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Maybe 10 times a week, someone calls Steve Lazicki looking to get rid of a parrot. They're too loud, too demanding and sometimes just too long-lived.
Now, the shelter that Lazicki calls his orphanage may have to close its doors.
The commercial building where Lazicki runs his Birdhouse and Rescue is slated for demolition because the owner plans to redevelop the area. Lazicki and the 80 strays in his care must be out by Dec. 30. With affordable space hard to come by, it isn't easy to find enough room to accommodate dozens of the large, loud bird. Raising his voice over the squawks of macaws, parrots and cockatoos, Lazicki says he worries about his flock's future.
"They're my kids," said Lazicki, 67, an Army veteran and former aerospace machinist who has run the shelter for 17 years. "They're very intelligent. They need a lot of attention. People often buy a parrot without any idea of what they're getting into."
The shelter takes in abused and abandoned parrots and works to find them new homes. More than 50 have been adopted so far this year, but there's a steady stream of parrots, macaws and cockatiels right behind them.
After cats and dogs, birds are America's third most popular pet. Parrot popularity began to soar a few decades ago. The 1970s television show "Baretta," whose title character had a cockatoo, is cited as one reason for the surge in popularity. While it's now illegal to import most parrots into the U.S., breeders have stepped in to supply the market.
Many owners, however, aren't prepared for the challenges and decades-long commitment of caring for parrots and their relatives. With the intellect approaching that of a human toddler and a lifespan much longer than a dog or cat, parrots demand years of intellectual and social stimulation.
"They were a fad pet and millions were sold for years, and now the problem is coming home to roost," said Marc Johnson, founder and CEO of Foster Parrots, which operates New England's largest parrot sanctuary in Hopkinton, R.I.
The sanctuary houses about 450 parrots, and adopts out about 80-100 birds each year. Johnson said his organization is forced to turn away nearly 1,000 people a year looking to relinquish a parrot.
Lazicki arrives at the South Kingstown shelter at 5 a.m. most days to begin the routine of feeding the birds, cleaning cages and "socializing" with the talkative birds. He also fields calls from people looking to adopt parrots. Some are approved for adoption, but many are not. Lazicki recalled a person who called asking to adopt four parrots. When Lazicki pressed them, they said they wanted the birds as props for a luau-themed party.
The shelter is funded through donations, adoption fees and Lazicki's Social Security checks. It can cost more than $1,000 a month just to feed the birds.
Lazicki tries not to bond too much with birds that are likely to be adopted, because doing so might make it harder for the bird to adapt to a new home. Still, he knows his charges well. Mabel the macaw distrusts men. Dukie, an African gray, is a jokester despite a missing eye. Merlin the macaw loves children because he used to live with a 4-year-old boy.
"When you take in a bird, you become its flock," he said before bounding away to check on a squawking macaw.