Parrots Heal PTSD

I want to tell you some intriguing things about parrots I've recently learned.   And then, why paying attention to parrots is important to human survival.

I always thought parrots were mere mimics. But it turns out they are highly intelligent.  They understand many words and often use them with caring intentions. A moving story in the New York Times describes traumatized parrots as remarkably effective therapists for people with PTSD.

Not just by entertaining, but by interacting in ways clearly intended to comfort and restore. Tests show some have the cognitive intelligence of five year old children.

As flock creatures, parrots are wired to use their intelligence to bond with and assist others.  As pets, they are deprived of their natural flock and bond with their human masters instead.  When abandoned they are devastated and lost, and display symptoms similar to human victims of trauma.

But in settings where their powers for relationship are respected, parrots display an astonishing ability to recognize human needs and reach out to actively  assist.

As remarkable as the news story itself is the response of readers.  One recounted an experience with a beloved parrot after the reader suffered a car accident.  When the reader finally arrived home after weeks in the hospital, the bird greeted her with “Where were you?”, a phrase the bird never used before or since.

Nearly 300 people commented in the first day of its posting, and not a single reply was negative.  It’s a known fact that that many readers of the New York Times don’t agree about one thing, ever!

So what do parrots treating PTSD have to do with peace and conflict resolution?

Something I learned in the middle of church fights as a young mediator and relearned across the years in places like South Africa, Ireland, and the Middle East:  Hope is the single most important ingredient for peace.

When people think nothing can change for the better, it doesn’t.   When people think that good things might happen, they often do.

Hope doesn’t guarantee peace.  But loss of hope guarantees conflict.  Without hope of things getting better, people prepare for the worst and the law of the jungle eventually prevails.  So preservation of hope turns out to be essential to human survival.

This story about the amazing intelligence of birds, about their ability to care for broken human beings and restore them to life, renews my hope.   Humanity is not so alone and lost as we often feel that we are.   There are resources in the world, in the most unexpected places, capable of nurturing and healing us, if we only know how to open ourselves to them.

For several decades I’ve taught, published, and trained people in many skills for resolving conflicts, ranging from conflict style awareness to listening skills to meeting facilitation to process design.   I believe deeply in those things.  But none make a dent unless people have hope in the possibility of things getting better.

So part of the job in building peace is to feed hope.  But admonishing people to be hopeful doesn’t cut it.  People need encouraging encounters with caring parrots and other kindly creatures – especially the two-legged ones – to keep hope alive.

And when such encounters are scarce, we need stories that remind us of the reality of kindness.

Peace starts with hope; hope arises from experiences of kindness, forgiveness, and grace.   When the latter are in short supply, stories can keep alive the hope on which depends all possibility of peace.

It's not just people at war who need to hear such stories.   Those who labor for peace must feed our own inner springs of hope.   Make time for the parrots!