Serenity Park, founded by clinical psychologist Lorin Lindner, is a nonprofit sanctuary for parrots and military veterans with trauma issues, tucked inside the 387-acre Veterans Administration Medical Center grounds in West LA. Strolling between its 16 spacious aviaries, the mad vehicular rush on Sepulveda Boulevard and the 405 Freeway sounds as muffled as eucalyptus leaves soft-shoeing on an April breeze. Serenity Park’s name conjures visions of calm ponds and St. Francis statues, but amidst the 42 parrots’ high-decibel “flocking” — calling out to one another for reassurance — the thought occurs that these birds could make Metallica sound acoustic.
“Birds of a Feather: A True Story of Hope, Healing, and the Power of Animals” details the story behind Serenity Park as well as the organic evolution of Lindner’s pay-it-forward convictions, love of parrots and staunch belief in ecotherapy. All that combined with her commitment to veterans to birth this haven for humans and birds living in different kinds of cages with “the same stress-induced disorders,” where they can help each other regain trust and self-acceptance away from the triggers that commonly set off PTSD episodes.
A New York native who grew up riding horses in Central Park, Lindner was a UCLA behavioral science grad student in 1987 when she rescued a screaming Moluccan cockatoo, Sammy, and subsequently adopted a wily companion, Mango. She began assisting homeless veterans, including one without a car who would walk 15 miles to appointments and sleep outside rather than walk back to Pasadena when he needed to return to West LA within days. In 1997 she started New Directions, a one-year residential treatment facility for veterans housed at the VA. Mango seeded the idea for Serenity Park when a resolutely closed-off veteran opened up to the cuddly parrot in Lindner’s office. The sanctuary’s been operational since 2005.
“I knew that when we bond with animals, we connect to the world at an emotional level,” Lindner writes in “Birds.” “Sammy and Mango improved the veterans’ communication skills by getting them to talk, and the birds also helped the veterans increase their ability to empathize and forgive.”
Veterans gripped by wartime trauma, suicidal depression and addictions find reason to keep moving forward at the sanctuary. They come and go, but parrots stay for life, and generally select “their” veterans. Albert Gallegos says he was sweeping the floor, not interacting, when a blue hyacinth macaw named Yogi swooped toward him.
“I thought he was going to attack me, but that was just my brain, the way it was wired in combat,” the former Navy SEAL operations manager recalls during a walk through the sanctuary. “He just locked on me. It was crazy. … I don’t really connect with people. I went from war to killing to jail to being labeled to like fighting gangsters. I come from the bottom to, like, amazing things happening.”
In a long, airy enclosure, Yogi eyes strangers warily from his privacy box (kept bottomless to discourage breeding). Finally he nestles companionably on Gallegos’ shoulder against his cheek, his brilliant blue-and-gold plumage draping the back of the Afghanistan veteran’s American Fighter T-shirt; despite his dagger-pointed beak, he seems vulnerable.
“He’s healing me, that’s for sure,” says Gallegos, speaking in polite, tight bursts. “He got abused, and I think that’s why we connected. He understood me to that level. It’s pretty intense. I feel he’s really scared at times. He’s a big bird and could do a lot of damage because this beak is no joke, but he’s a sweetheart. [Chuckles] … This bird has helped me so much it’s ridiculous. I love him.”
Inside the securely enclosed aviaries, fresh fruit, vegetables, seeds and nuts fan across platforms beside water bowls. Indentations carved into chewable, tree-like trunks allow birds to forage for treats, as they would in the wild. Lindner coos at some voluble Goffin’s cockatoos and jokes, “They’re like the terriers of the bird world.” All around, the birds’ extravagant colors — emerald, salmon, scarlet, snowy white, sunset yellow — resemble a Gauguin palette brushed into life. Bird cries overlap in ear-pummeling crescendo, until silence abruptly stills the air once again. A framed sign warns, “FORBIDDEN: Food or fingers fed to our fine feathered friends.”
“All birds bite,” Lindner advises. As if on cue, Cashew, a vividly hued green, orange, white and yellow caique parrot, starts chewing her right pinky. He responds to Lindner’s maternal affection by ducking his head protectively into her blouse, nibbling on the neckline’s decorative beading.
“They’re beautiful to look at, and people buy them for that reason, but they really don’t make good pets for the casual bird owner,” Lindner says. “They’re noisy, they’re messy, they bite, they attach to one gender or another, so someone’s always the odd person out.”
It’s easy to sentimentalize the sanctuary’s intelligent avian tribe as feathered angels, but that trivializes their very earthly demands: space, mental stimulation and physical touch. Most need partners almost as much as food. Many have developed fearful nervous tics like bouncing, and feather-shredding — an avian version of self-cutting. Numerous awkward and moving episodes between birds and veterans, who are conditioned to handle extreme behavioral quirks, are detailed in Lindner’s book. She says veterans who go to Serenity Park as part of their therapy – like Gallegos and Matt Simmons — usually stay for about six months.
Simmons, who served as a Navy yeoman in Iraq during Desert Storm and gives the alert appearance of someone who’s never met a stranger, was sent to the park, post-rehab, in 2006. He never left. Feeding and administering medicine to a wounded young lilac-crowned Amazon named Ruby vanquished his doubts that parrots could help his PTSD, and he soon took charge of managing the space. He wisecracks about “feathered Paxil” as he eases into a shaded corner chair, doffing his cowboy hat to allow three hovering umbrella cockatoos to settle uninhibitedly on his arm, lap and shoulder. As he bends his head close to theirs, a Bluetooth piece curved around his left ear, he murmurs gently while stroking their feathers, and his intensely coiled demeanor loosens.
Lindner and Simmons married in June 2009 at Serenity Park, where the bride carried a bouquet of Mango and Sammy’s feathers. They now reside with at least half a dozen dogs, a Goffin’s cockatoo named Bobcat, horses and pigs at Lockwood Animal Rescue Center, the wolf sanctuary they founded by Los Padres National Forest in Ventura County. Lindner maintains a behavioral health center nearby in Frazier Park; Simmons shoulders day-to-day oversight of his Warriors and Wolves program at Lockwood, and commutes to Serenity Park several days a week.
A somewhat symbiotic relationship binds the two sanctuaries. Both bring together traumatized animals and veterans, and some Serenity Park veterans (including Gallegos) cross-train to work at the wolf sanctuary. During a hike around Lockwood, where Animal Planet has been filming a series slated to air in August, Lindner explains how both facilities survive sustainably on food from a LEED©-certified food recycling program (“We pick up 20,000 pounds of food every Monday”) that they share with other regional groups that rescue predator animals. Food for their sanctuary charges is stored in a bedroom-sized freezer at the Lockwood barn. “First choice of all the good produce” goes to Serenity Park’s feathered denizens; Lindner says she won’t feed them anything she wouldn’t eat herself. The physically arduous process of selecting that produce, trucked weekly to the VA grounds, inspired a sweaty, amusing scene toward the end of “Birds of a Feather” that illustrates their dedication to both sanctuaries.
Sammy and Mango, named in the book’s dedication, have passed away, and Lindner’s no longer a daily presence at Serenity Park. But her love for her birds, like her advocacy for veterans — and now wolves too — remains fierce. Speaking as both psychologist and human being, she insists, “psychotropic medications aren’t the only answer” for veterans living with PTSD. “Nature is healing.”
Lorin Lindner discusses and signs “Birds of a Feather” at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 17; free admission. Info: (626) 449-5320. To learn more about the book, Parrot C.A.R.E./Serenity Park and Lockwood Animal Rescue Center, visit lorinlindnerphd.com/the-book and lockwoodarc.org.