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Playa del Rey woman is a strong voice for planned parroting
Mira Tweti’s lorikeet is living the good life - ocean view, personal chef. Still, the owner advocates leaving such birds in the wild.
By Carla Hall, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
ZaZu hangs upside down on the curtains of the apartment window, surveying all that is his: the jumble of colorful plastic balls, the climbing ladders, the panoramic view of the ocean. And the woman standing before him, cooing.
“Whaddya say, cutie? Are you my sweetie?” she asks.
His head is a deep cobalt blue, his torso a flame red with black stripes. His back and his sweeping tail—“keet” denotes “long-tailed”—are Astroturf green.
ZaZu revs up for takeoff with a feathery whir that sounds like a toy helicopter and soars past his owner and out of the room.
Usually he follows her. “I’m the flock leader,” says Mira Tweti, whose last name is pronounced “tweety,” an impossibly perfect coincidence for a bird owner. (It’s Moroccan. She didn’t make it up.)
ZaZu flies into the kitchen and perches atop the refrigerator, the better to dominate the two strangers visiting his nest.
“This is the closest he’ll get to a tree,” Tweti explains.
A photographer moves in for a shot.
“Bye-bye,” ZaZu says in a voice that sounds like a scratchy tape recording.
“No, no, they’re not leaving,” Tweti tells ZaZu.
Once, she was a cat person. Now Mira Tweti is a bird person.
Tweti has sacrificed much of her two-bedroom Playa del Rey apartment to ZaZu, fashioning a mini-rain-forest-cum-bird-playground on her spacious balcony and draping the living room sofa in towels, since ZaZu poops frequently as he flies.
“It’s like living with a 3-year old,” Tweti says.
“Hello, hello,” ZaZu says. “Goodbye.”
Once a film publicist, Tweti has written extensively on bird and environmental issues for various publications (including this one). Her just-released book, “Of Parrots and People,” offers a portrait of the avians that is alternately serious and quirky. (“Research on wild birds has shown that 30% of the time, birds fly for fun,” she writes.) It also examines the often brutal practices of the parrot trade, both legal and illegal.
Earlier this year, Tweti published “Here, There and Everywhere,” an elaborately illustrated children’s book about a rainbow lorikeet. The book is fictional, but it’s filled with facts about parrots.
Of the roughly 350 species of parrots indigenous to the world’s tropical zones, a few dozen are lorikeets, all distinguished by their long, tapered tails. Lorikeets such as ZaZu—who is 11 inches from head to tail—live about two decades, sometimes longer. Some African greys and Amazons can live into their 70s. Macaws and cockatoos have been known to live beyond 80.
Tweti’s devotion to parrots has led her to a “Born Free” paradox: The pet she loves is a wild animal and shouldn’t be a pet at all, she believes. “It’s like putting a human being in solitary confinement,” says Tweti, who adopted ZaZu from a family that was giving him away.
Parrot owners who can no longer handle the energetic, vocal creatures typically ditch them, Tweti says, filling bird sanctuaries that have sprung up across the country. (Or they “free” them, which explains, at least in Southern California, why it’s possible to see flocks of wild parrots cavorting in various neighborhoods.) She insists that parrots are the “fastest-growing unwanted pet”—an assertion other bird welfare advocates can’t prove but suspect is accurate.
Tweti, who has helped place 53 parrots in zoos and sanctuaries in the last three years, says that if people insist on having a parrot, they should adopt from a rescue group, shelter or other owner. “Don’t ever buy a bird from a store,” says Richard Farinato, senior advisor on sanctuaries and captive wildlife to the Humane Society of the U.S. “You’re supporting a trade you probably don’t want to know about.”
Most pet parrots have been bred domestically, often under stressful conditions. Breeding parrots may live in dark, sterile cages, without enriching toys or baths, and their hatchlings are yanked away to be fed with plastic syringes. Although it’s illegal, an unknown number of wild parrots are smuggled into the U.S. every year, mostly through Mexico.
Farinato praises Tweti for getting the word out.
“She is making the public much more aware of the plight of pet parrots through her books and the attention she gets,” he says. “It’s bringing that issue into the mainstream, where it hasn’t really resonated with people yet.”
Tweti’s trail to parrots began in 1995, when she paid a couple of breeders at an outdoor festival $300 for a baby rainbow lorikeet. She named him Mango.
“Mango understood what I was saying,” she said. “You have a pet that says ‘good morning’ and that he loves you—it doesn’t get better than that.”
But after a while, he seemed bored. When Tweti left for work, she could hear his screams as she drove away. “There’s no benefit to a parrot to be in captivity,” she says.
She changed jobs and started working from home. “I didn’t quit to stay home with my parrot,” she says. “But I was as unhappy leaving for an office as he was being left behind.”
“Bird people are all a little crazy,” says Terri Haines, senior aviculturist at Aquarium of the Pacific, which has the country’s largest lorikeet exhibit. Haines has an eclectus parrot of her own. “You spend your time with a pet that squawks and bites you and poops on you.”
When Mango died of an infection at age 11 in February 2006, Tweti was devastated. She held a memorial for him. She decided she would not get another bird, even a rescued one. But after a Tennessee family she had coached for months on coping with their rainbow lorikeet finally decided to give the bird away, she agreed to take him. That was two years ago. Believing that parrots learn their names better if they end in a vowel, she renamed the bird. “Pretty Bird” of Nashville became “ZaZu” of Playa del Rey.
It’s not a stretch to say that Tweti’s parrots have been her babies. Married and divorced, she chose not to have children. She is 51 and petite, with dark hair she crops close, less as a fashion statement and more out of Buddhist tradition. She has taken vows as a monk and opted for celibacy. And birds.
Tweti warms ZaZu’s apple juice in the microwave and puts it out in one bowl. In another, she puts a powdery mixture containing nectar, vitamins and pollen. “He’s on the same diet as a hummingbird,” she says. ZaZu, as is his preference, uses his beak to mix the dry food with the juice.
He picks up a slice of mandarin orange, nibbling at it.
Tweti insists that when parrots talk, they assign some meaning, just as humans do.
As she sits talking, ZaZu perches on his favorite lampshade a few feet away. He launches into a staticky stream-of-consciousness patter:
“It’s OK. You OK? OK. OK . . . “
Tweti says ZaZu natters on about being “OK” to calm himself in stressful situations (such as visitors hovering about, taking his picture, sticking a microphone in his face). “That’s what I tell him when he’s stressed,” she says. “I say, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK.’ “
Beci Carr, former senior aviculturist at Aquarium of the Pacific, says lorikeets aren’t the best talkers in the parrot world, but she wholeheartedly agrees with Tweti that parrots are capable of understanding what is said to them—and of using words in canny, even humorous, ways.
She tells of a female friend who had an African grey parrot with toy ball bearings in his cage. The parrot—and she says she witnessed this—“would call the dogs in the mom’s voice and the dogs would come to the cage. He would lean over and drop big ball bearings on their heads and laugh in this guttural laugh.”
A glass wall and a balcony run the length of Tweti’s—and ZaZu’s—apartment. A third of the balcony has been netted into an outdoor aviary, full of amusements. When Tweti is home, ZaZu spends much of his time cruising around the apartment.
When she has a dinner party, she puts ZaZu to bed in his sleeping cage before guests arrive. “But more often than not, guests will say, ‘Can ZaZu come out?’ And I say, ‘Yes, but he’s going to poop on you,’ ” she says. Her guests insist. She hands out “poop jackets”—old flannel shirts—for cover.
“She is in the top 2% of bird owners—that she would do something that extravagant,” Carr says. “She is doing the best she can to give that bird the best habitat she can.”
The photographer snaps her last pictures and prepares to leave. “Bye-bye,” the photographer says.
“OK. OK, bye,” ZaZu says.