#20. BARBARA HEIDENREICH - “A zoologist.”
Photo courtesy of goodbirdinc.com
Barbara Heidenriech’s 24-year-old pet parrot Tara cleans her owner’s eyelashes and eyebrows every night.
“It’s called allopreening,” Barbara says. “It’s very intimate in a way because the bird’s right in your face.”
Allopreening is part of a familial grooming practice for parrots. The birds usually do it for each other, but after all the time they’ve spent together, Tara uses her sharp beak and claws to preen her human friend’s lashes very gently.
Barbara is a zoologist, parrot expert and founder of Good Bird Inc, so she finds maintaining a positive relationship with an animal to be the utmost reward.
“You smell the way they smell so for me the smell that an Amazon parrot has is ‘love,’ you know?” she says. “When I smell an Amazon parrot, it’s like, ‘Aah warm and fuzzy.’”
Barbara is a pretty blonde woman, who looks vaguely like the actress Heather Graham. She currently lives in Austin, TX but is in New York City to teach a parrot seminar. It’s right before Hurricane Irene is about to hit, so she’s not sure yet if it’s going to be cancelled.
We head over to a Mexican restaurant hear her hotel. Barbara gets a margarita and I get a Modelo Negra. We both order food, and I notice she’s not a vegan.
“I was vegan for two years,” she says. “I do think if I had to kill an animal to survive, I would be vegetarian. I can’t do that. I can cut up an animal after it’s dead because you know, you do have to do that to feed animals in zoos.” I blink. I hadn’t thought of that. It’s not like cobras are vegetarians and they do need to be fed.
Barbara nods, “I mean, especially working with birds of prey. I’ve had to cut up many dead rats, rabbits and mice and I actually have a really fabulous, trained pet rabbit at home.”
As a trainer, Barbara can immediately spot a well-trained animal.
Outside, Barbara notices an agitated woman pulling a mid-sized brown dog on a leash by a crowded, busy street.
“We are so accustomed to manhandling and forcing animals,” Barbara says, gesturing to how the woman and her pet.
If he was a puppy, Barbara says, and he showed that fear response, the owner should sit him at the door and give him some treats and then open the door and give him some treats.
“We say, ‘Oh my god you tolerated that horn honking—here’s a treat!’ ‘Oh my god, that man with the beard petted you, here’s a treat!’ So the animal goes, ‘Yeah! Men with beards are cool.’ ‘Horns honking are cool!’ He would start to learn that being out here is paired with good things not scary things, So it’s really our choices that are shaping what these animals become,” she says. “So I look at stuff like that and I go, There’s so much work and help to be done.”
Barbara was born in upstate New York. As a child, she’d play in the creeks by her house, putting frogs into baby carriages. It was meant as a show of affection, but it often killed them. She played with butterflies. Her parents let her keep rabbits, mice, gerbils, and fish. They took her to the Catskill Game Farm, to feed the animals and the Morgan Horse Farms in Vermont.
She thought maybe she’d become a veterinarian, but after a high school internship with one, she decided it wasn’t for her. Her job was to restraining distressed animals for procedures. It was too sad.
“I had to have a heart to heart with myself and say, well what is it that I like about animals? Why are animals important to me?” she says. “And I think what it comes down to is I love the relationship you can have with an animal.”
Barbara worked in a pet store, and in an eco-research lab. She got a degree in zoology from University of California Davis, and started working at a zoo 45 minutes away. Next, she worked at Brookfield Zoo outside of Chicago for a couple of years. From there, she moved to Orlando, Florida. She’d heard a new zoo was opening, put together by Disney and Barbara wanted in. This zoo would later become Animal Kingdom.
Barbara sent along her resume to Discovery Island, another zoo in the area and worked there first. Barbara went to work over there as a zookeeper, making seven bucks an hour and cleaning cages.
Being a zookeeper is a very low-paying and physical job. When Barbara was a zoo keeper in Chicago, it was around 70 below at night. Some animals lived outside. Barbara went out in thick overalls, steel-toed boots and with a pickaxe to chip away at the frozen poo.
“I had some good biceps back then,” Barbara jokes.
In school, Barbara took classes like ornithology, mammalogy and herbatology. She worked with animals out in the field and observed them in the wild, but a lot of her schooling was preparing for research or graduate work. Barbara knew that wasn’t her path.
“I always tell people who want to work in zoos, you need to get as much hands-on experience as possible,” she says. “You won’t get a job in a zoo just based on your degree. You just have to get animal experience. That’s huge.”
Barbara’s interest shifted to birds when a friend asked her to babysit her pet parrot, Tara, for a short while during the summer between her freshman and sophomore years in college. This turned into twenty four years. Tara joins Barbara’s other pets, a dog named Waylon, other birds Delbert, Blue Lu, Joe Cockertiel, Banana Puddin’ and a rabbit named Loretta.
When Animal Kingdom opened in 1998, Barbara thought the park could use a bird show. She wrote up a proposal, made an example VHS video, and submitted it to the vice-president of the Animal Kingdom.
To her surprise, she was called into a meeting with some Disney big wigs. Rather than just using her proposal, it was assumed that Barbara would be a part of the show.
“I was literally a nobody,” she laughs. “…I never even interviewed for a job with the contracting company, I was just sort of absorbed into it. It was a neat experience.”
Barbara did the bird show at Animal Kingdom for five years. She was also sent out to consult as an animal trainer at other zoos. She also started working with people who had parrots as pets, teaching workshops and eventually writing a book inspired by the behavioral problems she was having with Tara and the repeated questions guests of the bird show would ask her about their pet parrots.
She participated in chat rooms answering people’s parrot questions. She set up vending booths at conferences. She lectured, and continues to do so, at veterinary colleges around the country. One she’s particularly proud of is the avian symposium at her Alma mater, UC Davis. In 1987, she’d been a student there and now 20 years later, she was a speaker. She felt honored.
Seven years ago, Barbara started a magazine dedicated to parrot training, through the kinder gentler methods of building trust and positive experiences between trainer and animal. That corporation became the now digital Good Bird Inc.
There was no other collective resource for information about training and raising parrots. Barbara’s role as a parrot trainer into another book. She started producing videos as another teaching tool. She taught live workshops in New Zealand, Australia, Finland, France, Spain, Germany, Finland, Sweden, England, Ireland, Canada, and Mexico.
"I love my job," she says, after I express jealousy. "I absolutely do."
Barbara says she is actually probably one of the few people, in the zoo community, that promotes parrots as pets. Many people don’t have the tools to live successfully with a parrot, but that’s hardly means the parrot isn’t an ideal pet. She says her birds don’t scream, bite or destroy her house.
“It’s really about educating the owners as to what to do to have that great relationship, and so a lot of those things that are being mentioned as drawbacks to having parrots are actually just the results of people not having education, not knowing how to address these problems,” she says. It’s one of the reasons she founded Good Bird Inc.
Animal training is important for a variety of reasons — not just for films (although I almost lose my mind when she says she knows the people that train the Harry Potter owls). Medical reasons are a big factor. In the past, animals had to be anesthetized for medical procedures, which is risky. Now, people like Barbara teach animals to cooperate in medical care. “We can train a gorilla to present his arm for a blood draw, or a river otter to present her belly for ultrasound and so a lot of the training I do at zoos is more oriented towards that,” she says.
In general, zoos receive a lot of criticism for caging animals that would otherwise live in the wild. Barbara says she believes the people that work in zoos care more about animals than any animal rights activist.
“These are people who are getting paid like six dollars an hour and would give their life for the animal in their care. They don’t always have control over things like the finances to create the best environment or habitat for that animal but I can’t think of a zoo person I’ve met that won’t do everything in their power to try and make that animal’s life as enriched, as engaging, anything they can do to make that animal’s life the best it can be, they will do,” she says.
We talk briefly about the book ‘Life of Pi,’ that takes place in part at a zoo in India. The book defends zoos by describing more like hotels than like prisons.
Barbara says statistically almost all animals live longer in captivity than they do in the wild.
“People romanticize life in the wild. Life in the wild is hard,” she says. “But we don’t want animals to be bored, which is why many zoos have zoo-wide enrichment programs where they find ways to create opportunities for animals to express their natural behavior so that they’re challenged mentally and physically and that’s also what training does.”
Barbara says when people tap on the glass or yell at the animals, it’s because they want the animal to respond to them. She suggests that instead of setting it up so the person has to misbehave to get that reaction, why not make it so the guests can do something healthy to interact with the animals? Her idea is a button that when pushed causes an animal to pick up some bark. Next, the animal gets rewarded for doing that with a treat that comes down a shoot. The human would have caused the animal to do a natural behavior and the guest gets to be involved.
Barbara says its not a wholly original idea: one zoo she saw allowed the chimps to have power over a shower, placed over the guests. The chimps can get the guests wet and watch the reactions through the glass. It’s a huge re-enforcer for them, and I imagine, hilarious fun for the people getting wet.
“The real goal in the zoo world is to teach people to appreciate animals in the hopes that they’ll care about wild life. …I think in order to get anybody to take action in terms of conservation or preserving habitats, they have to have a connection, they have to feel some sort of affection towards animals,” she says. She says it starts with people understanding how rewarding it is to have a relationship with an animal, to stop thinking about them as “tigers” as a whole, and start thinking about, let’s say, your favorite tiger at the zoo, Simba.
“So it becomes like a friend, like another human to them where it’s a personality, it’s a living being, it’s not just a category of tiger so that they go, ‘You know what? I care about that tiger and I care that tigers might be extinct one day,’ and help them,” Barbara says. Plus, loving an animal, she says, makes you take more care when interacting with people too — it makes you a better fellow human being.
For Barbara at her bird shows, her hook to get the average person to pay attention is that the bird will fly out and land on their arm and take their dollar bill and put it in a bucket. She says she can use that trick to then say, “That money is going to go to buy land in Brazil to save the wild cousins of that bird that just landed on your arm.”
Barbara says the goal is that the guest had fun but also got a little education. “And hopefully a little inspiration to care about wildlife,” she adds.
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