By Jim Misunas
LARNED — The give-and-take between Daniel Ray and “Paco,” was striking.
Paco, an Amazon bird, kept in close quarters with Ray, who encouraged the playful attention with soft-spoken words.
Four inmates entrusted with around-the-clock care of the exotic birds all say their aggressive and angry personalities have been transformed into trust and cooperation — thanks to the birds.
Ray said Paco has helped changed him because he used to be hateful.
Roger Davison has learned patience and responsibility.
Steven Gallegos is calmer and has put his anger issues in the past.
Terry Ross has learned to trust others.
The long-term maximum-security inmates at the Larned Correctional Mental Health Facility earn the privilege of working one-on-one with the exotic birds in the “Birds Befriended Program.”
The Birds Befriended Program at LCMHF was launched in 2006 by Mike Cargill of the Brit Spaugh Zoo and Warden Karen Rohling.
“We are seeing the Birds Befriended Program change lives before our eyes,” said Greg Perez, LCMHF correctional officer II. “These inmates are people with serious behavioral and discipline problems.”
The birds arrive with many of the same issues as the inmates — they exhibit behavior issues, are hard to control and don’t trust people.
The inmates have ample time to work with the birds, but they must develop the patience.
“The birds often come with behavioral issues and they need to be socialized,” Perez said. “The bond they form with people has everything to do with trust. The inmates and birds need each other.”
Once the birds trust their handlers, they quickly show their intelligence. All of them talk and several have been taught to fetch items and go to the bathroom in a trash can.
Perez said the inmates thrive with the one-on-one contact with the birds, who are totally dependent.
“The program makes the inmates responsible for an animal’s life,” Perez said. “The inmates learn compassion for another living thing. They gain self worth, learn about caring and teamwork and have to take total responsibility.”
Ray doesn’t quite understand how his transformation happened.
“Something happened spiritually and we developed an immediate bond,” he said.
Ray said he’s gone through some tough times that led him to avoid responsibility and be hateful to others. But his doting care of Paco has softened his approach.
“Now, I think before I act and slow down before I say anything,” he said. “Now, if I say the wrong thing, I can apologize for it.”
He had his privileges taken away for a missed step, but vowed it wouldn’t happen again. Paco talks the most during the morning, saying, “I’m a healthy bird,” “I love you,” and “What’s you doing?”
“That taught me a lesson that I need to control my anger,” Ray said. “Paco has changed me.”
Davison develops a bird’s trust before he often turns them over to another inmate. He’s so gifted, he’s known as the “Bird Whisperer.” His newest bird is a white Cockatoo, “Monty,” which says “Hello,” “Good-bye,” and “What’s Going on?”
Davison lived with dogs and horses when he was growing up. But he was skeptical working with the birds.
“It’s really helped me learn responsibility because it’s up to me to take care of Monty,” he said. “It’s taught me a lot of patience and helped me with my anger.”
Gallegos wasn’t sure he had the patience to take care of the birds, but he’s learned the birds keep him on an even emotional keel and help him stay out of trouble.
“Before, I had a hard time sitting down and listening to people,” Gallegos said. “Now, I’m able to be quiet because I see how the birds act.”
Rudy, a beautiful Macaw, says “Hi,” “Thank you,” and “Water.” But Rudy’s favorite trick is stretching out his wings when Gallegos says, “Exercise!”
“It’s a good program that has helped me in a lot of ways,” he said.
Ross has learned trust is a two-way street from “Valentino,” a colorful Macaw.
“Taking care of a bird is a lot of responsibility — a lot like taking care of a young child,” he said. “The birds are loyal, but you have to earn their trust.”