Birds of Paradise: Beach rescue a haven for animals in need
BEACH -- Somewhere along the cold expanse of grey prairie in western North Dakota, there is a place that stands out for being a little warmer, a little more colorful, and a little louder than its surroundings.
BEACH - Somewhere along the cold expanse of grey prairie in western North Dakota, there is a place that stands out for being a little warmer, a little more colorful, and a little louder than its surroundings.
The birds - more than a dozen of them - are audible from the driveway of Daniele Dockter’s home north of Beach, which she’s converted over the years into the hub of Paradise on the Prairie, one of just a few bird sanctuaries in the region. You’ll know you’ve found the right place by the squawking, chirping and occasional greeting bark from the three dogs in the front yard.
Dockter, president of Paradise on the Prairie, said she didn’t expect her nonprofit to grow as it has, from just two macaws to an entire menagerie of exotic birds, rabbits and dogs.
“It’s always constantly something,” she said on a recent Saturday at her home.
Those two macaws - Sammy and Jax, taken from an owner who posted the duo on an online classified site after he was told he would be evicted if he kept them - were the beginning of Dockter’s unexpected second career running the bird rescue, which started about two years ago and received its 501(c)3 status in December. A bird novice then - “When we first got them I was terrified of them,” she admitted - the former veterinary technician sought out advice from other bird rescues in North and South Dakota.
“That’s how I found out there was bird rescues,” Dockter said. “Because I didn’t know there was such a thing.”
‘The good and the bad’ Word of Dockter’s budding rescue spread quickly. Not long after Sammy and Jax came Naked Ted, whose owner was battling cancer and had to give the cockatiel up.
“Once people find out that you’re a bird person, word travels when someone doesn’t want a bird,” said Rachel Belland, secretary and treasurer of Paradise on the Prairie.
Unlike Dockter, Belland is a lifelong “bird person.” The native Canadian, who moved to Dickinson from Minot last year, approached the rescue when she heard of Dockter’s work, wanting to help. Today the two women, along with vice president Jessica Randolph, make up the budding nonprofit that runs out of Dockter’s living-room-turned-aviary.
Though Paradise on the Prairie has adopted out some birds - including, on this particular Saturday, a parakeet named Mango, to a family in Miles City, Mont. - a primary focus for now is on rescue. Dockter and the other officers are still figuring out the adoption process, including how to best vet potential owners and conduct home checks to make sure the birds go to the right families.
“A lot of people, even with bird experience, don’t know how to feed them properly,” Dockter said, adding that owners have “an easy 40 to 60 years dealing with the good and bad.”
As intelligent and beautiful as exotic birds can be, they also make for some of the most difficult pets to keep, living upwards to 100 years and requiring plenty of attention and often-expensive care from aviation vets hundreds of miles away.
Birds can be neurotic about who they choose to like, Dockter said, and don’t always get along with everyone in a household. Paradise on the Prairie won’t give a bird to just anyone, but Belland said the organization is willing to work with people if they are “truly interested in getting a bird.”
“But you can’t just put them in a cage and leave them,” she said. “They take social interaction. They want to be with the family. It’s just so much to know, that they’re not like a pretty ornament to have.”
Greg Poulain, director of the Black Hills Parrot Welfare and Education Center in Belle Fourche, S.D., said many people don’t do enough research to educate themselves before getting a bird. It’s one of the many reasons birds end up in rescues and sanctuaries.
“Birds can be messy, they can be loud, and destructive,” he said.
Poulain’s rehabilitation center is one Dockter and Belland have turned to for advice for their own sanctuary.
Black Hills takes in and rehabilitates birds from across the U.S. - including zoos - as well as conducts education and outreach on issues related to bird welfare. Many prospective owners don’t realize the commitment involved until they take the pre-adoption class required at Black Hills.
“After you get the bird, that’s not the time to get educated,” he said.
Building a shelter Belland and Dockter both said they were surprised to realize just how many birds there are in the western North Dakota area. An estimated 1 in 5 households nationwide own a bird, making the animals the third-most popular pet in the U.S.
The organization has taken in birds and other animals from as far away as Fargo and Billings, Mont., sometimes after an owner surrenders, other times because of neglect or abuse. Often, they’ll take in birds that other shelters are having trouble re-homing. More and more, the nonprofit is seeing the effect of the growing oil boom workforce: animals given up because incoming families can’t find housing that allows pets.
“Some histories you just don’t know, or they’re questionable, or you’re not sure, you know?” Belland said. “Every bird has a history of why they are the way they are.”
It can take years for the birds to open up and trust their new caretakers, she said, but “They’re all special in their own way.”
Birds aren’t protected under animal welfare laws the same way dogs and cats are, said Candi Willey, vice president of the Center for Aviation Adoption, Rescue and Education (CAARE) in Fargo, a shelter that has sent some birds it didn’t feel were adoptable to Paradise on the Prairie.
“Laws are not equipped for birds in general,” Willey said. “There’s not enough knowledge in parrots to know what would be considered neglect or abuse with them. … The laws really do need to change.”
And while they’ll take in as many birds as they can, resources - and space - at Paradise on the Prairie are limited. Even with some private donations, the operation is largely funded out-of-pocket, Belland said, and depends upon its adoption fees.
A Facebook page and new website have received a “pretty good response,” she said, and the group plans to have a booth at April’s Bismarck Area Pet Show. The organization is looking for foster people to care for birds, and the ultimate goal, the two women said, is to build a stand-alone shelter, built to resemble the birds’ natural habitats as closely as possible.
“We’re just waiting on getting the information and start applying for grants,” Dockter said.
In addition to her work with the nonprofit, she works at the Dawson County Corrections Center in Glendive, Mont., while Belland has made caring for her own birds and helping run the organization her full-time job.
Despite the amount of work it takes to operate Paradise on the Prairie, its core is committed to rescuing animals - of all types - in need.
“If a bird comes and needs a home, what do you do?” Belland said.