Cockatoo in a Santa Suit

Sometimes there are lessons that we need to learn with a little help from others. This lesson in particular came from nothing less than a cockatoo wearing a Santa suit.

During the winter holidays of 2018, I worked for a toy store. Having a number of locations, I would be scheduled various shifts around Vancouver, one of which was on Granville Island in the Kid’s Market. (That also happened to be the place I rang through David Suzuki’s toy purchases not once but twice. Apparently celebrity appearances aren’t all that uncommon there.)

The Kid’s Market is one of the noisiest places I’ve ever had the misfortune to know. Unless you are six years old, you have no reason to spend more than 10 minutes there. Max. An array of toy and arcade machines scream out their ancient melodies, all of which are by now well and truly engraved deep in my brain from the many hours I’ve stood behind the store counter, keeping an eye on the Lego section lest someone try to steal away a lucratively expensive set. My mom likes to recount the times she brought me into the Market as a kid about two decades ago, and I’d pretty sure it’s not changed much since then.

During the holiday season, the Kid’s Market has a wrapping station where you can bring in toys you’ve bought there and get them wrapped by donation (minimum five dollars). That year, there were also two cockatoos at the station accompanied by a young woman who was their handler. They weren’t pets, but if I remember correctly, they worked as therapy animals. They seemed to have no problem with the chaos and noise. I must admit I envied them a little.

If you wanted, you could also donate to hold one of them for a few minutes. I only had a dollar and a few stray quarters and dimes in my pockets, but with my employee shirt on, I figured it was worth a shot. The woman seemed fine with it, and she handed one of them over to me. One was in a green elf suit, and the other in a Santa costume. I believe his hat was off at the time, but I remember there being one.

I, as you may have guessed by now, was passed Santa.

This isn’t him, but it might as well be.

I had my own reasons for wanting to spend some time with a cockatoo on my arm. Not just because it’d be cool, and not for a picture – I didn’t end up getting one of those – but because of my D&D character Milo that I would be playing soon. I’ve mentioned him a bit in my post about my experience of healing from trauma through characters, but all you need to know is that Milo has a barn owl familiar, Lily. I’d done some reading on barn owls to know that it wouldn’t be totally unreasonable to imagine Milo with Lily on his shoulder almost all the time, and when I realized I could hold this cockatoo, well… Cockatoos and barn owls are pretty similar in weight, and somewhat similar in overall colour. This might be the best chance I had at getting a reference for Milo.

The woman passed the cockatoo over to my arm – unfortunately I don’t remember his name, if she mentioned it – and for a long time, he just sat there. He seemed a little confused, looking up at me, but I could tell he was tense.

It took me a little while to realize why: it was because I was tense. I was nervous about handling a new animal for the first time, especially since I had little to no experience with birds. But this was an epiphany moment for me. Why would he be relaxed if I wasn’t?

So I let out all the tension in my shoulders and relaxed my body as much as possible as he sat on my arm.

The change was extraordinary.

At first I’d been holding him on my arm a little away from my body, but as he relaxed he leaned into me. I drew my arm in closer and soon enough this cockatoo had pressed itself against my torso – head first – snuggled like that was where it was meant to be. I pet him a bit, a bit bewildered, not knowing how exactly birds like to be pet. At the same time I worried about overstaying my welcome. (I had only paid a bit over a dollar, after all.)

So, sooner than I would have liked, I started to pass the cockatoo back over to his handler. I didn’t want to become an annoyance to the woman (she seemed a bit stressed), and admittedly I needed to get back to my shift. But wouldn’t you know it, the little guy wouldn’t budge. He didn’t want to go.

Here was his handler with presumably many, many hours of experience with him, and yet the few minutes I’d spent with him had set him stubbornly gripping to my arm. The woman had her arm next to mine and was trying to get the cockatoo to step onto her. It took a solid minute or two and a surprising amount of effort to finally move him, putting the handler at a loss. “He’s never done that before,” she said. I was just as baffled, but naturally endeared by the whole thing. Nothing else to do, I thanked the woman for her time and walked back to the store, trying to find the words I would use to describe the experience with my coworker.

The lesson I learned that day is that if you want an animal to be relaxed around you, you have to be relaxed first. We’re so much bigger than most of our pets, and they know the difference between an anxious hand and a calm one. They know – they can feel it.

If you’re ever looking to make friends with a cockatoo in a Santa suit, just remember to relax. It’ll go great.

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