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Bringing Back the Magic: A Transformational Memior
By Susanna Gallatin

"Susanna...Where are you? Oh, there you are. Hi there, Robbie bird," says Robbie, my African Grey Parrot. When we first met, our hearts locked, and we've been best friends ever since...for almost thirty years. She was so young (less than a year), beautiful, and so crippled that she could not perch or stand on her own. I knew she needed the best of care, and I wanted to carry on with the work and caring that she had received from two dedicated ladies before me.


Robbie's breeder had evidently startled her Grey parents when taking her from the nest to give to her new owner, Ruth Hartwick of Phoenix, Arizona. One of the parents jumped at him while attempting to protect its chick, and the breeder dropped Robbie on the ground, breaking both of her legs. She was nursed until she could eat on her own, and then Ruth took her to a veterinarian to attempt to do something for her legs.

The vet decided to re-break Robbie's legs to help them repair. Unfortunately, this operation did not work, and the doctor continued to break her legs on at least four separate occasions, before admitting that it was not a good idea. After each operation Robbie looked so helpless and sad. Ruth had to put a rubber collar around her neck to keep her from chewing at her feet, and she spent hours massaging the legs to keep them circulating. At night, she removed the collar and kept Robbie in a box beside her bed, placing her hand in the box to make sure Robbie would not chew her feet. With much feeling and emotion Ruth told me years later, "I thought it was a gamble; but if nursing and patience would do it with love and desire for her, I had it. I don't know how I kept taking Robbie back to the veterinarian--I thought I was helping. Had it been possible, I would have spent my last cent to make Robbie well."

Veterinary care has dramatically improved over the past thirty years; but I beg bird enthusiasts not to think a veterinarian can do everything; and I beg veterinarians not to pretend they know ALL the answers. Robbie's vet offered to put her to sleep; but Ruth could not do it. My Robbie just wanted to live. But unfortunately, Ruth had to work and did not have the time to spend on Robbie. So, she shipped her to Florida to a lady named Mrs. Moon, a famous aviculturist who had had a lot of experience treating birds. Mrs. Moon was one of the pioneer breeders of cockatiels, the Moonbeams (white Cockatiels). She wrote one of the first books, Experiences With My Cockatiels , and she was the curator of more than 1000 birds for over 50 years at Parrot Jungle in Florida. Ruth prayed there might be a chance Mrs. Moon could help Robbie.


I'm a wildlife rehabilitator, and I was in Florida at the time visiting Parrot Jungle and Mrs. Moon. That's when I first met Robbie. I remember when I first saw her. She was so beautiful and sweet natured, after all that she had gone through. She held onto my blouse and I fed her a few sunflower seeds. I fell in love and during Mrs. Moon's afternoon naps, I took Robbie out of the apple box right beside Mrs. Moon's bed. That's when we cuddled and "locked our hearts together tight." Since Mrs. Moon had health problems she agreed to let me take Robbie. I had a little girl at the time (now 34 years old), and my husband did not want me to do it. I responded that I was going to give this bird the best care possible, for as long as she lives. Little did I know that that commitment would last as long as 30+ years.

So back to Nebraska Robbie came with me. She was so crippled that I had to fix the cage to make the bottom soft with shredded paper towels. The cage was also arranged so that Robbie could work her way around it to get some exercise. Then I worked with her "clumped together" toes by putting my thumb in front of one of her feet and moving the toes. We continue to do this exercise today at four hour intervals.

Mrs. Moon passed away about five years after I brought Robbie home. Ruth Hartwick is also deceased. It would be interesting to know if the veterinarian that worked on Robbie's legs is still alive. He would think it amazing and incredible that she is doing so well.


Life is full of joy, sorrow, greeting and farewell. Robbie and I have had a lot of joy, very little sorrow. My family has always known that she came first. I have hurried home from everything I've gone to, and I've asked God to get me home safely, just to greet and take care of my Robbie. Each family member, including my daughter Robin, my husband Dwight and my mother would say, "Susanna (Mother) when you get Robbie taken care of, can you get this or that for me?" I thank Robbie every day by the care I give, for introducing me to the love of an African Grey.

Over the years she has shown me she cares too. She would hang her wings to show the lighter gray on the back, making the usual sounds to try to feed me. I knew that if she ever laid an egg in this condition that would be it. So, I discouraged her by distracting and taking her to another room. Only once did she bite as hard as an African Grey can bite. This was when I was raising a little baby Lovebird and showed Robbie the little bird in the box. Oh how Robbie looked and looked at this little baby hookbill. Surely, she must have wanted to adopt this little baby as her own. When I put Robbie back in her cage she bit me hard-- to let me know she was not finished looking. I had to put my hair in her face to make her let go. I knew instantly that her maternal instinct remained strong, even as a very crippled bird. Many times over the years, Robbie would shred, cut up and make holes in fine paper towels, looking so proud-"See, I can make a nest too!" My little Robbie is so smart.

I enjoy cooking and fixing things for Robbie because she loves to eat. Her favorite food is hulled millet and white rice cooked together with a handful of raisins. I prepare it for both of us: two cups of water; 1/3 cup hulled millet; 1 cup white rice and raisins (with no preservatives). Bring the water to a boil before adding the rice, millet and raisins. Sometimes I add one tablespoon of baby food carrots to the water. I bring it to a boil and then turn the heat very low for approximately 30 minutes. Robbie also loves corn and peas. I use the Petite peas because they're the only ones I can find without salt. Given her age, I'm very careful about avoiding salt. For many years I served her some cereal as a treat: equal parts of Rice Krispies, Rice Chex, Corn Flakes and Product 19. But in order to cut down on salt, I now add a handful of this mixture only once a week to the usual sunflower seed, millet and canary seed. In addition to many vegetables and fruits, I give her alfalfa which comes from fields on our farm that are never sprayed.


Not only is it a pleasure to watch her eat, but I also enjoy holding her and watching her preen, especially her wings. I like watching Robbie chew up the tender twigs that I pick from the cottonwood trees (non-toxic wood) around my home, while I hold her. I've made it a routine, from the very beginning, to hold Robbie awhile and then to work awhile.

I am now 57 years old. Robbie and I have experienced together the most incredible dawns and beautiful sunsets. We've sat by the window, watching the rain pour in Nebraska. We've witnessed the peaceful falling of snow flakes in the hard winters, thankful to be inside our warm, cozy home. We've watched the wild birds that I feed all winter come to eat. Taking care of my Robbie has truly given ME a reason for living. How quickly the many years have gone by. Sometimes I wish she and I could live forever.

About two years ago Robbie had a light heart attack, and she is currently showing signs of heart failure, as people do. As you can see, my hand is always up against Robbie's heart when I hold her-- the only way she can be held. Since the heart attack, I've been able to feel when the heart beat is not right, along with breathing problems that show up when the weather is damp. This is called Pulmonary Edema.

I have had still another summer with this beautiful, loving and crippled African Grey. It is not time for us to say farewell yet, but I know it is coming. But there will always be a happy ending to this story -- Robbie and I have had a good time. Robbie and I have love for all the African Greys and concerned people who take care of them.

To quote Fidel Flores, Jr. in the July, 1996, Bird Talk Magazine, "Treat these precious little creatures like KINGS, for they can leave us at any time." I thank God for the privilege of being so close to the heart of an African Grey.

This article was published in the Winter 1997 issue of the Grey Play Round Table® African Grey Magazine. This beautiful and loving bird passed on soon after this article was published, and she is now an angel looking over Susanna. ; ;


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