Friday, March 13, 2015

My Adventures in Toucanland!

A few years ago I started seeing these fantastic toucan photos on Facebook.  Nearly every day these amazing, close up shots of these gorgeous, colorful birds would show up on Facebook.  I saw that they all came from a page called Adventures in Toucanland.  I "liked" that page and began to follow it.  I also went to the website and learned more about them.

Pepe.  Photo by Mary Jones.

Fast forward to last June when our good friends took their yearly vacation to Virgin Gorda, a small island in the British Virgin Islands.  Getting there from California requires three plane rides, one from CA to NC, a second from NC to Puerto Rico and then a third ride in a terrifyingly small charter plane from Puerto Rico to the island of Virgin Gorda.  Our friends were delayed and waiting on the charter plane when they started chatting with a woman that they were sitting next to.  They started talking about where they're from and what they do.  When the woman mentioned that she has toucans my friends told her that they have a close friend who trains birds and is always sharing toucan photos.  It turned out, of course, that they were talking with Chrissann Nickel of Adventures in Toucanland.  When she asked who their friend was she immediately told them that she had been friends with me on Facebook for some time and knew who I was!  Later last year our dear friends Mary and Donna invited my husband Rick and I to join them on their next trip to the Virgin Gorda which would be next March, which is, as it turns out, right now.  Yes, I am writing this blog, sitting on a couch inside an unbelievably beautiful villa looking out the open door to the Caribbean.  The villa and staff are amazing and most of our vacation consists of us hanging out around here, lying in the sun, snorkling, swimming, eating fabulous food, drinking fabulous wine and of course, a visit to meet the toucans!

We had the pleasure of being invited by Chrissann to come and meet her and visit with and meet the toucans.  I can't tell you what an extraordinary honor it was.  To get to see them up close, to be allowed to feed them blueberries and ask her whatever we wanted was a once in a lifetime event.  When you hear "Adventures in Toucanland" you might think that it is some kind of attraction or amusement park, but that is hardly the case.  The birds live on a hill above Chrissann's home in large enclosures set up for their well being.  It is a little bit of a climb to reach the enclosures, but so worth it!

My husband Rick, Paz and I.  Photo by Mary Jones.

When I first started following Adventures in Toucanland which is the name of their Facebook page and website, I didn't know the whole story and just assumed that these birds were her "pets".  I know people who keep the smaller species of toucans, aracaris and toucanets as pets, so I assumed she had aquired these larger Toco Toucans because she wanted them as pets.  I quickly learned that wasn't the case at all.  Pepe, Paz and Paco as they are named were rescued from a business here in the BVI that uses animals as a money making attraction.  Their main source of income is offering people the opportunity to "swim with dolphins".  Unfortunately, the dolphins are kept in substandard conditions, not offered what they need in terms of enrichment or care and basically exploited for money.  Sadly, the public doesn't know that  and tourists pay good money for the opportunity to swim with them.  In addition to the dolphins, they also used to keep birds including the toucans and several species of parrots.  None of the animals were being cared for properly and they decided that the birds, who they considered nothing more than a burden to care for and not money makers needed to go.  Chrissann agreed to take the "Three Cans" as they are affectionately known and made arrangements for the parrots to go someplace else.

What Chrissann and her partner David have done for these birds is pretty extraordinary to be sure.  Chrissann readily admits that while she is grateful that she was able to save them and is happy that she can give them this life, she did not know at the time how it would change her life. They can no longer zip off the island to get away, which I have learned is an important part of island living.  The island is not big, and part of the attraction is being able to leave and get away, which is not so simple now that they care for these birds.  All of the birds have large enclosures that I found to be well suited, filled with enrichment and toys, appropriate perching, clean and with fresh food.  Pepe's enclosure is designed differently, with a raised bottom and low perching to accommodate for his disability.  He can't fall far in this enclosure which makes it safe for him.  Chrissann took the time to learn and understand operant conditioning and positive reinforcement training in order to help the birds learn to trust and become more comfortable, but also to teach some management behaviors.  It is clear however, that even with everything they have offered, it isn't enough for Chrissann, who loves her birds and despite giving them amazing lives, doesn't feel that they should be living as "pets" in this way.  Of course, there is no choice for Pepe, Paz and Paco.  These birds, while all of their history is unclear, could no longer live in the wild.

Chrissann and Paco
I want to point out that while we were allowed to see the toucans and even to go into one of the enclosures and feed the birds, we were given very specific instructions on how to behave, how to offer the food, where to be, etc.  Further, the safety and comfort level of the birds was Chrissann's priority which I greatly respected.  The birds were not treated like some kind of attraction, they are being shared with the intention of educating people.

Me feeding blueberries to Paz.  Photo by Rick Ronchette.

Mary feeding Paz.  Photo by Vicki Ronchette.
I learned so much from Chrissann during our visit.  I used to feel that the small toucans could make appropriate pets for someone who could offer the proper time, space, food, attention, etc.  Now, I definitely do not believe that the large toucans should be pets and I am not so sure I think that the small ones should be either.  Truth be told, more than the animals, it is the people who have them that is the issue.  I find there to be a small percentage of people who understand what it takes to give their parrots everything that they need.  It isn't that I don't think people should have birds as companion animals, I have several birds myself, but I find that the ease in which someone can obtain a bird like a Cockatoo or a Macaw or an African Grey to be troubling because getting the bird is the easy part, it is the providing for them corretly, day in and day out, for many many years that is the hard part.  The toucans are extraordinary.  They are beautiful, funny, exotic and amazing and they are the kind of animals that the wrong kind of person could want for all the wrong reasons.  Thankfully, toucans are not as easy to find and are quite expensive.  You don't see toucan after toucan for sale on Craigslist, sometimes as young as a year old because people bought a baby and then realized that they are loud, messy, active and demanding like we see with so many parrot species.  That is a good thing.

Pepe.  Photo by Mary Jones.
Here are a few things that would prevent me from having a toucan and things that I think people should think about strongly if they are considering trying to get a toucan or even if they think that they would make cool pets.
  • Space.  This one I was aware of.  Toucans, even the smaller species require a lot of space and not just vertical space, but also a lot of horizontal space to hop and move around.  They are extremely active and busy.  I know that I could not offer this type of space.
  • Mess.  Toucans are fruit eaters.  Birds that are fruit eaters tend to be very messy because they shoot watery poop all over.  Not easy to keep clean at all.
  • They aren't parrots.  They are social and can be handled by people if conditioned to do so, but they are a complicated and exotic species.  
  • They can be aggressive with one another and with parrots, just as parrots can be.  I know people who have both parrots and toucans and must keep them carefully separated.
Here are a few things that I did NOT know, but learned from Chrissann.
  • They can be aggressive and territorial.  While they may not be able to do as much serious damage as some animals, they certainly can do some.  Chrissann has worked hard to get her mistreated and mishandled birds to trust her, but she can't have just anyone in there and can have only a couple of people in with Paco.  Toucans look beautiful, comical and exotic, you might not think of them as dangerous, but they can certainly be intimidating.
  • They need to be fed often, several times a day.  They eat fresh fruit and they don't want it spoiled, mushy or old.  
  • Space again.  Even adequate space is probably not really adequate.
  • They are very active.  Of course, there are many species of parrots that are very active too.  This is not unlike some of the active parrot species, but still something that we need to think about.  I meet a lot of people who think that a parrot can just sit quietly and do nothing all day on a perch which isn't the case.  It's not the case with toucans either.
  • Everyone on the planet is not bird obsessed like me.  It isn't easy for her to find help with socializing with her birds, working on training or helping to care for them when she is away.
Most of all, I learned that these birds are extremely intelligent, demanding, active and not at all easy to keep properly.  I thank Chrissann Nickel as well as Paco, PePe and Paz from the bottom of my heart for the opportunity to meet you and your amazing birds.  I also thank our friends Mary and Donna for bringing us here and feeling that it was important that we experience Baraka Point in the Virgin Gorda and the toucans.  I feel like while I still have so much to learn, I have learned a lot and feel a bit more armed to talk about the reality of living with and caring for toucans.

Chrissann Nickel, Paz and I.  Photo by Mary Jones.
Please consider visiting the Adventures in Toucanland website to learn more about PePe, Paz and Paco but also to learn about toucans in general.  Also, please like the Adventures in Toucanland Facebook page to enjoy daily photos and stories of the Three Cans to learn more about them and to share and help to educate others about them.