By Daniel Salomon
While going through a recent crisis, my parents gave me as a “gift,” two free-range parakeets, which lived with them, to stay with me, to help with my loneness, to live with me, as I was making a transition from a living situation and a life, which was not working, to a much better place-physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Since questions like “do animals have souls?” or “do animals go to heaven?” are important faith questions for me, as both a Christian and an animal liberationist, and since I have formal theologically and scientific training, in this area, I jumped at this opportunity, to document how deep, my parakeet’s spiritual and religious capacities, potential, and growth, can go, and how deep I can reach my parakeet’s, spiritually and religiously, through interspecies communications.
As a result, Mordecai, who is now diseased, and his mate, Golda, gave me the deepest window into the “soul of an animal,” I have ever been able to personally witness, up to this point in, my life or career.
More so, than Wounded Healer, the Canada Goose, that I wrote about in Creation Unveiled: the Implications of Girardian Theology on Environmental and Animal Issues (Xulon Press, 2003). Even more so, then the work I did with wild groundhogs and domesticated cats, in Human-Animal Reconciliation: Franciscan Faith-based Interspecies Communications and Its Implications for Wildlife Management (Amazon.com, Kindle Store, 2008).
Mainly, I found the way into a bird’s heart is through music, giving me an appreciation for the power of music, which I did not have before. In other words, Brother Mordecai, become my music tutor, who taught me, a course in music appreciation. Teaching me that music has the power to animate and even transform, one’s emotional and mental, state.
Mordecai was a brilliant, rich, sky blue, male parakeet, who was married and mated, to Golda, a magnificent, sunshine yellow, female parakeet.
The two parakeets got along with each other with minimal conflict, where they lived together, for years, “loving one another,” at my parent’s place, at the other end of the county, as free range parakeets, with only initial wing clippings, until they moved in with me, last fall.
The parakeets, while they lived at my parents place, lived in a sunroom, combined as a casual dining area, with access to the rest of the room and the house, although they staked out the area near the ceiling to floor, as their territory.
Staking-out, prime parakeet habitat, a virtual parakeet’s paradise, for they were lovingly placed, in a well traveled area, which also provided ample opportunities, for them to be able, to retreat from family members, when they wanted to, or needed to.
Also, the sunroom, also a make-shift aviary, had an un-abstracted view, both of family members and the landscaped suburban, backyard, which also served as a feeding and bathing stations for wild birds, giving the parakeets, an opportunity to interact with outside birds, with my parents sometimes opening the screen door, on days when the weather, was temperate.
The birds also had special perches, behind the blinds which they could hide and hanging trees from the ceiling which they could roast, knap, sing, court, and observe their benefactors, from a safe vantage point.
Since my parents only initially clipped their wings, when we first got them at the pet store, our birds were allowed to fly back and forth from one end of the room to the other, while being safe from predators, such as an occasional hawk, coming to raid the birdfeeders, for they were, safely inside.
My parents also made sure, they were safe from window collusions, because of a wooden matrix of rails, which broke-up, the clear glass, and were often used as additional peaches for Mordecai and Golda, looking outside, at the what our family historically called, the outside birds.
Our family has been employing this free-range parakeet system, which we invented, since the mid-1990s, spanning several generations of parakeets, and we have never had one escapee.
I contend that the reason, we have never had an escapee, is that when we purchased our first parakeet, Sugar, another sunshine yellow, female parakeet, we only initially, clip her wings. This meant, by the time Sugar’s wings grew back, she had carved out this space as her territory.
Later, when we introduced our first male parakeet, Cocoa, also, another, rich blue, male parakeet, like Mordecai, he came with his wings clipped, yet once his wings begin to grow back, like his mate Sugar, before him, Sugar culturally transmitted, the boundaries, to her mate, even teaching him how to fly.
Once Sugar died, he culturally transmitted it onto his new mate, Angel, another yellow, female, parakeet, and so on, through the latest generation of parakeets, which included, Mordecai and Golda, and Golda’s new mate, Holy Spirit, my first “white-as-snow,” male parakeet.
My parents got Brother Spirit for me, after Mordecai’s recent, very tragic death, from stomach cancer.
With Sister Golda, carrying on this same tradition, from generation to generation, during the whole duration of their living at my parent’s place, from Sugar-Cocoa to Golda-Mordecai, with Sister Golda, teaching, our new companion, Brother Spirit, how to live in his new home, as always been our parakeet’s custom, giving teaching and instruction to each other, passed, from one generation to another, creating a distinctive parakeet culture.
Know, also, that our birds were all purchased, by a very respectful, compassionate, and responsible dealer; we have known for years and is highly sensitized to animal welfare issues, including writing her own published work on bird intelligence.
Yet, Brother Mordecai and Sister Golda went on a type of “hero’s journey” from the beautiful, habitat and home; they knew all their lives, to my one-bedroom high rise apartment in Downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, to be with me, during one of my “darkest hours” in my entire life.
Where their new habitat and home, would be, my former eleventh floor, high rise, apartment, at the end of the hall, in a relatively new building with sound proofing, carpeting floors, with a baloney with doors which open, a kitchenette, one bathroom, only one fluorescent light in the kitchen and hallway, overlooking the street, parking light, another apartment building.
Where the only birds they would be able to interact with, were, the seasonal urban European starling roast, and the only Nature, they would be able to see, is the sky above where, one can easily observe sunrise and sunsets, and occasionally double rainbows. Where on rare, occasions, sea gulls might fly over the apartment, or mourning doves or house sparrows would land on my baloney, or where, chimney swifts roost, roast, in the vicinity, every summer. Yet, it was a “far cry” from their parakeet’s paradise, at my parent’s place.
Also, because of the constraints, of my lease, my parakeets, would no longer, be able, to be “free range.” Also, they would have to be placed away from the sliding door to the balcony, away from direct sunlight and drafts, in the northwest corner of the main room.
My parents did supply us with full spectrum light, which I placed, near the parakeet’s enclosure, with a clear view, of several of my major religious shrines. I also kept the light on in the hallway, to be used as a nightlight for the birds, later, replacing this practice, with a nightlight, I purchased.
The enclosure itself was the largest cage our pet dealer sold, costing several hundred dollars. It was so large, it is almost a fifth the size of their free range enclosure, with bars painted white, to avoid metal-phobia, a bottom, several feet, off the ground, rectangular shaped, with its height, approximately four feet, length three feet, width, about two feet, with two doors, a lower door and a higher door, which also allows one, to easily change the tray and storage space, for feed and other supplies, underneath.
In terms of the contents of the enclosure, they were given, two wooden ladders, one short one, one longer one, two wooden perches, a double tray for water, a double tray for food, two additional small trays for food, two additional small trays for gravel, and two layers of paper to cover the floor, while, the floor of a cage, was carpeted, with layers of newspaper and paper towels, where, the two birds were also provided cuttlefish bones and several toys to play with.
Both mates were kept together in the same enclosure, to help reduce their fears and a sense of loss, giving them, at least, some, measure of safety, stability, and comfort, during this difficult transition, for both birds.
To help compensate for them moving into a more improvised environment, I added additional behavioral enrichment, “making-up” for the intellectual, emotional, and relational, stimulation, “left-behind,” at their previous home.
Including, periodically, moving around location of food and water, locations of perches and ladders, placing religious artifacts above the cage and below on the floor, and using recorded soundtrack of natural sounds, music, and other forms of auditory stimulation, as well as opening up my door, on milder fall days, so they could listen and interact with, the starling roast, just outside the apartment.
Also, part of my model for interacting with and relating to Golda and Mordecai, was to think, believe, and act more like a parakeet, like another member in a parakeet flock, such as greeting them with, “here am I, where are you” their contact call, and keeping my bedroom door open, while we slept, for in parakeet society, parakeets are around their flock mates “all the time.”
I only used positive reinforcement, no negative reinforcement, or punishment, when I had to discipline them, such as screaming or screeching too loud, which might disturb the human neighbors, such as ignoring the screaming or turning down the lights, to calm them down.
My hope in “stepping-up” my interactions with them, and providing them new forms of intellectual, emotional, relational, even spiritual and religious stimulation, would also, in addition, “make-up,” for the fact, they were no-longer, living “free range,” while giving them new opportunities, possibilities, and experiences, they would not get, if they still lived with my parents.
Just to tell you a little bit about myself, I am single, celibate, who works out of my apartment. I am also a high functioning, person with Asperger’s, independently living, graduate school educated, with complications of anxiety, depression, and possibly, PTSD, which lately, I have been suffering from some very serious trauma and physical health problems. Meaning I was around the birds, most of the time, and needed the birds as companionship, for my loneliness.
I am also a very deep Christian, with an intermediate scientific background, a strong animal rights commitment, and a profound devotion to Saint Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan/Medieval traditions.
Meaning, I spend hours each day, engaging in prayer and writing each day, hours at my computer, each day, I am a professional writer. This also meant, I was able to download music for them online, from the Internet.
I also provided both birds with spiritual enrichments. Including, trying to teach them to how to “talk,” with the hope to teach them God-talk and trying to place religious artifacts above and below cage.
I wrote a special contextualized, Parakeet Eucharist service which was recited in their presence, using their seeds as “Body of Christ” and water as “Blood of Christ,” addressing the two birds by their names and as brother and sister. I sang Christian mantras to them, setting up, one of my places of prayer, on a table nearby their enclosure.
I attempted to learn their system of both verbal and nonverbal communication, communicate to them in their own language, “chirp” contact call, and gentle sang to them, to calm them down, including singing them, gentle religious mantras and repeated spiritual repetitions.
I prayed and interceded, on their behalf, as well as, performed a special dedication service when they arrived and calmed down, in their presence. I even observed the Feast of Saint Francis, with them, including offering them, a special, two-session, Blessing of the Animals, in their presence.
Although they lost a lot from their old home, I contend that experience opened-up new opportunities and possibilities, for them, to grow and be loved in new directions, in their lives. These opportunities, included, getting more attention by their custodian, being able to access new behavioral enrichment opportunities, and new food sources.
But, most importantly, they had a rare opportunity, to receive pastoral care, spiritual instruction, prayers and intercessions, as well as, the opportunity, to be included, in religious rituals, which animals are usually excluded from, made accessible to them, by me appealing, to their own unique, physio-socio-symbolic life, as parakeets.
One of the outcomes, of my experiment, was that I learned that both birds, actually responded to the Parakeet Eucharist, stopping from their daily activists, to listen to me celebrating the rite, served for them, as a kind of non-material, “treat.”
With their favorite part of their Eucharist Rite, listening to me recite, Saint Francis’s, “Sermon to the Birds.”
They generally ignored most of the Eucharist Rite, except when this portion was read to them. When I read, Saint Francis’s “Sermon to the Birds,” they settled down on their favorite perches, sitting quietly, and turning toward me, as though they were listening.
But, my most important break though, in terms of recovering the spiritual and religious lives of my two parakeets, was through discovering, to what degree, the role, music and sound, plays in their society, culture, communicative abilities, relationality, and way of making sense of the world-around-them.
Parakeet culture, can be liken, to how French troubadours, employ music, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually, to express their personality and relate to others. In other words, I discovered that parakeet culture is a musical culture, where they communicate their deepest feelings, desires, longings, and love, for one another, musically, liken to Italian Opera singers. Meaning that the way to relate to them, communicate with them, even teach them, about God, is through music. Now, liken to a foreign missionary, in a radically different culture, if I wanted them to hear what I had to say to them, I needed to speak to them about God in “their own language.”
So as a result, in addition, I also started to communicate with them about God, more musically. I sang the same song, Saint Alexandra, a Desert Father, Coptic Christian Saint, sang to a mother hyena in distress, “Steady in Simplicity.” I played Mozart, to strengthen their cognitive abilities, in addition, to playing various forms of solemn music from Christian, Jewish, and other religious and spiritual traditions, including music from the Middle Ages.
I learned that rock music, they found abrasive, leading them to angrily
screech and scorn. Yet, if I played more tranquil religious, spiritual, or
classical music, they would start to sing, court, or relax.
Leading me to me more “mindful” of the types of music and sounds, I was exposing myself too.
I learned that when I listened to the Brother Mordecai’s and Sister Golda’s favorite music, which was quieter and less angry, my writing became more peaceful, rational, and loving. So this gave me a personal awareness, to what degree, music impacts one’s mood.
And, so, even till this day, when I listen to music, I try to be “mindful” of how music influences the “shape and form” of the tone of my writing, so I can choose my music, based on the genre of writing, I am working on, at, any given time.
This was an absolutely, amazing, beautiful, spiritual gift, Brother Mordecai and Sister Golda, were able to reciprocate, to me, from their own spiritual and religious experiences.
I discovered that using, “singing meditation mantras” one day, when trying to talk them, out of being afraid, after I unsuccessfully, introduced a behavioral enrichment into their enclosure, was a real Helen Keller moment, for me, because I found a way to access a beautiful, sensitive, intelligent soul “beneath and beyond” a very difficult, communication, barrier.
This is because, I finally discovered how to communicate and evangelize to Mordecai and Golda, singing meditation mantras, using Christian words and phrases.
I know this, because both birds, aptly responded, as though they understood English, literally doing what I told them to do.
I was able to talk them through their terrifying dread, until I was able to got them to calm down, get them off, hanging off the bars on their enclosure, back onto one of their favorite preaches, again, which, I aptly, returned to their enclosure.
Because of this amazing breakthrough in my interspecies communications with them, I was able to leave for my Saturday outing, in peace, knowing that they have calmed down.
I hypothesize that a scientific explanation for this, is that they were responding to my paralanguage (e.g., tone, rate, pitch, volume) versus my symbolic language (e.g., grammar, syntax, etc.). They were also responding to my repetitions.
Animal intelligence has often been compared to intelligence, of a small human child, by many researchers.
My parakeets were responding, like a human infant, being calmed down through lullabies and removing the offending object from their environment. My experience, as a result, also provides additional insight, into the nature of animal intelligence, for research indicates that most of a person’s identity is formed within the first six months of their life.
If my parakeets have the intelligence of an infant human, and considering that they have a certain level of autonomy, not found in a new born, they definitely have an intelligence and identity of at least, a six month old, human child.
Meaning they have all the capacities of a human being, including religious and spiritual capacities, only lacking the refinement of human adults.
This exciting and promising discovery is supported by three other recent scientific findings.
Dawn Prince-Hughes, an animal behavior scientist and primate specialist, who is a person with Asperger’s, contends that animal language is comprised of music, and that the primary function of religious rituals is to reduce fear. In my “eureka moment” with them, I used religious ritual, musically employed, to effectively calm them down.
While, neurologists have discovered that the brain responds differently to different words. Different verbal utterances can stimulate different emotions, thoughts, and actions. For example, angry words can trigger angry emotions, thoughts, and actions, while loving words can trigger loving emotions, thoughts, and actions.
In fact, neurologists that study this phenomenon, in a religious or spiritual context, neurotheologians, attempt to scientifically, empirically, falsify, or verify spiritual and religious claims, through employing the scientific method, contend, four essential findings about the biological and neurological, basis for religious experience.
First, that the vocabulary employed in religious practices such as meditations does matter, and does impact a person- emotionally, intellectually, and behaviorally, either negatively or positively, in very real ways.
Second, that angry, distant, critical religious language can make one feel fear, think fear, and act fearfully while loving religious language can make one feel love, think loving thoughts, and act compassionately.
Third, the reason comes back to brain chemistry; negativity stimulates the part in ones brain connected to fear, while positivity stimulates the part in ones brain connected to rationality. So, forth and finally, human beings possess something what neurotheologians, call “God neurons,” special nerve networks connected to one’s beliefs about God.
Neurotheologians, contend, that, one set of “God neurons” is older evolutionary, and has been part of the human condition, since the beginning of the human species, evolutionary speaking, with these neurons, being connected to religious beliefs which empathizes a belief in an “angry, distant, critical” God.
While, more recently, evolutionary speaking, a new set of “God neurons” has emerged, within the last millennium, which empathizes the lovingness, mysteriousness, and reasonableness of God.
These researchers contend that this new set of “God neurons” are only found in human beings, yet my parakeets responded the same way, as this research project, have documented, in their research, responding peacefully to positive, gentle, loving meditations.
Resulting, in my parakeets, decreasing their fear, and increasing their compassion, evidence that my parakeet’s, might also have “God neurons” too, or something similar, and have the capacity to respond to meditation.
I also have discovered a whole body of animal intelligence research, which also corroborates that birds do, in fact, have a very strong musical intelligence, can learn and can develop, even perfect, their musical abilities, do in fact, have musical tastes, and yes, can develop meaningful relationships with human beings, with my research indicating, this is especially so, in the parakeet species.
With my research, into parakeet behavior, uncovering that parakeets can and do communicate, in ways similar to meditation, and can respond to certain, non-material “rewards” and “treats,” yet, to what extent, how, and why, still remain a scientific mystery. But, the important point is that parakeets do have a concept of and are curious, about certain “abstract” categories, where the Concept of God, falls under such a category.
In fact, I found, with my birds, they were more interested in non-material “treats,” then material ones, and more interested in auditory behavioral enrichments, then visional enrichments. Possible, indications of a certain religious sentiment, such as many religions valuing higher nonmaterial pleasures over materialistic hedonism, and in the Christian tradition, the sense of sound, is equated with the Voice of God, one of the primary sources of revelation, in Western monotheistic religions, historically speaking, the Word.
But, the most significant finding, happened under the most unfortunately and tragic, circumstances, possible. We finally got a much better apartment, in the outer suburbs, much closer to the Natural World and just as Brother Mordecai was making friends with the local goldfinches, house finches, and other wild birds, which live in my new neighborhood, Mordecai’s physical health, took a terrible turn for the worst.
Without warning, I woke-up, in the morning, with him practically dead.
As, my parents were “dropping everything they were doing,” including making arrangements to visit the veterinarian, on an emergency, Brother Mordecai, was preparing for his impending death, positioning himself, toward the sky, with every last once, of his life energy.
The Sky, in many, religions of the world, including Christianity, is associated with Heaven and the Afterlife. And, many saints, including Saint Francis, position themselves, toward the Heavens, when they know, they are dying.
This I interpreted as a major sign that not only was Brother Mordecai, going to Heaven, he was consciously aware that he was going to Heaven, to be with his God.
One day later, Brother Mordecai died, at the veterinarian hospital, where the veterinarian buried him in a local pet seminary, near a stream and a beautiful park.
While, during this entire ordeal, his beloved mate, Golda, was completely present, to his suffering, although, we did not take Sister Golda, to the vet, so to protect her from unnecessary stress or suffering.
Yet, having said that, it has been said before that “Elephants Weep,” I say, my parakeets mourn.
Sister Golda, although profoundly hurt, by this tragic loss to all of us, was not completely destroyed by the ordeal, as many other animal species, including chimpanzees, when they attempt the morning process, which all too often, leads to them, mourning themselves to death.
Leading me to believe and contend, that parakeets, and other birds, such as Konrad Lorenz’s geese, might have a capacity to grief almost as complex as human beings, even, more so, than either elephants or chimpanzees.
With birds, such as Sister Golda, not only having the capacity to grieve, but with the capacity to “emotional regulate” grief and to “process” grief, in such a way, that it allows her to move on, with her life.
I attribute this adaptation to the reality that parakeets, in their native Australian desert, ancestral habitat, are highly intelligent, highly social, prey animals, which have a high mortality rate, meaning they have to grieve in a more stoic manor, liken to those who work with the dead and dying, on a daily basis. Who need to develop a certain emotional resilience, so not to be, destabilized or destroyed, in the process, not they do not feel or empathize deeply, but it is not reasonable, for them, to fully experience, every tragedy, at a great emotional and spiritual, intensity.
In fact, Sister Golda, coped with this crisis, through preserving her kinship with me, listening to the music I provided her, continuing to communicate with the two finch families, at my goldfinch feeder, and when Brother Spirit arrived, she fully embrace Brother Spirit, as her new mate, in “record time,” teaching him “the ropes” of how to live in his new habitat and home, as always been her custom.
So, in sharing this very personal and precious experience, if you or a love one is grieving the loss of a beloved pet, know that you are not alone in your grief, and your grief is very real, as it was for me, and to be completely present to it, using Sister Golda’s brave example as a model.
Or, if you have a very strong belief that “Animals have Souls” or “Animals go to Heaven,” consider this another acknowledgement from one Christian theologian, who also has scientific training, in animal behavior science, that Animals do, in fact, have souls, they do, in fact, go to Heaven, and are even, possibly conscious of God’s Existence, possessing, definite religious beliefs about God, preferences for certain religious rituals, provide unexpected, spiritual formation, to us humans, who “carefully listens” to their mystical wisdom, and may even consciously believe, that there is such a thing as, Eternal Life.
Hopefully, in sharing this with you, then Brother Mordecai’s tragic death
would not be, in vain, for all of us, can learn much from both Brother
Mordecai’s life and Brother Mordecai’s witness of what it mean to “die with