Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Parrot Lady joins choir invisible

Wendy Huntbatch operated a parrot refuge at Coombs, B.C. (Deddeda White photograph)

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 7, 2016
One morning in 1995, Wendy Huntbatch discovered four beloved birds had been plucked from her aviary.

The pilfered parrots included three macaws and a green Amazon with a short tail and yellow nape named Apollo. The RCMP said the birds were worth $10,000, but as far as Ms. Huntbatch was concerned each was priceless.

“It's like having your child stolen,” she said at the time.

A public plea for their return attracted the attention of distressed parrot owners who could no longer care for their own birds and who saw in Ms. Huntbatch an opportunity. Soon, she was caring for 15 birds. More birds kept coming and the cause of nursing injured parrots back to health became her calling, dominating her life until her death from cancer last month. She was 70.

A tireless advocate, Ms. Huntbatch sought to educate the public on the unsuitability of parrots as household pets. She campaigned against the breeding of the birds for profit and was a fearless and outspoken critic of those bird-brained humans, notably gangsters and other lowlifes, who thought owning an exotic bird made them as dashing as a pirate.

She founded the World Parrot Refuge, a grand name for a roadside attraction built on scrub land on Vancouver Island.

The refuge is home to a dazzling array of birds, including some whose magnificent plumage is described in their name, such as Congo African greys, blue and gold macaws, Mexican red-headed amazons, green-winged macaws, orange-winged amazons, blue-front amazons, scarlet macaws, hyacinth macaws, and citron-crested cockatoos, as well as Australian kings, umbrella cockatoos, eclectus parrots, triton cockatoos, and military macaws, among others.

As loud as their colours, the cacophony of so many birds in an enclosed space, even one measuring 23,000-square-feet, is such that many of the refuge's 10,000 annual visitors choose to wear ear plugs.
The founder often solicited donations for her refuge, which was also supported by admission tickets, donations, an on-site thrift store, and proceeds from an adjacent 8,000-plant lavender farm. The facility has also received provincial government grants. It costs about $500,000 per year to keep the birds in nuts, seeds, peanuts, almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, and fresh fruit and vegetables, including broccoli.

A thin woman with a flighty air, Ms. Huntbatch displayed a birdlike quickness as she darted about the sanctuary, which included space allowing the birds to stretch their wings in flight. Many of the animals surrendered to the refuge arrive sick, or suffering from self-mutilation, a behaviour the founder attributed to the cruelty of having been kept in cages.
“Parrots have an extremely high intelligence and intelligent human beings can't be stuck in a prison,” she told the Abbotsford Times newspaper in 2004.

The parrots at the refuge are neither for sale nor adoption, although supporters are encouraged to contribute funds for the maintenance of specific birds as part of an online “virtual adoption” program. Needless to say, her flock grew in size over the passing years.

Born in Wolverhampton, England, on Sept. 1, 1945, the penultimate day of the Second World War, Wendy Norma Seabridge was the daughter of a homemaker and a mechanical engineer. She was concerned with animal welfare from an early age. She married and bore a son before emigrating to Canada in the mid-1970s.

She wound up living in the Fraser Valley east of Vancouver, where she served as branch president of the British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in the municipality of Mission.

In 2004, by which time she was caring for 400 parrots in a facility in Abbotsford, her flock was threatened by the possibility of a government-ordered cull to curtail an outbreak of avian influenza. 

She halted public tours and ordered visitors to change clothes and shoes when on site.

“We were like a sitting duck when that happened,” said Horst Neumann, her common-law partner and refuge co-founder.

The couple decided to abandon the Fraser Valley, home to many commercial poultry farms, for Vancouver Island. They sought a property on the Saanich Peninsula north of Victoria to be close to other tourist attractions such as Butterfly World and Butchart Gardens, but were unable to find a suitable location. They settled on a 22-acre property on the old highway that runs through Coombs, a community of about 1,400 people about 150 kilometres north of Victoria.

The refuge has not been without controversy. In 2006, her non-profit group faced a $13,000 tax bill from Revenue Canada for unpaid employee deductions. She tried to pay the bill by remortgaging the property, only to be rebuffed by her lender.
“They ask, 'What are you going to do with the money?' and you say are going to donate it to charity,” she told the Nanaimo Daily News.
In the end, supporters donated funds to cover the outstanding bill.

The refuge was also home to ferrel rabbits relocated from the University of Victoria after overrunning the campus. Alas, some of the rabbits escaped into an adjacent farmer's field to dine on grass and hay. The farmer shot 30 of them.

More recently, some disgruntled former employees alleged mistreatment of birds, although the manager of cruelty investigations for the SPCA said they spotted no problems at the refuge.

Through the turmoil and the never-ceasing demands for fundraising, Ms. Huntbatch also struggled with health problems following a diagnosis of cervical cancer more than four years ago.

Ms. Huntbatch died on Feb. 3, hours after being moved by ambulance from her home to a hospice in nearby Parksville. She leaves Mr. Neumann, her partner of 22 years, and a son, Justin Huntbatch. She also leaves a pandemonium of parrots numbering more than 700 birds.

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