Going to the Government

It wasn't an easy decision to pursue a law. I grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s when it was considered unhip to support laws that attempted to control personal behavior. But when a particular human behavior creates an authentic problem, when it's a matter of defending the defenseless, then making a law against said behavior is a legitimate function of government. I hadn't fed the flock since December of the previous year. It was obvious to me that if I were still feeding the parrots while asking for a law to stop others from doing the same, my position would be weak. So I decided that my days of feeding the birds were over.

My first stop at City Hall was a public meeting of the Recreation and Parks Department. They listened and were sympathetic, but they referred me to my district representative, Supervisor Aaron Peskin. So, a few days later I went to Supervisor Peskin's office and talked with him about what was happening at the park. He understood my concerns and agreed with them. We looked up the relevant ordinance, Section 486 of the Police Code.

SEC. 486. FEEDING BIRDS AND WILD ANIMALS PROHIBITED.

It shall be unlawful for any person to feed or offer food to any bird or wild animal in or on any sidewalk, street or highway of the City and County.

Supervisor Peskin added the word "park" as a proposed change to the law, and that was all. It didn't prohibit feeding birds from backyard feeders or anything of that sort.

On May 10, the proposed change had a hearing before the City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee, which consisted of Supervisors Michela Alioto-Pier, Jake McGoldrick, and Ed Jew. Supervisor McGoldrick was out of the country at the time, so testimony was heard by Supervisors Alioto-Pier and Jew. Both sides, pro-feeding and anti-feeding, were present at the meeting, and both sides made their case. On our side we had, among others, Alan Hopkins, a past-president of the Golden Gate Audubon Society and Jennifer Erlichman of Mickaboo as speakers. One of those others was Bill Widnall, the man who had started the feedings in the park and had come to regret it. We also had letters of support from, among others, Dr. James Gilardi, director of the World Parrot Trust, as well as the avian veterinarian who has been caring for the injured and ill flock members. On the other side, the feeders had themselves and a petition signed by passersby. The two supervisors were uncomfortable with one aspect of the proposed change. It seemed to ban the feeding of ducks by children in Golden Gate Park. So the wording was changed to ban only the feeding of "red-masked parakeets" (the species' ornithological name) in city parks. The vote was 2-0 in favor, which sent the proposed ordinance on to the full Board of Supervisors.

At that point, the feeder group's personal attacks on me escalated sharply. Their arguments became increasingly convoluted. They talked as if there were no difference between birds eating from backyard feeders and from a human hand. In all their arguing, they stressed only the rights of human beings. When it was useful to them, they claimed that the parrots depended on the feedings for their survival. At other times, they insisted that the amount of food they provided was negligible and had little effect on the flock. They'd also misinterpreted, to their own advantage, previous statements I'd made. For example, I'd spoken about other people having fed them before me. They decided that I'd meant by hand. Accordingly, they concluded that the intimate interaction with human beings had been going on for decades. But the hand feeding had begun with me. The previous feeders to whom I'd referred had simply watched the parrots at their backyard bird feeders. When I pointed this out to one of the feeders, his response was that I had no way of knowing whether others had fed them by hand or not. I had no proof that they hadn't. He mentioned Laurel Wroten, a woman who'd been observing the parrots at her backyard feeder before I became involved. He seemed to imply that she could have been lying to me. Besides having no reason to tell me such a lie, and besides being one of the sweetest, most honest people I know, she'd lent me her bird diaries from that period. The diaries never once mentioned feeding them by hand. I was to encounter this kind of argument from the feeders constantly. Can you prove it? Do you have photographs? And so on.

The online arguing became so twisted that responding was a waste of time. The personal attacks were relentless. They accused me of having gotten rich off the birds. They claimed that I was trying to maintain the mystique of the parrots for myself. Well, I'm not wealthy. Few people get rich writing books, and the film did well for what it was - an independent, non-profit documentary in theatrical release. By Hollywood's standards, it would have to be considered a bomb. Many, if not most, Americans equate fame with wealth, but it doesn't work that way. I make less than a schoolteacher. As for their assertion that I was trying to maintain the mystique of the parrots for myself, that seemed to contradict their first assertion that I was trying to get rich off the parrots. I assume that I'd stand to sell a lot more books if there were thousands of tourists passing through San Francisco and having their own special Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill experience.

Whereas the feeders had once admired my explorations into the life of the parrot flock, they now doubted everything I'd ever said. One of them asked if I'd ever had anything published in a scientific review. I hadn't—it had never been a goal of mine —but I'd always strived for accuracy. I wanted to know the flock's reality. But many people believe that without a degree you don't have eyes to see or a mind that can think. They mocked my claim that a bird might bite someone's eyes. I'd seen that they often go after each other's eyes, and I'd had the corners of my eyes pecked by birds perched on my shoulder. The danger was real and represented a real opening for a law suit against the city. (If you question this at all, click here.) They searched endlessly for inconsistencies. One feeder assured me that my efforts to protect the flock were in vain, that one day the only parrots anybody would ever see would be those in cages, aviaries and zoos. And I was supposed to accept this as clear-minded, adult thinking!

I never responded in kind; I never resorted to ad hominem attacks. I simply stuck to my position, and the feeders stuck to theirs. It was clear that no one was going to change his or her mind about anything, so I quit the online group.

At the meeting of the full Board of Supervisors the vote was 10-1 in favor of the ordinance to ban the feeding. The only vote against was by Supervisor Ed Jew, who, oddly, had voted in favor of the ordinance at the initial hearing of his own subcommittee. San Francisco law requires that the Board of Supervisors vote twice on these things. In between the two votes the feeders mounted an intense lobbying campaign with petitions, letters, emails, phone calls, and videos on YouTube—videos that revealed the location of the feedings, something that they had previously acknowledged would be a bad move. Despite their efforts, the second vote was identical, 10-1.

After the second vote, there was a waiting period of more than a month for the law to take effect. During the waiting period, the feedings continued, and because of the YouTube videos and some local and national news stories about the law, the danger to the flock grew. There were at least two public attempts made to grab parrots. It was already illegal to take a parrot—or any bird for that matter—but this was something that had been nearly impossible to pull off before the situation at the park came into being.

The Aftermath

One day in July, a few days before the ordinance went into effect, Judy Irving, Jennifer Erlichman from Mickaboo, a friend Michael Stone, and I went down to the park to hand out leaflets and talk with the feeders. Because of all the publicity, their numbers had grown. Most of them assured us that they intended to stop as soon as the ordinance became effective. Others, though, were argumentative. They assured us that they intended to defy the law, even boasting about their eagerness to be ticketed—although they laughed at the idea that there would be any police enforcement. It was clear to our group that there couldn't be any compromises with the outlaw feeders. So we put together a patrol that began going down to the park every day to watch for violators. We also began talking to the various police agencies, explaining the reasons for the law and the need for enforcement. It's difficult to win enthusiasm from police agencies for enforcement of this kind of a law, and I understand why. But the police response was good, and I'm grateful to them.

The feedings eventually wound down and came to an end. I'd like to think that after the heated emotions cooled down, reason returned. Nevertheless, we continue to spot check the park. (If you'd like to volunteer for spot check duty, send an email to mark (dot) bittner (at) earthlink (dot) net.)

The feeders often claimed that they were simply following in the tradition of the man for whom this city was named: Saint Francis. But I would raise this question: What is a saint? A saint is someone who has mastered himself and has overcome his selfishness and self-indulgence. A saint is acutely aware of the effects he creates and is responsible for everything that he does.

Many of the feeders' arguments were semantic games. One of them told me that it's inaccurate to call the parrots "wild," given that they're nonnative. But that's just words. The founding members of the flock were wild-caught birds from South America, and at this point all the birds have been born in the trees here. They've been taught to forage by their wild-born parents. Their instincts are the same as wild birds. They are wild birds. I think that denying them the tag "wild" was an unconscious - perhaps even conscious - effort to justify the flock's domestication.

I'm constantly reminded that I "started all of this" with a book and a film. But what if I'd written nothing and the birds had been destroyed by those in powerful governmental positions who hold extreme positions with regard to nonnative species? (This is happening right now to parrot flocks in several states.) How should I have felt then? It's ironic that it has been the government that has come to the flock's rescue. For that I thank the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, especially Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Bevan Dufty, neither of whom had anything to gain by sponsoring this measure. I would also like to thank the officers of the San Francisco Police Department at Central Station, San Francisco Animal Care and Control officers, and the Park Rangers from San Francisco Rec and Park Department, all of whom cooperated in seeing that the law was enforced. I would also like to give a huge thank you to the anonymous volunteer members of the Parrot Park Patrol. They've been unbelievably dedicated and have done an amazing job.

For many centuries the human approach toward nature has been based on our own desires. It's still controversial to say that animals have rights. Rights are generally seen as something political. But rights are not merely political; they are spiritual and inherent. They exist even when they are not recognized. It's not the government's role to give rights, but to protect rights. We human beings have an obligation to figure out how to make room for wild creatures. They have as much right as we do to live out their lives in freedom.

If you want to have an intimate experience with a tame parrot, which is what the feeders were trying to turn the wild parrots into, then you should go to one of the many parrot rescue organizations—like Mickaboo—where there are thousands of unwanted parrots living in crowded care facilities, waiting for adoption. And if you want to delight in the existence of a wild parrot flock, then the wild parrots must be left to their own devices. Let's keep them wild. Let's keep them free.

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