Speculative prices send parrot theft soaring

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1997:

MIAMI– –Bill Gates, 50, not the
Microsoft baron but the manager of Animalia
Exotics in Miami, crawled out of a pool of his
own blood on August 20, dialed store owner
Joe Ferrero on his beeper, and when Ferrero
immediately called back, croaked “Joe, get
over here. I’m dying.”
Gates didn’t die, but he had been
badly pistol-whipped by two men who had just
cased the store with a seven-year-old girl and a
220-pound woman. The four left. The men then
returned to nab $200, an umbrella cockatoo,
and a Milian Amazon parrot. The birds were
worth an estimated $3,500, near the low end of
the parrot price scale.

That was the 19th reported parrot theft
in the Miami area this year. The 20th came a
week later, when Ramesh Lall went to feed and
water the 1,400 pairs of breeding birds that he
and partner Paul Marolf raise at Tropical
Birds/Blue Ribbon Pet Farm, of South Dade,
and discovered 46 African gray parrots and
Amazon parrots missing––a $90,000 heist, but
not even the biggest in town this year.
Whoever hit Fred Salandy’s South
Dade aviary in April 1997 bagged 500 canaries,
finches, and parrots, cumulatively worth about
$150,000. Salandy told police he thought the
same thieves hit his facility in 1994.
The raid this year on Salandy was the
third bird theft case in South Dade alone over
the past two years to involve more than
$100,000 worth of birds. Previously hit were an
anonymous breeder of African gray parrots and
a breeding facility owned by Bern Levine, who
also owns the renowned Miami Parrot Jungle.
Ounce for ounce, parrots and other
colorful exotic birds are often worth more than
cocaine––and while the penalties for armed robbery
and breaking and entering are the same no
matter what one steals, the penalties for possession
of stolen birds are far less than those for
possession of narcotics.
Ironically, high value can protect
birds from theft––sometimes. A breeding pair
of hyacinthe macaws, for instance, goes for
$30,000. Someone trying to sell a pair for less
would be conspicuous. And just finding a customer
with that much cash to spend on birds
might take some advertising.
But bird thieves don’t always know
what they have. One of the most valuable bird
hauls on record resulted from an aborted
December 1996 break-in at Harry Sissen’s 600-

bird aviary in Northallerton, Yorkshire, England. The burglars
got just 11 birds, leaving 60 empty sacks behind when
rousted by Sissen’s alarms and floodlights. Among the 11,
however, were the only two Lear’s macaws in Europe, valued
at $80,000; a pair of albino galahs, worth about $15,000; and
a pair of blue-throated canindes, worth perhaps $12,000.
Sissen put the sum of his loss at $160,000. Any of the birds
would be conspicuous if offered on the open market.
Commented a police spokesperson, “We would
appeal to anyone who is offered a parrot for Christmas to get in
touch with us right away.”
A common result of bird thefts by the ignorant is that
the birds suffer and die––often after being abandoned because
the pricier species are not as easily resold as say guns, drugs,
electronic equipment, or cars.
In early November 1994, for instance, burglars hit
parrot breeder Ernst Neumann, of Lockport, Illinois. It was
clearly a professional’s crime, as a telephone caller lured
Neumann out of his home on an errand that Neumann later
identified as part of the plot. Only parrots were taken: a blueand-gold
macaw, two double yellow-breasted Amazons, a
severe macaw, five African grays, a Jenday conure, and three
Meyers parrots. The 13 birds, none more than eight weeks old,
had cumulative value estimated at $10,000. But though professional
in technique, the thief evidently didn’t know much about
exotic bird care or marketing. Two weeks later, police
responding to an anonymous telephoned tip found 10 of the
parrots in a box someone dumped in the stairwell of a northwest
Chicago apartment house. The blue-and-gold macaw,
already under treatment for pneumonia at the time of the theft,
soon died. Neumann nursed the other nine back to health,
eventually selling them all. The double yellow-breasted
Amazons and the Jenday conure were never accounted for.
Neumann relocated his bird business out of his home,
added caller ID to his telephone service, and no longer leaves
birds unattended, he told Darlene Gavron Stevens of the
Chicago Tribune in a January 1996 interview.
W h e n ANIMAL PEOPLE commenced, in 1992,
we already possessed 35 years worth of pet theft data, between
accounts we had collected and files inherited from the late
Lucille Moses Scott, who began her investigations in 1957.
But among the many theft accounts, we had just one in which
parrots evidently taken for resale were the primary target.
There was little demand for “hot” birds during the 1980s, even
as pet parrot popularity exploded, because from 1980 through
1991, an average of 7.4 million exotic birds per year were
legally imported, chiefly from Southeast Asia, Africa, and
Latin America. About 9% to 13% of the birds were captivebred,
the USDA estimated; the rest, primarily members of the
parrot family, were wild-caught. Countless more birds were
smuggled into the U.S., mostly over the Mexican border.
Experts estimated that four wild-caught birds died for every one
who survived the transition to captivity in a U.S. home.
The U.S. was believed to be the intended destination
of about 80% of the 1.8 million parrots per year who legally
entered international trade, 90% of them wild-caught. In consequence
of captures for export combined with habitat loss due
to rainforest logging, 42 of the 140 parrot species found in the
western hemisphere were officially either endangered or threatened
by 1992, and virtually all of the remaining 98 were in
decline. Of the 335 parrot species occurring worldwide, 332
are regulated under the Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species.

The Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992 slammed
the door on most of the legal wild-caught imports. Traffic in
the 10 most endangered species, including red-headed and yellow-headed
Amazons, halted immediately. Traffic in all the
CITES-regulated species halted in October 1993.
That’s when the estimated value of the U.S. retail
parrot trade rocketed over $300 million a year. The cut-off of
the wild-caught supply sharply increased the demand and the
prices paid for captive-bred birds––and the incentive for both
smuggling and theft.
The Wild Bird Conservation Act has cut the legal
parrot traffic into the U.S. to circa 250,000 a year. Smugglers
still import another 50,000 parrots a year from Mexico to
Texas, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates, of whom
only about half survive the crossing. The survivors fetch as
much as $40 million––an average of $1,600 apiece.
The stolen parrot traffic is only a fraction as large,
but is a fast-growing phenomenon.
Noted Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Richard V.
Sabatini, in August 1996, “In the past year, birds have been
plucked from their perches at the Schults Bird Farm store in
Parkland five times by quick-acting thieves. That is more
stolen birds in a year than in all the 23 previous years Schults
has been in operation.”
More than three times as many parrots are stolen now
as dogs and cats combined, according to verified theft reports
collected and tallied by ANIMAL PEOPLE. Excluding the
aviary raids, which net large numbers of birds, even one-at-atime
parrot thefts outnumber verified dog and cat thefts of all
types. Pet stores are the most frequent targets of parrot thieves,
since their birds are on display and are therefore easily identified,
in easily cased premises. Among 73 parrots of 26 varieties
who were taken in recent small-time break-ins and/or
grab-and-run thefts, ANIMAL PEOPLE found, 49 were
taken from 23 stores; 24 were taken from 15 homes; and two
were taken from separate school aviaries.
The bird theft explosion, like other forms of pet
theft, has generated criminal sidelines, including cases of
“truck drivers” who claim to have found birds in their vans,
whom they will return for “expenses,” and then disappear after
collecting the money, and erstwhile “pet detectives,” who
demand reward money for finding birds they never had. There
are also increasing numbers of thefts-for-ransom. Ransom
prices reported in recent cases ranged from $200 to $1,000,
and seem more pegged to the eagerness of the owner to find the
missing family member than to street value.
Breeding frenzy
Dog-and-cat rescuers might like to see their charges
in similar demand––but not for the same reason. The fancy
prices paid for parrots largely reflect speculation on breeding
potential, explains Mary Bradford, president of The Tropics
Exotic Bird Refuge, of Kannapolis, North Carolina.
Speculation in parrot breeding is so rife, Bradford points out,
that it has even corrupted the rescue sector, within which “no
breeding” would seem to be a fundamental precept.
Growing numbers of self-designated parrot rescue
operations are springing up around the U.S., Bradford notes,
as breeders discover the economic advantages of having nonprofit
status, enabling them to sell birds for a non-taxable
“adoption fee,” solicit donations of cash, food, and materials,
and obtain costly but difficult birds with no cash outlay, in
exchange for tax write-offs.
“It is our opinion that the breeding of exotic species
should not be in the hands of private individuals,” Bradford
states. “We feel that captive bird breeding should be exclusively
for the purpose of preserving what species of birds we have
left, and should be in the hands of competent zoos, wildlife
refuges, and wildlife parks with the wisdom, knowledge, and
experience to breed birds to thrive in natural conditions.
“Not a week goes by that we don’t see captive-bred
exotic birds who are maimed due to incorrect handling after
birth,” Bradford continues, outlining the harm resulting from
the increasingly popular, profitable but risky business of raising
young parrots from eggs instead of allowing them to be
incubated, hatched, and weaned by their parents. Other forms
of owner abuse and neglect follow––usually through ignorance,
but caged birds are also easy targets of displaced rage during
domestic disputes, and are easily injured by other pets, or by
children who don’t understand the fragility of birds.
“Then, once the owners realize they are in over their
heads,” Bradford continues, typically after a bird is sick or
injured, “their first thought is to resell their birds. They place
ads in local newspapers and national bird publications.
Unscrupulous breeders are more than glad to give a pet bird a
‘wonderful’ home. Then the bird remains in the hands of
breeders indefinitely, usually bouncing from one breeder to
another until adequate pairs are matched up. They are then
required to breed year-round,” as artificial lighting is used to
trick them into thinking off-seasons are the breeding season.
The speculative traffic, Bradford adds, circulates
such ailments as Newcastle’s disease, beak-and-feather disease,
macaw wasting disease, and a variety of bacterial and
fungal infections.
“Disease management is rare among bird breeders,”
Bradford laments. “Improper quarantining or no quarantining
prevent the proper handling of diseased birds. Usually by the
time a bird is sick, it is too late to intervene––but whether or
not intervention is possible or successful for a sick bird, there
is the rest of one’s flock to consider.”
But there is even speculation, of sorts, in sick birds,
who may be accepted into research programs––again for a tax
write-off. There is money in finding ways to restore parrots
and other exotic birds to health, or at least to health adequate to
facilitate a sale.
Still, abandonments happen, for the same reasons
other pets are surrendered. Bradford recites the short list:
“Illness and/or death of the owner, a divorce, a new baby, job
Some arrive at The Tropics because of physical handicaps,
neurosis typically shown by “feather-plucking, chewing,
and/or self-mutilation,” or due to incompatibility with
other pets in the owner’s household.
“Most heartbreaking,” says Bradford, “are those
birds who are just no longer wanted. Through no fault of their
own, they are at the mercy of people who never should have
had the privilege of owning them in the first place.”
Even nursed back to health, the castoffs at The
Tropics don’t attract thieves. “We have never been faced with
the issue of theft, and it is not a problem in this area,”
Bradford notes, “but that’s not to say proper precautions
shouldn’t be taken. Unfortunately, the only organization
we’ve found to insure our refuge birds is Lloyd’s of London, at
the rate of $1,675 per $10,000 of value, according to a 1994
price quote. That makes insuring our birds impossible.
Thankfully, I’ve only heard of one theft near here, and that
involved a pet store in Charlotte that was robbed for most of its
exotic birds. The birds were later found in a garbage dumpster.
“As the demand for exotic birds grows,” Bradford
concludes, “so will the theft problem.”
Currently, bird theft is boosted by the vicious cycle
of speculation raising demand and demand raising prices, stoking
further speculation. In itself a form of high-risk speculation,
theft measures the strength of the market. Thefts will
decline when, inevitably, authentic demand for parrots
becomes sated and the speculative boom becomes a bust, like
the ostrich, exotic cat, and potbellied pig booms, which rose
at about the same time and have already fallen.

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