Wounded veterans and rescued parrots heal together at Serenity Park
Story By Bliss Bowen · Photos by Courtnay Robbins
A moment ago, as a passing helicopter’s blades sliced blue sky overhead, we nearly had to shout to be heard above the piercing, disorienting cacophony of 42 shrieking parrots, barely visible through thick wire mesh beneath a sun-dappled canopy of trees. Then, suddenly, the noise cut out. Silence now weighs on skin like a physical presence, a surreal feeling that heightens the sense of slipping into an alternate dimension far from the city. A calico cat pokes through grass and cactus, either blasé or deaf.
This shady oasis of green is a nonprofit sanctuary for parrots and military veterans with trauma issues. Founded by clinical psychologist Lorin Lindner, Serenity Park is a stone’s throw from Jackie Robinson Stadium, tucked inside the 387-acre Veterans Administration Medical Center grounds in West L.A. Within the sanctuary, the mad vehicular rush on Sepulveda Boulevard and the 405 Freeway sounds as muffled as eucalyptus leaves soft-shoeing on an April breeze. Serenity Park’s name conjures visions of calm ponds and St. Francis statues, but amidst the parrots’ high-decibel “flocking” — calling out to one another for reassurance — the thought occurs that these birds could make Metallica sound acoustic.
“Hello! Are you hungry?” Lindner emerges, lithe and smiling, and waves a hand toward a picnic table laden with sandwiches, cookies, and a pitcher of water left from a morning meeting. We discuss the release date for “Birds of a Feather: A True Story of Hope, Healing, and the Power of Animals,” about her circuitous journey to becoming a patron saint of abused parrots.
Burly director of operations Matt Simmons offers a hearty handshake. Intense and conversational, Simmons served as a Navy yeoman in Iraq during Desert Storm and gives the alert appearance of someone who’s never met a stranger. In her book Lindner calls him “the most sensitive macho man I had ever met.” After chatting briefly, he spins off to oversee sanctuary business.
The book depicts the organic evolution of Lindner’s pay-it-forward convictions, love of parrots and staunch belief in nature’s healing powers, which combined to birth the sanctuary. Cycling through the pages is a recurring theme of homecoming. In 1987, while still a UCLA behavioral science grad student, the New York native rescued a screaming Moluccan cockatoo, Sammy, then adopted a companion with broken tail feathers, Mango. In 1997, motivated by homeless veterans she was helping, Lindner started working as clinical director for New Directions,
a one-year residential treatment facility housed at the VA; it was there that Mango seeded the idea for Serenity Park, when a hard-case veteran lowered his previously impenetrable defenses with the cuddly parrot in Lindner’s office.
After she established a sanctuary in Ojai, the VA granted permission to relocate it to a decaying basketball court alongside Vet’s Garden. Serenity Park has been operational since 2005. Everything, she says, has been built with donated materials.
Since then, veterans gripped by wartime trauma, suicidal depression, and addictions — many are in the recovery community — have found reason to keep moving forward here. Lindner emphasizes that Serenity Park is a haven for both “humans and birds who suffer from the same stress-induced disorders,” where they can learn to earn trust, live in the moment, and accept themselves.
Veterans come and go, but parrots stay for life, and they generally select “their” veterans.
‘HE JUST LOCKED ON ME’
Albert Gallegos says he was sweeping the floor, not interacting, when a blue hyacinth macaw named Yogi swooped down from his corner.
“I thought he was going to attack me, but that was just my brain, the way it was wired in combat,” the Ventura resident recalls. “He just locked on me. It was crazy. … I don’t really connect with people. I went from war and killing to jail and being labeled to like fighting gangsters. I come from the bottom to, like, amazing things happening.”
In a long, airy enclosure, Yogi eyes strangers warily from his privacy box (kept bottomless to discourage breeding). Finally he nestles companionably on Gallegos’ shoulder against his cheek, his brilliant blue-and-gold plumage draping the back of the Navy veteran’s American Fighter T-shirt; despite his dagger-pointed beak, he seems vulnerable. Bacardi, another macaw, observes this touching tableau as he grips the wire mesh of an adjacent enclosure.
Speaking in polite, tight bursts, Gallegos recalls working “14-hour shifts, seven days a week” with sci-fi-like technology in Kandahar, Afghanistan. When he returned, he says, “I couldn’t talk about stuff. I tried to connect with the world around me, but I didn’t have the tools. I needed space and time. My wife was fed up. I just spiraled down so bad.”
Gallegos veers into a meaty exchange about self-created reality, the duality of construction and destruction, and his hunger to understand his “sentient experience.” Working at the sanctuary, he says, he discovered his “gift” for nonverbally communicating with animals, and now he can finally see his kids in his future. “I haven’t seen them in two years,” he says, eyeing Yogi. “He’s healing me, that’s for sure.
“He got abused, and I think that’s why we connected. He understood me to that level. It’s pretty intense. I feel he’s really scared at times. He’s a big bird and could do a lot of damage because this beak is no joke, but he’s a sweetheart. [Chuckles] He’s like a little baby, y’know? All this information I got … is not gonna cut it. This bird has helped me so much it’s ridiculous. I love him.”
‘THEY’RE MESSY, THEY BITE’
A few other ballcapped veterans rotate quietly through a workroom, and nosh on chips and sandwiches from the picnic table. A pair of pink rubber gloves lay across a hose snaking between rear enclosures, looking like neon zombie hands reaching up from the leaf-strewn soil beneath our feet. Fresh fruit, vegetables, seeds and nuts fan across platforms beside water bowls inside the 16 aviaries, securely enclosed to protect against raccoons and other predators. Inside, Lindner points out indentations carved into chewable, tree-like trunks where birds can forage for toys and treats, as they would in the wild. She coos at some voluble Goffin’s cockatoos and jokes, “They’re like the terriers of the bird world.”
Little Girl and Cloud, two Moluccan cockatoos, sweetly groom one another. Across the walkway, two extravagantly colored Eclectus parrots — one scarlet, one emerald — stare at enraptured humans gazing up at them. Nearby, a framed sign warns, “FORBIDDEN: Food or fingers fed to our fine feathered friends.”
“All birds bite,” Lindner advises. As if to demonstrate, Cashew, a vividly hued green, orange, white and yellow caique parrot, starts chewing on her right pinky. He isn’t aggressive, but beaks are appreciably sharper than feathers.
Cashew is a particular favorite of Coast Guard veteran Lilly Love, but she is not on site today, and the bird responds to Lindner’s maternal affection by ducking his head into her blouse, nibbling on the neckline’s decorative beading.
Passing more enclosures another bird calls out, “How are you?” Lindner’s voice brightens as she responds, “Hi, darling! How are you?” More bird cries overlap in ear-pummeling crescendo.
“This is the problem,” Lindner says of the parrots. “They’re beautiful to look at, and people buy them for that reason, but they really don’t make good pets for the casual bird owner. They’re noisy, they’re messy, they bite, they attach to one gender or another, so someone’s always the odd person out. And they can be pretty aggressive when they become sexually mature.”
Some exotic birds may have been captured in the wild and traumatized by seeing family members nailed to trees as bait before they themselves were snared in dark, overheated containers and shipped overseas. Amazon parrots and macaws can live for 50 years and African greys for 60 years or more, and few people are prepared for lifelong caretaking — or the large aviaries healthy birds need.
Veterans are conditioned to handle extreme behavioral quirks. Per Lindner, Serenity Park hires eight to 12 veterans each year to feed birds, hose down enclosures, repair fences, hide treats,
and give hands-on TLC to 42 intelligent birds who depend on social interaction. She says veterans who work there as part of their therapy — like Gallegos and Simmons — usually stay for about
six months. Simmons never left, even after therapy finished.
“Matt’s been here 12, 13 years,” Lindner says with a laugh. “He’s never taken a salary. Neither have I.”
Post-rehab, Simmons was sent to Serenity Park by a New Directions therapist (not Lindner) in 2006. Feeding and administering medicine to a wounded young lilac-crowned Amazon named Ruby vanquished his doubts that parrots could help his PTSD, a mushrooming problem for veterans. (In 2015, the congressionally mandated National Vietnam Veterans Longitudinal Study determined that 271,000 Vietnam veterans still showed “war-zone-related PTSD”; according to a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs study, 13.5% of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans screened positive for PTSD.)
Simmons soon took charge of managing the space. Ruby and sister Maggie have since been adopted by a double yellow-headed Amazon named Joey, who is at least 30 years old and regurgitates food to them as if they were his biological dependents.
‘WE EVOLVE TOGETHER’
It’s easy to sentimentalize the sanctuary’s avian tribe as feathered angels, but that trivializes their very earthly demands: space to forage, mental stimulation, and physical touch. Most need partners almost as much as food. Many have developed fearful nervous tics: bouncing, pacing, plucking.
Bobbi, a severely traumatized Goffin’s cockatoo, makes her entrance in “Birds of a Feather” after being rescued from a dresser drawer by police at a drug raid. She had bitten her chest and leg feathers so deeply she destroyed the follicles, baring stunning blue, purple and brown skin tones. She’s a poignant example of abuse inflicted by unscrupulous dealers and neglectful owners. Yet after a few weeks at Serenity Park, she began riding on one soldier’s shoulder. (Sadly, Lindner says Bobbi recently died.)
Feather-shredding is an avian version of self-cutting. Stevie, one of several handsome umbrella cockatoos at the park, has plucked his chest and upper leg feathers so much that metal-gray patches of skin peek through the fuzzy bits still left. Surrendered by an owner whose boyfriend could not tolerate him, he endears himself to visitors by calling out, “Hello, sweetheart!” But he doesn’t let them too close. He watchfully eyes interlopers while stepping sideways on a rope near his perch.
No such qualms inhibit the birds around Simmons or Lindner. Simmons, a Blue-tooth piece curved around his left ear, wisecracks about “feathered Paxil” as he eases into a shaded corner chair in a spacious enclosure, doffing his cowboy hat to allow three hovering cockatoos to settle on his arm, lap and shoulder. Murmuring gently, he bends his head close to theirs as he strokes their feathers; a fourth bird peers down curiously from a wooden beam. His tightly coiled demeanor loosens and, like other veterans here, he seems to be savoring momentary respite.
Lindner and Simmons married in June 2009 at Serenity Park, where the bride carried a bouquet of Mango and Sammy’s feathers. They now reside with at least half a dozen dogs, a Goffin’s cockatoo named Bobcat, horses and pigs at Lockwood Animal Rescue Center, the wolf sanctuary they founded by Los Padres National Forest in Ventura County. Their conversations are sprinkled with “babe,” “honey,” and “I love you.” Lindner maintains a behavioral health center nearby in Frazier Park; Simmons shoulders day-to-day oversight of his Warriors and Wolves program at Lockwood, and commutes to Serenity Park several days a week.
The relationship between the two sanctuaries is somewhat symbiotic. Both bring together wounded animals and veterans with trauma issues, and some Serenity Park veterans (including Gallegos) cross-train to work at the wolf sanctuary. During a hike around Lockwood, where Animal Planet has been filming a series slated to air in August, Lindner raises a question answered in her book: how “two vegetarians feed carnivores, predators, without killing a single animal.” It sounds like a high-concept logline, and Lindner is promotionally savvy, but sustainability is key to the mission at Serenity Park and Lockwood. Both facilities survive on food from a LEED-certified food recycling program.
“We pick up 20,000 pounds of food every Monday, Matt does,” Lindner explains. “We get this through Walmart. Everything that’s sell-by date is getting close to expiration, they have to get rid of, and we pick it up. They have vendors who pick it up all around the country. It’s essentially their trash. They’re mandated [to donate the food to nonprofits] by a landfill diversion program.”
They share food with other regional groups that rescue predator animals, and store meat for their own sanctuary charges in a bedroom-sized freezer at the Lockwood barn. “First choice of all the good produce” goes to Serenity Park’s feathered denizens; Lindner says she won’t feed them anything she wouldn’t eat herself. The physically arduous process of selecting that produce, trucked weekly to the VA grounds, inspired a sweaty, amusing scene toward the end of “Birds of a Feather” that illustrates their dedication to both sanctuaries. Lindner says they are not paid for their work.
“I need a fundraiser,” she states forthrightly. “Matt and I both write grants at night.”
She’s unable to visit West L.A. often these days, so it’s ironic that a book about the sanctuary she created there is being published now. But it’s another circle coming around. Love of her own birds and the veterans she aided inspired Serenity Park, which eventually led to the wolf sanctuary. Now, even while discussing veterans at the wolf sanctuary, Lindner’s comments cover Serenity Park and the work she and Simmons do in totality.
“Being outdoors, in addition to being with the animals, is a real key component” to the therapy offered at the sanctuaries, she says. “We can heal more easily by being in a tranquil, quiet setting without a lot of people, without a lot of the triggers that normally set off a PTSD episode.
“I believe in ecotherapy, and the fact that nature is healing, that nature and animals are part of our evolutionary roots, that we evolve together,” she declares. “We’re inextricable.”
St. Martin’s Press publishes “Birds of a Feather” on May 15. For details, visit lorinlindnerphd.com; to learn more about Parrot C.A.R.E./Serenity Park and Lockwood Animal Rescue Center, go to lockwoodarc.org.