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Saving Misfit Birds is Couple's Passion

Walk into the residence of Sandi and Randy Meinholz, and you might feel like you’re at a wildlife park, rather than in a condominium on Madison’s west side. This husband and wife team operate the Fine Feathered Friends Avian Sanctuary, which they es
Walk into the residence of Sandi and Randy Meinholz, and you might feel like you’re at a wildlife park, rather than in a condominium on Madison’s west side. This husband and wife team operate the Fine Feathered Friends Avian Sanctuary, which they established last July. Almost every room in the couple’s four-level condo is filled to capacity with cages of birds, about 32 of them on any given day. Small birds like finches and canaries, as well as a wide variety of parrot species, including budgerigars, cockatiels, conures, lovebirds, macaws and cockatoos, are common residents at the sanctuary.

During the short period since it’s been opened, Fine Feathered Friends has cared for 350 birds, the majority surrendered by frustrated owners who didn’t anticipate the challenges of living with a bird.

The desirable qualities of parrots -- beauty, intelligence and sociability – have turned them into popular companion animals. But many consumers have unrealistic expectations, and are often not aware that birds are loud and messy creatures that demand attention, and can bite with the power of a hydraulic jack. As a result, these birds are often shuffled from home-to-home like toys. Some people have even admitted to buying a parrot because it fit in well with their home décor.

A 14-year old female Umbrella Cockatoo named Gypsy wears a protective collar to prevent her from mutilating herself. She is being treated with Zoloft (a drug similar to Prozac) to reduce symptoms associated with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Sandi says that although Gypsy’s original owner had good intentions, she didn’t do her homework, even about basic things like nutrition. “She was eating macaroni and cheese one day and Oscar Mayer bologna the next. And she was fed a lot of sunflower seeds, which are high in fat content.”

For the first four years, Gypsy’s owner showered her with attention, practically spending the entire day with. The only time Gypsy was put in her cage was to sleep. But once she went to work full-time, this attention ceased, and Gypsy was now getting only about an hour each day out of the cage. Because the bird had been so dependent on her owner, this schedule change had devastating effects. Starved for companionship, Gypsy learned that harming herself would get her the attention she desperately needed.

The reasons why birds end up at Fine Feathered Friends vary. Often times, their owners just get tired of them, or find that the novelty of having an exotic bird has worn off. Others, like Paco, a Moluccan Cockatoo, are surrendered because they are victims of violence. Randy says that the woman who owned Paco lived with an abusive husband, who also harmed the bird: “Her husband would punch the bird in the beak every time he talked.”

As heartbreaking as these stories are, the Meinholzes know that there is great need for their work. Sandi adds that this is her dream job; “I have the pleasure of loving so many beautiful birds, my heart is very full, and I feel so lucky.”

But rescue work is about more than just being around birds. It is physically, emotionally and mentally challenging work that requires a 24-hour a day, lifelong commitment. Sandi says that she averages about five hours sleep each nite. She and Randy spend a large portion of their days cleaning cages, feeding and socializing with the birds. And then there’s taking birds to the veterinarian, tending to individual needs – like treating Gypsy’s wound with antibiotics – working with adopters, and running the office.

Coupled with their responsibility to Taskmasters, an office cleaning business they own and operate, there isn’t much time left for anything else.

There’s also the persistent challenge of raising funds to support the rescue. Running Fine Feathered Friends is expensive, and over the past ten months, the Meinholzes have spent over $1100 in veterinary bills and $7000.00 for toys, cages and playstands. This doesn’t include the $350.00 per month that’s needed for bird foods and office expenses.

The Meinholzes are also seeing an increase in the number of birds they’re receiving. And with their refusal to turn any bird away, they are desperate to move into a larger facility.

They currently derive much of their income from monetary and other donations, auctions, bird adoption fees, and special events such as garage sales, silent auctions and carnivals.

If you would like more information about the sanctuary, or would like to make a donation, please contact Sandi and Randy Meinholz at 608-274-2615. You can also visit them online at www.feathered-friends.com.

Note: Shortly after this article was written, Gypsy was adopted out by two women, one a worker at a Beaver Dam veterinary clinic, and the other a worker at the Beaver Dam Humane Society.

About the Author

Paula Fitzsimmons has written numerous articles for animal and companion bird magazines, and is the author of the highly-praised "105 Careers for Animal Lovers". Her bachelor of science degree is from the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

Paula Fitzsimmons