Parrots Used in PTSD Therapy for War Veterans

In Los Angeles, some recovering war veterans are getting therapeutic help for post-traumatic stress disorder from an unlikely source: rescued and abused parrots. Physicians say it's an exercise in mutual healing for both parrot and patient.

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In Los Angeles, some military veterans are getting help from an unlikely source - rescued and abused parrots. The birds are bonding with patients at L.A.'s Veterans Affairs facility and as NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, both are better for it.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Inside a large aviary, Matthew Simmons gently coaxes a green and yellow Amazon parrot named Joey(ph) to say a few words.

Mr. MATTHEW SIMMONS (Patient, Veterans Affairs, California): Joey.

(Soundbite of whistling)

Mr. SIMMONS: Tweety bird - say hello.

PARROT: Hello.

Mr. SIMMONS: Good boy.

DEL BARCO: Before being brought to this parrot sanctuary, Joey had been abandoned when his guardian died. But Simmons, a Navy combat vet, says he knows why the caged bird sings.

Mr. SIMMONS: I sympathize with these birds on a very basic level.

DEL BARCO: After serving in both Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, the 33-year-old says he began drinking heavily and abusing sleeping pills. He had nightmares and one night, he says, he got into a fight.

Mr. SIMMONS: I hit this gentleman in the head and he was pretty seriously injured. And I spent about two years behind bars in a six-by-nine. You know, it was torture; I was in a confined space. I came out for 10 minutes every other day. I had a very limited amount of people that I interacted with. I didn't trust...

DEL BARCO: As part of his drug and alcohol rehabilitation, Simmons has been working at the parrot sanctuary in a peaceful garden on the grounds of L.A.'s Veterans Affairs headquarters. Here he hand feeds Joey and two baby Amazonian parrots, a couple of macaws and six ring-necked parrots.

Mr. SIMMONS: This is a rescue sanctuary, so a lot of the birds come from like traumatic environments where they have either been abused or hurt in such a way that they don't function necessarily at a high level. When they first get here, they're scared, they isolate. And they act like I did when I got here, and that's kind of where the similarity comes in.

DEL BARCO: Do you feel like you trust these birds more than you trust any person?

Mr. SIMMONS: Oh absolutely. I haven't been let down by a bird yet, you know. People tend to, every once in a while, not do the right thing.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

Mr. SIMMONS: Good girl. Hi, Ruby(ph).

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

Ms. LORIN LINDNER (Psychologist, Veterans Affairs, California): So you met Matthew. He's a U.S. Navy vet. He's big and macho guy, and he goes in the cages with the babies and it's a whole different story.

DEL BARCO: Psychologist Lorin Lindner started the parrot program after years of both rescuing birds and working with homeless, drug- and alcohol-addicted veterans.

Ms. LINDNER: Their toughness and their macho veneers melted with - being in close contact with the birds. I saw this as a form of therapy.

DEL BARCO: So far 12 men have come for the program. Lindner says the vets helped rehabilitate parrots who were abused and traumatized after years of being isolated or held in cramped cages and abused. Parrots, she says, like people can have anxiety disorders.

Unidentified Man: Come here, baby, baby.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

Ms. LINDNER: We have some birds who have self-mutilated into their chest cavity. Many of them have pulled their feathers out, so that the follicles are destroyed. They can no longer grow feathers back.

DEL BARCO: But she says, the veterans have been helping them calm down and vice versa.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

Unidentified Man: Hi, (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of parrot chirping)

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible)

DEL BARCO: Stanley Smith(ph) is a 63-year-old Vietnam-era vet who says he's overcoming his addiction to alcohol in part by working with the parrots.

Mr. STANLEY SMITH (Vietnam War Veteran): The birds have taught me patience. Makes me feel whole again. Like I'm in peace with the universe. And the bird liked it too.

DEL BARCO: So this job is for the birds, isn't it?

Mr. SMITH: For the birds - for birdbrains.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(Soundbite of parrot chirping)

DEL BARCO: Say NPR - NPR.

(Soundbite of parrot chirping)

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