Last night I attended a showing of A Place to Land, a 30-minute documentary about the different circumstances of parrots, and in particular rehomed and sanctuary birds. The film won a national Student Academy Award in 2009.

A Place to Land - Documentary Film

The venue for the screening was a tiny community arts group in DC that hosts film screenings and discussions with filmmakers. There were only half a dozen people in attendance including me, the organizers, a veterinarian, a biologist and the film’s producer, Lauren DeAngelis.

Of the group, three were “bird people” and I was the only one who still had pet parrots, which fact made me de facto (and by orders of magnitude) the craziest person in the room.

The Film: A Place to Land

The film itself starts with discussion about some of the ways parrots find themselves “homeless” and different types of stereotypic behaviors that can arise from stress. We are introduced to Phoenix Landing via interviews with Ann Brooks, the organization’s founder, as well as Liz Wilson, parrot behavior consultant, and a few PL volunteers.

Watching the interview with Ann as she talks about the genesis of the organization (now one of the largest parrot welfare nonprofits on the East Coast) was tremendously moving. (Later, during the discussion, the veterinarian among us, paraphrasing Liz Wilson, said that a peculiar quirk about parrot owners is that they love birds while simultaneously being wracked with guilt over owning them. It was a profound observation that beautifully illustrates the emotion that was evident in Ann’s story about her first macaw.)

The film then moves on to tell the stories of parrots in different sanctuaries across the country. There are some really heart-breaking stories of parrots who have suffered awful abuse, but recovered with the right care and TLC. There are also some great stats and quotes about the challenges facing parrots in captivity, and what will happen as baby boomers age and a huge influx of parrots enter the “system” in need of new homes.

A Place to Land then changes direction with a look at Chris Biro and his dedication to free flying his parrots in the desert of Utah. By contrast to the swaying, plucked birds in the scenes just a few minutes earlier, Biro’s (and Susan Hilliard’s) macaws look magnificent, soaring against the desert backdrop. In the outdoor interviews, Chris talks about how avian biology presumes flight, and how parts of a parrot’s air sacs can’t fully inflate unless the bird is in flight. His commentary coupled with the sight of his birds frolicking in nature, make a compelling case that parrots are meant to fly.

On that note, the film concludes. It leaves the audience feeling a bit more hopeful and optimistic.

And that was actually my (only) real quibble with the film.

The Discussion: A Variety of Perspectives

I kind of felt like a jerk, leading off the Q&A asking a question that kinda sorta seemed to indicate that perhaps I had some misgivings about the implied narrative arc, and that one could perhaps interpret the film as telling a story of progress from “the terrible plight of captive parrots” to the uplifting conclusion of free flighted birds doing what they were born to do, and perhaps this could give people the wrong idea about what is the “right” course of action for their pet birds. If that was the wishy-washiest sentence you’ve ever heard, that’s basically how I felt asking it. It was with some relief that the filmmaker immediately understood what I was getting at and didn’t take offense. She mentioned that in hindsight she didn’t think there was enough of a disclaimer about the downside or dangers of attempting free flight.

Although Chris Biro did talk about the need for training, neither he nor the film went into detail about just how much dedication it takes and just how often owners lose their birds due to improper precaution, lack of training and environmental hazards.

It was a pretty interesting discussion, alternating between questions about the process of filmmaking and details of pet ownership. There was a bit of talk about the difficulties of free flight (and how a bird won’t automatically return simply because it is “imprinted” on humans), but we talked about everything from the number of birds waiting for adoption, to the overall cost of a parrot above and beyond the purchase/adoption cost, to the implications of wild flocks/invasive species, to the film new Pixar film RIO.

One thing I found really interesting is that one of the audience members (someone with no experience with birds) concluded after watching the film that parrots shouldn’t be pets at all. He seemed to feel very strongly.

Another member, a veterinarian who actually now worked on the regulatory side of aviculture, said: “It’s complicated.” Indeed, you can’t simply outlaw America’s third most popular pet. I mentioned that Europe has much stricter laws concerning the minimum standards of care than the U.S., but that’s not necessarily the easiest/best solution either.

Lauren pointed out that there are good parrot owners out there. Not sure if that answered the gentleman’s objection, but I do feel like that needed to be said. Yes, I’m one of those guilt-ridden parrot lovers but I do also see quite a number of birds who are healthy, happy and well-adjusted. No, they’re not flying free in their native rainforest… but they are also well-fed and in no danger of starving, being eaten by a predator or any challenges wild animals contend with.

I fear that perhaps I dominated the conversation too much, given that I wasn’t the person people came to see, but I can get pretty carried away when I feel passionate about a topic — and I feel passionate about the work Phoenix Landing does! Given how well I think the discussion went, it was almost a shame that the educational message didn’t reach a larger audience (but then again, I think the intimacy helped to facilitate the dialogue).

Getting the Word Out

Based on the experience I had, I think that a screening of A Place to Land would be a great event for bird clubs and avian welfare organizations to have with members. It could open up a lot of discussion, and under the guidance of knowledgeable parrot people, issues like free-flight risks could easily be addressed. It’s long enough to touch on some interesting topics, but definitely short enough not to tax anyone’s attention or create undue burden on workshop organizers.

If you haven’t seen the film, here’s the trailer and it’s also available on-demand online:

I’m hoping to get Lauren, the producer, to do an interview here on this site. If you’ve seen the film and have questions for her, please leave them in the comments and I may use them in the Q&A.