The Gabriel Foundation: Noble mission, neighborhood nuisance
Aspen Times Staff Writer
It doesn’t take a bird-watcher to know that parrots aren’t native to the Roaring Fork Valley.
So it may come as a surprise that in the midvalley neighborhood of Emma, some 6,700 feet above sea level in the central Rockies, more than 150 parrots live and play in a sanctuary run by one successful nonprofit.
The Gabriel Foundation deems itself a “parrot welfare organization,” probably since its relationship with parrots extends from food, housing and health care to a broad array of avian social services.
Since 1996, parrots that have been abandoned or mistreated have flocked to the nonprofit, where they are cared for, rehabilitated and possibly adopted.
Not all of the birds are there because of their owners’ misdeeds. Some come from loving owners who have decided they can’t keep their pets, but would rather give the creatures to avian experts than take a chance on a substandard owner.
“If they didn’t care for their birds, they would have just put an ad in the newspaper and tried to sell them,” said Rick Van Tuyl, aviary manager.
The Gabriel Foundation is at the top of its field in educating people about parrot care, and decided long ago never to refuse a bird in need. As a result, the organization has around 70 different species living beneath its eaves.
As one foundation employee noted, Gabriel is better known nationally and even internationally than it is by its own neighbors. Founder and executive director Julie Murad says her Emma neighborhood has always been “very much a live-and-let-live” sort of place.
But Murad’s perceptions changed recently when a neighbor complained that the noisy birds were making it hard to sell a property next door. Eagle County quickly took notice, since there is no appropriate zoning category for a parrot refuge.
The future of the Gabriel Foundation is now uncertain, with supporters bemoaning the possible loss of the bird-loving organization, and opponents saying the squawking birds have no place in a quiet neighborhood.
A strange place for birds of a different color
During midwinter, the foundation’s 10 acres on the Pitkin-Eagle county line are shades of white, gray and brown. Snow covers dormant fields, and horses and cows munch on bales of hay. Besides a small “Parrot Xing” sign at the entrance to a driveway, there’s no hint of tropical birds nearby.
Murad lives down this driveway, in a large, Southwestern-style house less than 300 feet from the aviary ” a building that used to house an indoor basketball court. Alongside the driveway is a large wire cage, or “flight,” two stories tall.
On a late January morning the cage is empty. It’s snowing lightly and mud puddles are covered with ice. Then a faraway bird call breaks the silence, followed quickly by another.
It’s a muffled sound this time, but neighbors claim the birds are noisier when they’re outside in the large, wire-encased flight. The parrots spend much more time outdoors during the summer, but even in winter there is a deafening noise when a visitor enters the aviary.
Popeye, a green parrot with a yellow head, hollers “Hi!” to everyone who comes through the door. Popeye is also known to say “See you later!” when employees punch the time clock at the end of each day.
The aviary contains five rooms full of cages and a quarantine room upstairs for newcomers. Staff members feed the birds, transport them to the outdoor flight, and take them out of their cages regularly just to hold them close.
School groups and potential parrot owners visit the aviary regularly, and the foundation is well-known among aviary experts.
So how did the parrot sanctuary end up in the central Rocky Mountains? The answer to that is executive director Murad’s story.
How a birdbrain is born
When asked if she really finds birds as cuddly and affectionate as, say, puppies, Murad’s love for her feathered friends shines through.
“They’re brilliant, their colors are beautiful, they can talk and interact with humans, and they’re incredibly empathetic creatures,” she said. “They really operate on a different level, by body language and a human’s energy. They’re social and outgoing, and that makes them very desirable as pets.”
When she was growing up in a Chic-ago suburb, Murad’s family always had a parakeet. Her family came to Aspen to ski, and she has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley on and off during the last 42 years. But parrots didn’t enter the picture until she moved to the Middle East some 30 years ago.
Murad married a Kuwaiti man and moved to Kuwait in the early ’70s. Her husband’s family presented her with a South American parrot they had bought in the local market, even though she knew nothing about caring for such a large bird.
“I kept thinking about how far that bird had to travel, from South America, to be taken to Kuwait. There was no Internet and not much information in Kuwait about birds in 1972,” she said. She kept the bird, Babu, in her back yard, and in 1974 while she was in the hospital giving birth to her daughter, Babu was stolen.
Murad and her daughter moved back to Colorado in 1977, and she bought two small birds from a Wal-Mart in Denver. In Aspen Murad had a catering business and was at a client’s house when she discovered a small bird with a spectrum of colored feathers.
“I remember being so fascinated with that little parrot,” she said. “It was a sun conyer, and a woman at the pet store told me she would order one for me for $850.”
While hand-feeding this young bird, Salsa, Murad learned the intricacies of caring for a parrot.
In 1988 Murad and her daughter moved to the “very bird-savvy state” of California. She joined bird clubs and got involved with vets, breeders and pet stores, even taking classes at California State University, Long Beach.
In September 1995 Murad moved back to the Roaring Fork Valley, and one month later her brilliant blue hyacinth macaw, Gabriel, died after an infection in his small intestine.
“Having lived and worked with birds for 30-plus years, I felt it was very important to be able to give back to the birds,” she said. “So because this is home, and because Gabriel died, I decided to call it the Gabriel Foundation.”
The plight of parrots
A quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s “The Little Prince” appears on the foundation’s Web site, thegabrielfoundation.org:
“Many have forgotten this truth, but you must not forget it. You remain responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”
This is a point that Murad continually drives home to bird owners. After all, she said, not only do birds outlive other pets (and sometimes their owners), but once domesticated they can never be re-released into the wild.
“I tell people there’s good news and bad news about living with a bird,” she said. “They’re never going to grow up and leave you, but they’re never going to grow up and leave you.”
Birds can live for more than 25 years ” some at the Gabriel Foundation may live to be 100 years old. That’s why some dedicated parrot owners have left money for the Foundation in their will, stipulating that their pet will be taken in by the Foundation until adopted.
Caring for a bird is expensive. An exotic bird can cost more than $1,000, its cage around $600, and (if the bird is healthy) medical bills run about $250 a year. And these costs don’t include toys, a carrier and food.
The Gabriel Foundation’s 2004 budget is $750,000, and was just over $1 million last year. The budget might be bigger, Murad said, except that since she owns the land the Foundation has no rent to pay.
The nonprofit also reaches out to pet stores, conservationists and veterinarians on proper care of parrots. Murad regularly takes her message to the big-box pet stores like Petco and Petsmart, where teenagers with no background in bird care are selling them as pets.
“Birds need enrichment ” psychologically and physically,” Murad said. “These animals are designed to be aerobically healthy athletes, and what do we do? Put them in a cage with all of this food. People don’t realize that the quality of a bird’s life isn’t just petting him for five minutes each day.”
The foundation regularly receives “perch potatoes,” who must learn how to exercise once they reach the nonprofit.
“We want a bird to be a bird, and we take as much time as a bird needs for that,” Murad said.
Groundbreaking bird-care methods aside, what’s brought the most local attention to the Gabriel Foundation in the last few weeks are the complaints from neighbors about the ear-splitting din from Murad’s outdoor flight.
“I’ve been in my yard when just one bird is calling, and it’s amazing how much noise one bird can make,” said Gregg Mackey, president of the nearby Double K Homeowner’s Association. Mackey claimed his home is 170 feet from the flight.
Murad sleeps less than 30 feet from some of the foundation’s birds. Having run out of space in the aviary many months ago, she began placing parrots and large macaws inside her home. Walking through the ground floor of Murad’s house is like forging through some sort of rain forest of tile and drywall.
Small parrots in cages line the entryway, and crowd Murad’s office. In a hallway leading to her former dining room and living room, several cages contain pairs of brilliant cobalt-blue hyacinth macaws. These birds are large, nearly 3 feet tall from head to tail, and they cling to the cage with their claws and beaks, occasionally erupting with a piercing squawk.
The dining room and living room are filled with cages of macaws whose feathers are a rainbow of color, from bright crimson to deep blue and everything in between. A man nearby mopping the floor nods hello, but does not speak ” earplugs are crammed into both of his ears.
“It’s been a gradual creep ” she bought the property in 1999, and lately she’s been receiving birds a lot quicker than she’s able to adopt them out,” Mackey said.
Referring to the well-known sled-dog kennel in Snowmass Village, Mackey added, “I’d rather live next door to Krabloonik than these birds ” they make more of a screeching noise than the low bark of a dog.”
Many neighbors have told Eagle County officials they have no problem with the nonprofit’s mission, but the Emma neighborhood isn’t the best location for so many birds. And since a parrot sanctuary doesn’t fit into the “agriculture” zone district, Eagle County officials have taken notice.
The Roaring Fork Planning Commission recently tabled a decision whether to grant a special-use permit to the Gabriel Foundation until May 6. Meanwhile, the county staff plans to study the alleged noise in the area, along with the Foundation’s latest land-use plan, which includes building a new aviary and shed.
The Foundation has faced zoning problems before. The nonprofit first opened at the Aspen Veterinary Clinic in unincorporated Pitkin County, near Gerbazdale. Pitkin County Commissioners forced the nonprofit to leave the area because of zoning violations in 1999.
Murad said she’s been told that agricultural zoning applies to animals that are used either for food, have hooves, or lay eggs, and therefore that parrots don’t fit. It makes her wonder. “Where do you think baby parrots come from?” she has asked.
For now, the foundation’s future in the Roaring Fork Valley hangs in the balance. Murad considers this area her home, and her land the perfect location for her parrots. Bird enthusiasts from all over the country have offered her land to set up shop, including in Bend, Ore.
Eventually she hopes the Gabriel Foundation can expand to locations nationwide ” especially since many bird lovers already think they have.
“People think we’re like the Humane Society ” they call up and say ‘Can you tell me where the Gabriel Foundation is in my area?’ Well, there isn’t,” Murad said. “My life is here, my family is here, and my whole team is here. I hope there will be several Gabriel Foundations around the U.S. by the time I’m 65. If we can’t remain here, then we’ll be leaving.”
Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is email@example.com