How Spiderman got his groove back

Spiderman the cockatoo holding a toy in his beak
Cockatoo lived in distress for a long time, but now he’s all about dancing and shouting his name with joy
By Sarah Thornton

Back in March, staff members from Best Friends Animal Sanctuary’s Parrot Garden climbed into a van and hit the road. They were headed for Nebraska to pick up birds rescued from a situation where there were far too many living in one place without proper care, and bring them back to the Sanctuary.

When they arrived to pick up the birds, the sound was deafening as parrots of all shapes, sizes and colors called out in hundreds of different voices from every corner of the building. In one enclosure, several cockatoos flapped, squawked and kicked up bits of feathers into the air around them. And among them, a shaky, sulfur-crested cockatoo with rough-looking feathers stood out.

“We walked in, and they said: ‘This is Spiderman,’” recalls Elle Greer, supervisor at Parrot Garden, of that first meeting. “There was definitely a tone and a reputation to him.”

Spiderman had been singled out by the other birds he shared the space with. Not accepted into the flock, he clung to the bottom of the cage and trembled, preening and picking at his feathers until they were even more of a mess than previously. It was as though you could feel the anxiety radiating from him.

He was uncomfortable with other birds and didn’t trust people. His body language was subtle, not easy to read and made even more difficult by the way he twitched and shook. He lost control of his body altogether and fell off his perch.

Spiderman’s history was a mystery, and so it wasn’t clear what caused his body to act as it did. But at his new home-between-homes at the Sanctuary, he would get some much-needed veterinary care and plenty of TLC that would change his life and help him find joy again.

Photo by Molly Wald

Cockatoo PDD diagnosis

When Spiderman and the 18 other birds who caught a ride with him arrived at the Sanctuary, caregivers set Spiderman up in his own space and covered all his perches in vet wrap to make it easier for him to hold on. They gave him toys, but he’d never seen such things before. So, he just sat and looked at them, barely touching them and only occasionally chewing on a corner of cardboard or paper.

“When we first got him,” Elle says, “if we were … standing and looking at him, he would be on the opposite side of his enclosure, just scared or falling down.” It was a whole new world with a lot to take in. But being in a quieter setting with his own space was a good start.

Meanwhile, veterinarians worked to piece together a diagnosis. They ran tests and tried different medications, looking for a way to give Spiderman control over his body and bring him some peace.

[Pet Health: Birds]

It took a while but, finally, test results provided answers: Spiderman had proventricular dilatation disease (PDD), a condition that affects a bird’s nervous system. PDD varies by species and individual but in Spiderman’s case (like many other cockatoos with the condition), it affects his neurological nervous system and flares up when he’s stressed.

PDD has no cure but it can be treated to make an affected bird’s life much easier. Spiderman wasn’t a fan of weekly injections for six weeks, but compared to before, it was like night and day. The twitching of his body settled down and, as his over-preening slowed to a stop, his feathers started looking smoother than ever. When the world around him was calm, he could steady himself and observe. He was able to climb around his enclosure without losing his grip and falling.

Photo by Molly Wald

Spiderman, Spiderman, woo!

It didn’t take long for Spiderman’s life to change. With time to watch his caregivers, visitors and volunteers coming and going, he became more and more curious about them. He started getting excited when tours came by, especially if children were in the group.

“When we get kids on our tour or just volunteering,” says Elle, “he shouts, ‘Spiderman! Spiderman, Spiderman, Spiderman, woo!’ And his crest is up, and he’ll bob and dance for them.”

If Spiderman doesn’t have the audience he wants or another parrot receives attention, he’ll squawk and fuss until someone looks at him. It’s a far cry from the way he huddled away from people when he first arrived.

“Now he can see us as companions,” Elle says, noting that Spiderman even appreciates getting head scratches from people these days. And those toys he used to ignore? Now he loves them to bits (sometimes literally). Bell toys, wooden toys, plastic toys … They’re all fair game, but his favorites are knotted-up string toys with beads on them.

Photo by Molly Wald

“When we gave him a bead toy for the first time, it was gone in 30 minutes,” says Elle. “It was a huge, long one — at least a foot long — and every other bead had a knot. And he had it untied like that.” Sometimes, Elle adds, after Spiderman sits and fiddles awhile with the beads, he’ll even retie the string. He’s quite the smart bird.

[This adopter’s home is for the birds — literally]

Spiderman can still lose his balance and fall if he gets nervous, so caregivers take things slowly with him; however, he starts every day eager to see what excitement is in store for him. He dances, loves the spotlight and tries to grab onto his favorite people when they’re cleaning, so that they can’t leave.

“We had a potential adopter come in,” Elle says, “and Spiderman literally climbed his pant leg to get up to his arm. He was adorable. It was the first time we’d seen him like that, really enjoying interacting.”

Just as one expects from a superhero, Spiderman has overcome the odds to flourish as a good guy. He’s already making a name for himself and building a fan base. Go Spiderman, woo!

Photo by Molly Wald

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