Macaws as Teaching Assistants at the Washington Zoological Park


Everyone who cares about birds is
one day driven to become an
educator encouraging others to value
the wondrous nature of birds, to
understand the importance of conservation
to protect birds in the wild, and
to appreciate the needs of birds in
captivity. The Washington Zoological
Park in Issaquah, Washington, is dedicated
to teaching these very lessons.
The instruction is unforgettable,
thanks in large part to the zoo's
impressive teaching assistants, the
Unlike many zoos, the Washington
Zoological Park (WZP) is primarily a
teaching institution. Every visitor
receives personal attention and guidance
from the network of docents
who relate information about the animals
and environmental values and
answer questions. This emphasis on
education is not surprising as the zoo
was founded in 1972 as a teaching
laboratory for a neighboring private 

school. Now the zoo is governed by
the Zoological Society of Washington.
Funding is from society memberships,
donations, zoo admissions and fundraising.
No government funds or tax
money is received and the staff is
largely devoted volunteers.
The Director of the Washington
Zoological Park, Peter Rittler, identifies
two distinct aims within the zoo's
mission to increase public knowledge
of psittacines. The first aim is to
enhance the public's understanding
and appreciation of parrots in the wild
as well as the effect of humanity's
activities on the birds. Visitors to the
zoo may arrive never having heard of
the Hyacinthine Macaw or having
seen only a picture of this largest of all
.macaws. Before leaving, they will
meet Payaso, a young Hyacinthine
who loves to be held and may be 

caught napping with one foot clutching
a few wing feathers as a "security
blanket." Now Payaso's "students"
will be touched more deeply when
they learn that Hyacinthine Macaws
are endangered. Perhaps they will
even take specific action to help protect
the species and its habitat.
The second aim of the zoo's educational
efforts regarding psittacines is to
improve the care of parrots in captivity,
a concern rarely addressed by
other zoos. In common with other
zoological institutions, the Washington
Zoological Park does discourage
the keeping of pet parrots. Mr. Rittler
expresses this view by saying the
birds remain wild animals and, as children
of the wild, belong in their native
habitats. The WZP parts company
with most other zoos by going beyond
that fundamental principle to recognize
that parrots have been kept as
pets throughout history, are now kept
in large numbers, and will continue to
be prized as pets.
Believing that all birds, wild and
captive, deserve a high quality of life,
the zoo governors seek to improve the
care of pet birds through education.
An exhibit is being built to present
nutritional guidelines for feeding pet
parrots and to display examples of
minimum housing. By making realistic
suggestions, the zoo staff hopes to
encourage pet owners to upgrade
each aspect of their birds' care. For
example, Mr. Rittler notes it would be
ineffective to ask every pet owner to
provide the ideal accommodation of a
large aviary for each bird. People who
care about their birds but have underestimated
their needs may, however,
be motivated by this exhibit to buy a
considerably larger cage.
Four years ago, the zoo realized it
could best accomplish its twopronged
educational mission as to
psittacines by specializing in one
genus. Macaws were chosen to represent
all parrots because of their beauty
and intelligence and because people

unfamiliar with birds easily Jearn to
identify macaws.
When the decision to specialize was
made, other parrots already resided at
the zoo, including African Grey Parrots,
a Moluccan Cockatoo, and Double
Yellow-headed Amazons, two of
which are of the Tres Marias subspecies.
Mr. Rittler vows that all these
birds have a permanent home at the
WZP because "they are as much a part
of us as our arms, or legs, or noses."
Watc hing him walk through the
grounds, this is easy to believe , as
each parrot reaches out to him for a
treat or caress.
Director Rittler points out that this
focus on macaws is highly unusual
among zoos. One reason may be that
some zoos choose not to maintain
birds well represented in captivity.
The WZP collection includes macaws
common as pets (such as the Blue and
Gold Macaw and Scarlet Macaw) as
well as less common ones (such as the
Hyaci nthine and Red-fronted). The
WZP's immediate goal is to have all
but the rarest macaws, such as the
Lear's. Some day Mr. Rittler hopes to
include even the rarest species in the
zoo's collectio n. Currently, the zoo
has Hahn's, Illiger's, Yellow-collared,
Red-fronted, Military, Blue and Gold,
Scarlet, Green-winged , and Hyacinthine
Macaws. Because the intent is to
educate people about all macaws, and
all these species exist in the wild, the
view of the zoo's governors is that it is
irreleva nt that large populations of
some of these species exist in captivity.
As a res ult, the zoo now has the
largest macaw collection on the West
Coast between the Canadian border
and the San Diego Zoo, and expects
one day to have the most complete
macaw collection in the country.
Before tha t day comes, the zoo may
well have one of the largest macaw
signs in the nation . Soon to be
erected, the sign will identify all
macaw species , give a capsule
description, and state the status in the
wild of each species (threatened or
endangered, for instance).
In regard to the care of captive birds,
part of the zoo's teaching is by example.
The zoo has a manual setting out
in detail the institution's methods for
meeting the three basic needs of birds
in captivity: nutrition, sanitation, and