Remembering Bam-Bam

A conversation on Facebook reminded me this morning of Bam-Bam. I wrote this account as part of a larger post in 2004, 12 years ago. I’ve sanitized it a bit, fixed it up, and framed it for the present day. I felt the need to share.

I found him one Sunday afternoon, at a pet store in Carrollton, Georgia, not far from the town of Douglasville where I lived at the time. It was about a year after I got my first bird, Phoenix, and I had been toying with the idea of another bird to keep him company. I’d heard this store had a lot of birds, so I went in for a look around and didn’t really expect to do much more than that.

There were certainly a lot of birds there. A baby umbrella cockatoo kept sticking his toes through the cage bars for attention. A yellow naped amazon was screaming noisily, and a crowd of finches chittered away in their cage. Somehow, though, my attention was drawn to a small, battered wire cage sitting on the floor, under a shelf, out of the way. In it was the scruffiest looking Timneh African Grey I had ever seen. He had chewed or plucked just about every feather on his body that he could reach, and the only ones that remained undamaged were on his head and the nape of his neck. I knelt down to see him and he immediately made a loud, cork-popping noise, followed by a very clear and unequivocal, “NO!” When I approached more closely, he retreated to the far side of the cage, shivering and making sounds similar to a chicken clucking.

My heart went out to this bird. He’d been horribly mistreated.  Bird psychology is not like human psychology, and people who don’t understand birds can really do a lot of damage. Birds’ image of their own importance and status is directly tied to the height of their roost or living quarters in relation to the rest of their social group. Birds on high perches feel powerful and dominant, while birds on low perches feel intimidated and submissive. Some people feel the best response to a nippy bird is to put him at floor level for a while. That’s true if the nippiness is just aggression, but if the nippiness is due to fear or abuse, then putting the bird in a low position just makes the problem worse. This bird was terrified of people, probably because he’d been mistreated by them at some point in his life, and now he was nearly insane from fear and the stress of being at foot-level with people walking around. The cage he was in was also far too small. It couldn’t have been a foot on each side and was made of cross-welded rat wire.

I asked the pet shop owner about him, trying to keep the irritation out of my voice. I already hated her for allowing this abuse but making that known could only make things worse.

“Ah, that one.  Bam-Bam,” she said with some disdain. “You won’t want him for anything but breeding.  He’s mean.” She then named a price that was less than a quarter of what one would normally expect to pay for a Timneh Grey.

I went back into the aviary, picked up his cage, and set it on top of the cockatoo cage. I opened the door. I was being pretty ambitious, especially since I wasn’t a seasoned, expert bird handler at the time, but I did know what I was doing. The bird’s mood, as I expected, changed immediately. He still wanted to bite any hand that got near him, but he was more confident and a bit of personality started to emerge. With some effort I got him to step onto a wooden dowel, then transferred him onto the top of the cockatoo cage. I put the dowel down, positioned my hand in front of him, put the other one behind him, and said, ‘STEP UP” in a firm voice. He stepped onto my hand. At that moment, looking at this poor, abused creature, I knew he had to come home with me. I had to rescue him from this hell.

Two days later, Bam-Bam had a new, bigger cage, a nice spot at eye level near a window, and lots of attention. He still had quite a beak on him, and in training any bird one expects a few bites. My hands were covered with small wounds for the next two or three months as I worked with him every single day. With time he came to accept and even enjoy human contact. He was even a bit of a clown. He learned to ask for peanuts. He did some fantastic impersonations, calling people using other people’s voices. The cork pop became his call for attention, and the chicken cluck remained his “nervous” sound, but he also built quite a nice vocabulary.

Once, I forgot to change the battery in my smoke alarm and he learned the sound far too well. I changed the battery, but I never stopped hearing that beep, which he could reproduce with uncanny fidelity. He barked with the dog, he squawked along with Phoenix, and he even stopped chewing his feathers.  He became a part of the flock. He was happy!

You always remember where you were when a bad call comes. I was in a recording studio in Alpharetta, Georgia, mixing a song with my mentor Jerry Ragovoy, when my cell phone rang, and I was told Bam-Bam had died. I rushed home, which was an hour away, and I think there were a few moments when I couldn’t see the road.  When I got there, I was told he’d been found on the floor of his cage, lying still. A heart condition seems to be the most likely explanation of his demise, apparently it’s common among Timnehs. The stress he suffered early in life couldn’t have helped it. I looked at him, at the body that had been his, and couldn’t believe the unfairness of losing him now.  We’d come so far. He was well-adjusted, talking, eating right, and he’d even grown back most of the feathers he’d chewed away. He was beautiful. I was crushed.

The adherents of some religions will tell you there’s no heaven or hell for animals, that there is no afterlife at all for them. They just go away. I cannot agree. I could not bear to believe this. If there’s no eternal life for pets, no “promised land,” then how else can they be rewarded for the joy they give us in life? They are born innocent.

I still miss that silly, funny, sweet grey bird that I made friends with that day in that grimy pet store, brought into my life, and made a part of my family. The loss is still something I keenly feel even now, 12 years later. I comfort myself today by reminding myself that wherever Bam-Bam is now, he’s even more beautiful … in full, shiny feather, with bright eyes, proud and happy, and eating a steady diet of his favorite peanuts from the very hand of God … and driving all of heaven crazy with that smoke alarm beep.

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