I realized that in part one of this installment I didn’t really talk about any of the pets (minus a couple of pet’s ailments) so I thought it best to relay a tale specifically regarding a couple of pets I took care of. It was December 2006, and my pet-sitting business was just taking off. I still worked part-time at an animal hospital, but only three days a week. I felt that left me plenty of time to overnight pet-sit and take on several visit and walking jobs over the holiday.
My overnight pet-sitting job was indeed unique; it involved three pets: a very spoiled (but extremely nice) dog; an easily frightened cat, and the piece de résistance: a four-year old Australian Umbrella Cockatoo. The dog and the cat were no problem; besides a dietary arrangement that consisted of dog food, an over-easy egg topped with grated cheese and two walks each day, Chelsea was easy. The cat’s bowl I simply kept full of dry kibble; she was shy, I didn’t really see much of her. The quandary I had with this job was the Cockatoo. The owners required that I take her out of her cage for at least sixty minutes twice daily, something I thought little of when I signed on. She was a feisty bird, of that I’d been made quite aware, but if I projected myself as the alpha of the household (so I was told) there shouldn’t be any question of who was boss. Also, her wings were clipped so she couldn’t fly, which was good because the house had thirty-foot vaulted ceilings and many high shelves decorated with potted plants.
The very moment I took the reins this bird made it clear who the boss was, and it wasn’t me. I quickly grasped why the cat often hid, skulking about like a prisoner of war: this bird terrified everything that got in its path. Inside her enclosure she would screech loudly, a dissonant, cacophonous wail that could make your eardrums bleed. She was so loud that I had to take all of my phone calls outside, and even then I had to retreat to the farthest point of the backyard. Invariably however, the person on the other end of the line would inquire as to what was making the infernal racket, and I would explain about the bird. In attempts to silence her I would brandish the large sheet, which was used to cover her cage at night, promising to use it if she wouldn’t be quiet. This bird could talk (as most Umbrella Cockatoos can) yet she had a very limited vocabulary. When I showed her the sheet and threatened to cover her up she’d resort to her favorite phrase: “I love you.” She’d say this syrupy sweet, as if she truly meant it, but I understood quickly it was merely a ruse to keep from being excluded.
The first time I let her out of the cage (a very large structure, easily five feet high and three and a half across) she stalked me; there is truly no other way to put it. She followed me around the house, pecking at my legs, trying to climb up my pants and get on my shoulder. At first I was wary and didn’t allow her to do so; I didn’t know if she would bite me or not. So for sixty minutes twice a day this bird followed me around, pecking and fluttering up in the air in front of my face. To say this was nerve-wracking is being trite. Those one hundred and twenty minutes passed like days. If she couldn’t get at me she would then go after the dog, which would nimbly avoid her attacks and then retreat beneath one of the beds.
Since my pet-sitting business was in its infancy, I really tried to befriend the bird, despite its myriad psychoses. I figured I’d probably have plenty of birds in my future so it would be best to get to know one, see how it ticked. There was a book about Cockatoo’s in their library so I read up on it, learning whatever I could to aid me in its care. Yeah…nothing I did worked, it only got increasingly naughty as the days progressed. As it turned out, the owners trip was of a long enough duration that the bird’s feathers grew in; eventually it could and did fly about the house, perching atop the highest shelves. Standing on a ladder I found in the garage and using a broom was how I got it down to get it back in its cage. It would step onto the broom handle (if I was lucky) and I would then use that to place it in the cage. When she was on the ground and I wanted to get her back in the cage and she wouldn’t climb aboard her stick (a piece of wood used specifically for this purpose) I would let her climb onto my shoe and would hop over to the cage one-legged and propel my leg forward, thus depositing her therein.
Of course the inevitable happened: I allowed her onto my shoulder one day. I thought by doing this we’d bond. No sooner had I allowed her access she twisted her head, took my glasses in her beak and flung them across the room, where they shattered against the wall. Blinded, I was momentarily defenseless, and she climbed onto the top of my head and got her talons tangled within my long, curly hair. Not knowing what else to do (and not wanting to hurt her; I’d read that bird bones are hollow and break easily) I dropped to my stomach onto the floor and shooed her off of me as gently (but resolutely) as I could.
And despite all of this I still let her out of the cage twice daily. I must have been nuts. The coup de grace occurred on my last day, mere hours before the owners were due home. The bird flew to the highest point of the house, some thirty feet up, and even on my tip toes on the top most rung of the ladder I couldn’t reach her. I begged her, pleaded beseechingly, holding the broom handle out to her. She wouldn’t budge. I started yelling, cursing; by this point I was a frazzled mess. I was totally losing it. This bird had me on the ropes. Somehow this worked, all my screaming and swearing, and she got on the broom handle. When we got to the floor she jumped off (by this time I was apologizing and cooing soft words of encouragement) and immediately started attacking me, pecking my legs, my arms, my face. I was waving my hands about, defending myself; the dog, seeing this, bolted. I have no idea where the cat was; he hardly made his presence known the entirety of my stay. Having had enough, while the bird was on my shoe I hopped over to the cage and shot my leg forward quickly, sending the bird flying haphazardly inside. She squawked loudly and landed awkwardly, but I didn’t care. I closed the door and shot the bolt. And then, for the next hour, she sat there on her perch glaring at me, holding one of her legs in the air. A dreaded certainty filled me, one that struck me with mortal terror: I’d broken her leg. This entire job had been a complete and total waste of my time; I was going to have to forfeit the money I’d earned paying for her vet bill. I paced in front of the cage, muttering to myself, preparing my story. There had to be some way of explaining this, of how the bird took over and was terrorizing me, but I knew in the end I would be at fault. So, when their key hit the lock, my heart jumped into my throat. Here it was, time to pay the piper. The owner and his wife came in, patted the dog on the head, and quickly approached the birdcage. The Cockatoo was their prized possession after all. Flinging open the door and holding out his arm, the bird hopped aboard and began twittering. ‘Here it comes’ I thought, but that wasn’t the case. She walked up his arm to his shoulder, over his head and down his other arm. Her leg was fine; she’d been playing me! To prove this, long after the job was over the owner called me, thanked me again and asked if I was available for next Christmas.
“I’m already booked with someone else,” I lied easily and, as I did so, I could hear the bird in the background, squawking loudly and uttering it’s most used phrase: “I love you.” Little bastard!