This morning in the sunrise rain, I buried my beloved parrot, Jesse. She had reached her 29th birthday just a week or two ago. Here at my homestead in Cave Creek Canyon of the northeastern Chiricahua Mountains, she is at rest along with the last of the ashes of my precious dog Taylor, who died about five years ago. This wasn’t the morning I had hoped for.
This also isn’t the inspiration I had wanted to urge me to post another blog entry. I have had many adventures to share. But as the thunder booms in the mountains and the rain falls harder, I wanted to share the story of this wonderful bird. The photo below of Jesse, a Dusky Pionus Parrot, was captured by my friend Chad Campbell a few years ago when I had a home in Huntley, Illinois.
The last year had been a struggle for Jesse. There were a couple of times, almost exactly one year ago, when I thought she had some stroke or seizure. She flopped around on the bottom of the cage like an epileptic. Afterward, her balance became challenged, and she stopped standing on one foot while grasping food in the other as parrots do. However, other than that, she seemed as spry as she had always been. Then in December, we stayed with my stepdad Joel in Chicagoland. His puppy, Buddy, who I call the Golden Prince, meant that instead of the kitchen Jesse would have to live in the basement where I would occupy the spare bedroom. She wasn’t happy in the artificially lit basement and was beginning to show her age. She was underweight, and I tried olive oil on her food and other things to fatten her up.
In January I went to Malaysia for three weeks. Joel cared for her in my absence but had a trip of his own during the time. His neighbors (who I never met) took care of Jesse for one week. When I returned from my trip, I found Jesse at the bottom of her cage and was sure she would pass within hours if not minutes. It was only the horrible jet-lag and my bawling in sadness that prevented me from taking her to the vet for euthanasia. However, by some miracle, I was able to nurse her back to health. Not perfect health, but she survived and slowly began to recover. She had difficulty with balance and moving about, but got stronger and eventually found some normalcy.
The last ten days or so, though, were horrible. Oddly just after she turned 29, her decline became rapid. She had no balance and would stumble about the cage. She ate and did her best, but most of the time was spent clinging to the bars with her beak to support herself or even resting on the bottom. When she perched normally she would sway back and forth and soon fall to the grid I had secured beneath her so she couldn’t fall to the cage bottom. I knew it was time and had to watch the end approach. It got worse. I find so much comfort in the fact that she is finally at rest.
Jesse came into my life when I was working for Strictly Animals as a salesman. The company wholesaled animal feeds and pet products to pet stores, veterinarians, and dog kennels in the northwestern Chicago suburbs and southern Wisconsin. One of my customers was a specialty cage bird shop called Bird’s Nest. When I began working for Strictly Animals, I had a Senegal Parrot named Lewis. My previous job was as reptile manager of Noah’s Ark, a chain of over twenty Illinois pet stores, and the girlfriend I had at the time also worked there in the bird department. It was because of her that I owned a parrot. She had invested a great deal of time into hand-taming the wild-caught Lewis for me. I was crushed when Lewis had an accident and died, and my mom and Joel wanted to buy me a replacement.
I wasn’t too keen about another parrot as I mourned the loss of Lewis, who had become a very dear companion. But at Bird’s Nest one day, I met Jesse. She had been bred on the premises and was a baby still being hand-fed. I immediately fell in love with her and began to consider having her become my new friend. This was the late autumn of 1990. My sister Lisa’s younger son, Alec, had just been born that summer. He and Jesse were the same age and, although I never found out Jesse’s exact hatch date, I knew it was around mid-September. Since Lisa’s birthday is September 13, it was easy always to remember that Jesse was “born” the same year as Alec and I chose to celebrate her birthday on Lisa’s. Anyway, after some initial reluctance, I decided to accept Mom and Joel’s offer. Jesse, who wouldn’t be named that until later, had a slight issue that would mean her staying at Bird’s Nest for longer. It was some sort of minor problem outside of one eye that was being treated. But by December or so I finally took her home. She was mostly weaned, but I would still bond with her by giving her some hand-feeding formula from a syringe for a few more weeks. I have no recollection of how I decided on “Jesse”, but do recall wanting the spelling to be like the outlaw Jesse James. It seemed like it could fit both a male or female bird and I had no clue as to her gender. Males and females of most parrots look alike. It wasn’t until much later that I had her DNA-sexed and found that she was female.
Jesse had quite the life, as have I. She began moving about the country with me when she was about ten years old. My first move was to Pullman, Washington on the border of Idaho after I met my now ex-wife. My father drove west with me, and Jesse spent much of the drive on my shoulder. I had been working at the water filtration plant in Evanston, where my dad retired as police chief, and I had a collection of the t-shirts that were part of my uniform. When we would stop for gas, I would discard the bird shit covered shirt I was wearing and don another - all the way from the Chicago suburbs to Washington state. Jesse and I moved in with Stephanie and her Fischer’s Lovebird, Vyvyan. Sadly, I would later unintentionally kill her bird in an accident as it flew into a doorway as I flung the door shut. I bought Stephanie a Meyer’s Parrot that would be named Zydeco as a replacement for Vyvyan. Just as after I lost Lewis, it took some time before Steph wanted another bird.
When Steph finished her Ph.D. and got a post-doctoral position at Vanderbilt University, we moved our two birds to Nashville. After Stephanie and I split, Jesse and I moved into space I had rented for my tarantula and gecko breeding business. By then, I also had Taylor, my wonderful dog who I adopted in Nashville soon after opening my retail store, “The Living Terrarium.” Taylor would live fourteen years, and I’ll never get over her loss. Five years ago, after returning from an almost one-month-long trip to Sri Lanka, I learned from Lisa, who had been caring for her, that Taylor had cancer and was dying. She would be put to rest not long after.
From Nashville, Jesse, Taylor, and I moved to the Seattle area to work for Northwest Zoological Supply and escape the post-divorce sadness. We lived in various places there, beginning with an office at the company before I found an apartment. My first stay in Seattle did not take, and about a year-and-a-half later my parrot, dog, and I went back to stay with my mom and Joel until I moved up to Milwaukee to live with a tarantula breeding friend named Bill Korinek, who I sadly don’t speak to anymore. Bill had a two-flat where I could rent the bottom level, and he also got me a job working with him at the Milwaukee Art Museum. I became a special events bartender and lived in an old, primarily Latino, formerly Polish neighborhood in Milwaukee for almost a year-and-a-half before things soured there. Next, I spoke with Alex, the owner of Northwest Zoological, about returning to work for him. He offered me a role as General Manager, second only to him, and I accepted. Jesse, Taylor, and I moved back to the northern Seattle suburb of Edmonds, and once again lived in a backroom office at our complex until I found an apartment in a neighboring town. I stayed there until we lost my mother.
Those of you who know me know that since my mom’s death, I have become covered in tattoos. My first tattoo was just a small one, matching kanji tattoos that Stephanie and I got the day after we married. I was 36. It would later be covered up. It wasn’t until after we split that I got my second, my first tarantula tattoo (favorite species, Poecilotheria subfusca) in 2006 during the first Arachnocon in San Antonio, an event that Scott & Debbie Scher and I promoted for two years. I was 42 when I got that second tattoo. Then after my mother’s death, I wanted to start a tribute sleeve devoted to her. I was now about 50. My best mate Mark was the artist, and now both arms are full sleeves with black and grey tattoo art. The right arm is mostly a memorial to my mother, but also has a portrait of Taylor with her name in a banner, and also features two mourning gypsy women crying for all.
This spring, I will visit England for about the 12th time, and Mark will add Jesse to my right arm. In the past five years I have had well over 100 hours of tattooing and now have full black & grey arm sleeves and color half-sleeves on my legs. The arm sleeves were done by Mark Pennell in England, Chicagoland, and even Malaysia. The leg half-sleeves were mostly done by my friend Andy Daugherty in Belvidere, Illinois, although Mark’s daughter Elli re-colored one of the four tarantulas that are part of the geographic nature scenes. I am hoping Elli will fill in a few gaps on my left leg when Joel and I visit Bristol in March or April.
After returning to Chicagoland to be with Joel and Lisa and other family after we lost my mother, I bought a house in Huntley and Taylor and Jesse, and I enjoyed a three-level townhome. Losing Taylor at the end of 2014 was devastating, and I believe it was part of the reason I now live on the road. She was everything to me. The sweetest dog that ever lived - twenty pounds of cuddle companion. She went everywhere with me during her lifetime. We played disc golf together every morning, and she would kill and eventually would kill and swallow the loose mice at our Northwest Zoological facility. But back in Huntley me and my two dear pets, plus thousands of tarantulas, occupied my home. After Taylor was no longer there, the house seemed empty. I had spent four years mourning my mother with my family and decided it was time to do what I wanted.
My mom's sudden death, from a terrible accident in her own home, made me focused on how life is short and can end at any moment. I chose to be retired at 52 and live life solely on my terms. With the house and car sold, I bought a brand new super truck and my incredible Wheelhouse and began this so far three-year life on the road. On the road isn’t accurate. I pretty much stay at my homestead in Cave Creek Canyon, working as caretaker and host of the Visitor Information Center. But one month from today I will be leaving for a very much needed one month break. I will be camped at a nice RV Park with an indoor pool, hot tub and gym in Willcox, Arizona.
Through all of these moves and road-trips to visit Chicagoland for the winter or holidays, Jesse and I spent much time driving together and later sneaking her into hotel rooms. She spent most of her life perched on my shoulder, and it was so sad when she lost that ability a year ago. Watching her decline was horrible, and I am just relieved she now has peace.
Yesterday I drove down to the border town of Douglas, Arizona to shop at Wal-mart. While I was in Wal-mart, I shared how Jesse had rapidly declined over the past week and was sure to die any day with someone very special and important to me. She was the first person I told that I knew death was imminent and shared my grief. When I got back to camp, I found that I had left the main cage door open and she had stumbled out and was lying on her side on the floor near my bedroom. I knew she had a day or two. But last night when I covered her, after watching her eat some apple, I had no clue it would be the last time I would see her alive. This morning I uncovered her cage to find she had passed. It was no surprise, but the tears shook me all the same. It was dark and drizzling, yet I grabbed my shovel and dug a hole beneath an oak in view of the beautiful rhyolite rock faces rising above my homestead.
When Taylor was put to sleep, I had her cremated. She and I had played disc golf every morning outside of Nashville when we lived there, and I drove her remains from Chicago to Nashville and scattered her ashes at every tee and basket on the course. But I saved a little bit to have inside my home on wheels. This morning, as the rain soaked me and light just rose in the canyon, I dug a hole and wrapped Jesse in one of my favorite t-shirts after kissing her goodbye and shaking Taylor’s ashes onto her feathers. Diggin in the hard desert mountain ground is tough, but I made a shallow grave that I then covered with a rock (see foreground of below photo) and flowers. Here Jesse and the last of Taylor will rest.
Jesse was so sweet. Extremely quiet for a parrot, which is one reason I chose the species. She was an excellent companion for twenty-nine years, and I am grateful she was such a big part of my life. However, I do want to state that birds are horrible pets. Most are noisy, and they are all extremely messy. Many are destructive to furniture and other household items given the opportunity. They require constant attention, or become prone to “depression” and can become self-harming, which is most often in the form of feather-plucking. Many parrots become, for lack of a better term, disturbed. I shall never have another pet. The pain of losing Taylor was overwhelming, and I still miss her every day. The loss of Jesse this morning, September 24, 2019, has devastated me and the tears won’t stop. But if you want a pet get something less noisy and messy and needy, and something that might not outlive you.