Why the Caged Bird Does Not Sing

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Why the Caged Bird Does Not Sing

By Gay Bradshaw on Zoe: It's Our Nature, October 2011

Birds kept in cages routinely suffer from Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

When you’re about to see scenes of violence on TV, you usually get a warning saying that “the following material contains scenes of a disturbing and violent nature” and “discretion is advised.”

Yet you will see no such cautions posted in pet stores or zoos, for one plain and simple reason: caged animals are socially and culturally acceptable. Screaming parrots, pacing tigers, swaying stereotypic elephants, and orcas with vacant eyes pressed to the glass aquarium wall are not considered harmful to eyes and minds of children or others. Bars, glass, and other barriers behind which wildlife are interred are portrayed as only slight alterations of an animal’s natural habitat and history.

But captivity is far from natural. Compared to free-living animals in the wild, inmates of zoos and other captive institutions are haunted by a suite of maladies and premature deaths. Elephants who range across African savannahs and Asian jungles, and parrots who fly through the tree tops of verdant forests never exhibit the gaping, weeping wounds of self-mutilation that disfigure their captive counterparts.

Like POWs, concentration camp inmates, and victims of domestic violence, caged and confined birds are all candidates for Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

What is Complex PTSD?

Psychiatrist Judith Herman created the category of Complex PTSD to bring attention to the profound effects that captivity imposes on the prisoner, because a simple PTSD diagnosis often fails to capture the severe psychological harm that occurs with prolonged, repeated trauma.

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs describes victims of long term trauma as those who have been “held in a state of captivity, physically or emotionally. In these situations the victim is under the control of the perpetrator and unable to flee.” They sustain “a prolonged period (months to years) of total control by another.”

The same symptoms listed for humans suffering from chronic victimization are found among caged parrots. Brain structures and processes governing emotion, cognition, stress regulation in birds and humans are comparable. Like humans “who [have] been abused repeatedly,” parrot trauma survivors are misdiagnosed and blamed for the symptoms of their suffering and “mistaken as someone who has a ‘weak character’.” Similarly, parrot trauma is often dismissed as “bad” or “problem” behavior in need of “training” or punishment.

When examined through the lens of Complex PTSD, the symptoms of many caged parrots are almost indistinguishable from those of human POWs and concentration camp survivors. These include emotional disturbances, consciousness disturbances, and difficulty in forming normal relationships.

As reported in this scientific paper, severely traumatized cockatoos who are rescued and receiving treatment at the innovative sanctuary, Midwest Avian Adoption & Rescue Services, Inc (MAARS) commonly exhibit “rapid pacing in cage, distress calls, screams, self-mutilation, aggression in response to [human and other bird] physical contact, nightmares, insomnia, and self-mutilation.” Parrots are considered to be some of the most highly social species who bond for life and live in complex, closely knit flocks. However many rescued or abandoned parrots who come to sanctuary are so severely traumatized that they will not form relationships with humans or birds.

Here’s an example of Complex PTSD as diagnosed in B.B., an umbrella cockatoo at MAARS:

“His relational overtures are conflictive and confusing. He will sing and “dance” as a way to get attention, but when a caregiver responds, his only response is sexual or highly aggressive (e.g., attacks, bites). He never shows affection to humans or other birds, and shows depression and lack of self-confidence and esteem (e.g., flat-crest, withdrawn, lack of affect).

“He will “fly into a rage” (e.g., scream incessantly, move erratically in his cage at the same time, and exhibit attacking behavior) if there is an unexpected noise or a stranger comes into the room. His moods and behavior are highly unpredictable.”

Other cockatoos in recovery at the sanctuary would sit in the back of their cage day and night without moving, stare off into space in a trance, and make loud distress calls and screams upon being left alone or removed from significant others.

In captivity, a parrot’s bond with humans is a double-edged sword. Humans are the source of food, water, and life itself, yet also an instrument of threat and death. When parrots are rescued and brought to sanctuary, they often have difficulty trusting their human caregivers. One case is Lola who was rescued and cared for by Marc Johnson and Karen Windsor of Foster Parrots, Ltd, another sophisticated sanctuary.

Karen recounts a piece of his story:

“Lola is an old, wild-caught, male Green-winged Macaw who was brought to Foster Parrots in 2002. He was missing an eye. He had broken bones in his feet and wings. He had no tail at all. A bald spot on the top of his head revealed a slightly concave skull fracture. These were all old injuries suffered at some point in his distant past, leaving him with a seizure disorder that would periodically grip, shake and paralyze him. It was speculated that he had been the victim of a dog attack. But the real tragedy lay in the fact that, subsequent to his injuries, he was delegated to a dog crate and kept in complete isolation in the basement of his guardian’s home for several years. . .

“After all of these years we’ve been together, Lola still does not welcome petting. Only when a seizure has ripped through his body and left him partially paralyzed will he surrender to human love and comfort. I will lay him down on my chest and gently pet him and massage his stiff leg. He lays his head down and listens to my heartbeat. But when he’s done with me, he’s done, and then he rejects me completely. It’s ok. For all the pain and all the loss this old bird has suffered at the hands of humans, I deserve to be rejected. At the same time I am also certain that he knows how much I care for him.”

These are a few reasons why birds in cages do not sing. And if they do, we can only marvel at their love of life and perhaps hope for a future other than the ones we have condemned them to.


Gay Bradshaw Ph.D., Ph.D. is Executive Director of The Kerulos Center. She is the author of Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us about Humanity, an in-depth psychological portrait of elephants in captivity and in the wild. Her work focuses on human-animal relationships and trauma recovery of species that include elephants, grizzly bears, tortoises, chimpanzees, and parrots. She writes the Bear in Mind blog on Psychology Today.