits, etc. 2) Snowball brought the plight of the parrot to the forefront. Because of him, people now know that there are bird rescues and sanctuaries and, hopefully, will not purchase a bird on whim to end up in one when they realize that they have a high maintenance creature on their hands.

What’s next for Snowball and your efforts?

Because I am not in the driver’s seat, I can only HOPE that as Snowball’s fame increases, so will my chances of passing some meaningful legislation to protect parrots and to build rehabilitation facilities so that we can ‘teach’ these parrots how to forage for food in the wild, how to avoid predation, etc so that they can one day be introduced back into the wild and live their lives freely. Cockatoos come here with what seems to be the most severe behavioral problems…some were not only aggressive towards humans, but other birds as well. These are the birds that need to be introduced back into the wild (whatever their closest habitat should be).

Scientifically, we continue running studies on him which go on to benefit us in learning more about human movement disorders such as Parkinsons. Luckily, he enjoys dancing and is very happy to dance on film for us. When he gets bored, we quit so this doesn’t turn into work for him, but to keep it enjoyable for him.

Thanks to Irena for taking time to speak to us about Snowball. If you’d like to support the Bird Lover’s Only Rescue, please visit http://www.birdloversonly.org/ and purchase merchandise or make a donation.