Excessive secrecy hinted at deteriorating conditions for years
STANWOOD, Washington––Lori Keene Rutledge, 66, for thirty years often among the go-to people in parrot rescue, was on March 14, 2022 removed from her Cockatoo Rescue & Sanctuary in a rural area southeast of Stanwood, Washington by emergency medical services.
Animal control personnel who obtained a search-and-seizure warrant found only one of the fifty-odd cockatoos believed to have been in her possession still alive. Two emaciated dogs were also removed alive.
Parrot rescue community self-policing failed
The circumstances make a strong case for the urgent necessity of bringing captive birds under the protection of the federal Animal Welfare Act. The failure of the parrot fancy, especially the parrot rescue community, to monitor and respond to the long deteriorating conditions at the Cockatoo Rescue & Sanctuary, could scarcely make a stronger case against self-policing.
The “Model Avicultural Program” that many parrot breeders and rescuers argue should prevail in lieu of federal inspections and enforcement did not protect the birds left in Rutledge’s care, some of them delivered by other rescuers as recently as nine months before her death.
“Exemplary” five years ago means nothing now
Apologists for Rutledge argue online that her bird facilities were exemplary years earlier, but that became increasingly irrelevant as time passed, with no one checking to ensure that what had been exemplary when Rutledge was young and healthy still was, as she aged and her health failed.
The “Model Avicultural Program” earlier did not protect the hundreds of birds kept by breeder Martha Scudder in a case originating more than 20 years before, in which Rutledge herself unsuccessfully attempted intervention.
Refuse & remains
Rutledge died on March 19, 2022 at Skagit Valley Hospital, leaving behind a house, aviary, and outbuildings that video shared with media by Snohomish County Animal Services show were filled with refuse and animal remains.
“The sanctuary and its large aviary are tucked behind trees, and down a gravel driveway, the entrance has a massive wrought-iron gate wall with a lock on it, and ‘no trespassing’ signs are posted nearby,” reported Michelle Esteban of KOMO News, an hour’s drive south in Seattle.
“It’s not even clear from the road leading to her property that it is an aviary,” Esteban said.
Rutledge “had a pretty secluded life. Her family wasn’t aware of what was going on, her neighbors didn’t interact with her, and her property wasn’t clearly visible or accessible,” Snohomish County Animal Services manager Debby Zins told Esteban, offering the usual excuse people make for animal hoarders:
“It appears she had been running a successful sanctuary for some time and I think in her case it just got somehow overwhelming for her.”
(See Handling hoarders, by Vicky Crosetti.)
Overwhelming bull feathers
But that begs the question why Rutledge herself did not seek help before 50-odd cockatoos died, probably from starvation and dehydration, but possibly from a highly contagious disease such as the H5N1 avian influenza.
Rutledge was well-known among the parrot rescue community, active for years on social media, and experienced herself in responding to hoarding situations.
Further, the Cockatoo Rescue & Sanctuary location, hidden among trees though it is, was within eight miles or less of the nationally noted NOAH Center dog-and-cat shelter, the Purrfect Pals cat shelter, at least three other dog-and-cat rescue operations, the Pigs Peace pig sanctuary, and two horse rescues, all of them well-connected with an array of emergency animal services––if anyone had called for help.
Northwest Parrots posted warnings in 2018
Acquaintances posting to the Cockatoo Rescue & Sanctuary page on Facebook said Rutledge suffered from “brain cancer,” and knew she had cancer, but no one appears to have intervened.
Seattle “parrot lady” Debbie Goodrich posted a suggestion to Facebook that “anyone following [should] look at Northwest Parrots group to see our 2018 discussion about Lori Rutledge [that] they reposted recently, and how we put out flags then to not bring birds to her because no one could visit.”
But the 3,000-member Northwest Parrots group is closed to non-members, and non-members seeking a home for a parrot would never have seen that discussion.
Rutledge got a sandwich; dogs & parrots went unfed
On March 12, 2022, “at around 7:41 a.m., emergency medical services responded to a call to Rutledge’s home for a fall victim,” summarized Roadside Zoo News, in an extensive report based on public documents also posted to the Roadside Zoo News web site.
“Rutledge told first responders she had been lying on the floor since the day before and she said she was just able to get to the phone to call 911,” the Roadside Zoo News account continued.
“First responders got Rutledge off the floor, checked her blood sugar, and brought her a sandwich. They found two parrots and two dogs––a Chihuahua and a Great Dane–inside the home with her. They brought her dog food and offered to feed and water her dogs and her birds, but Rutledge said she had fed them that morning. When they replied that she had been lying on the floor since the day before, Rutledge said she had someone else come in to feed them. Rutledge refused to go to the hospital, so first responders left.”
Without calling animal control.
“Rescuers” locked up dogs & still did not feed them
The next day, March 13, 2022, “at around 1:30 p.m., emergency medical services again responded to Rutledge’s house,” Roadside Zoo News resumed. “Rutledge told officials that she fell again and her Great Dane kept knocking her down.”
As the Great Dane “was aggressive toward responders,” Roadside Zoo News said, “they locked the Great Dane and the Chihuahua in a bedroom,” but offered to feed and water them.
Rutledge again insisted she had a friend to do that.
“They asked about the birds again, and she said she fed them,” Roadside Zoo News continued. “They asked how she could feed them if she was on the floor and she got defensive and said her friend fed them.”
Rutledge named a woman with an address in Sedro Woolley, 24 miles north, for whom Rutledge had no telephone number.
Found 50 dead birds & still did not call animal control
This time emergency medical services transported Rutledge to the Skagit Valley Hospital.
“Snohomish fire captain Gino Bellizzi walked outside and found about 12-15 carport style cages with about 50 dead birds inside,” Roadside Zoo News added. “Documents indicate the birds were in an advanced state of decomposition and all that was left of them were feathers and feet.”
Yet another day elapsed before, on March 14, 2022, “animal control officer Paul Delgado received a complaint from emergency medical services about the conditions at Rutledge’s home,” which should have triggered an immediate call to animal control during the first emergency medical services visit.
“Delgado met with a caseworker for Rutledge and the pair spoke with Rutledge in her hospital room,” Roadside Zoo News said.
Rutledge however, again repeatedly refused to allow animal control to feed and water her surviving animals, and named two people, this time a man and woman who apparently do not exist, as her supposed animal caretakers.
Birds fell silent, rats proliferated, & still no questions
“Delgado left the hospital room and drove to Rutledge’s property and spoke with a neighbor,” narrated Roadside Zoo News.
“The neighbor stated that they had troubles in the past with the noise from the birds, but the birds stopped making noise sometime in the past year, and now for the past several months they have had a rat problem,” believe to result from rats “coming from Rutledge’s property.”
On March 16, 2022, after further efforts to secure cooperation from Rutledge, “and after the surviving animals had been alone in Rutledge’s home for 69 hours,” Roadside Zoo News finished, “Delgado obtained and executed a search warrant at Rutledge’s property and confiscated two dogs and two cockatoos. One of the cockatoos was dead at the scene.”
“With Rutledge’s death,” Esteban of KOMO News reported, “investigators said there is no reason to further investigate. They have no suspect.”
Never completed nonprofit status
But everyone who knew about the existence of the Cockatoo Rescue & Sanctuary, yet failed to ask appropriate questions, might be considered a suspect in the moral sense, if not the legal sense.
For starters, Rutledge in 1998 incorporated the Cockatoo Rescue & Sanctuary as a nonprofit corporation in Washington state, but appears to have never obtained federal IRS 501(c)(3) status as a public charity, and never identified a board of directors or filed a financial statement.
Where did the money go when Rutledge received a bird with a stipend for the bird’s care, or received any other sort of donation?
If Rutledge never did fundraising, how did she finance the care of 50-odd birds for 30 years?
Ran into earlier trouble over noise
“When Lori Rutledge began taking in unwanted parrots in 1992,” wrote Everett Daily Herald reporter Janice Podsada, “she hoped to offer them sanctuary at her then-home in Edmonds,” just north of Seattle. “But in 1996, her Edmonds aviary ruffled neighbors, leading to public noise disturbance charges.
“If I have to, I’ll go to jail for my birds,” Rutledge told The Daily Herald in 1996.
The public disturbance charges were dropped after Rutledge relocated to the 20-acre Stanwood site, which at the back of the property appears to abut the Silvana Fire Department.
Why was the Silvana Fire Department unaware of the Cockatoo Rescue & Sanctuary situation until Rutledge made her March 12, 2022 call to 911?
Many parrots, plus a cuckoo
At the Stanwood property, Rutledge “reportedly cared for dozens, if not hundreds, of pet and wild caught cockatoos, macaws, African greys and other parrots,” Podsada continued.
“Bird owners seeking to surrender their pets were promised a ‘peaceful park-like setting.’ Cockatoos and parrots, who can live up to 70 years in captivity, could ‘live out their lives with their own kind,’ according to the sanctuary’s Facebook Page. Rutledge did not allow adoptions. Facebook photos from 2016 show a lush green oasis dotted with large, covered enclosures,” which other bird rescuers believe may have housed as many as 400 birds.
“Michael Jacobs, a Lynnwood attorney representing her next of kin, said that after Rutledge died, her family went to the sanctuary and discovered about 50 dead birds,” Podsada wrote.
Jacobs denied rumors that Rutledge kept hundreds of birds farther back on the Cockatoo Rescue & Sanctuary lot than could be seen from her house.
Google Earth images show no structures in the more remote parts of the property.
Dropped off 12 cockatoos without a look-around
But Rutledge herself fed the rumors.
Wrote Podsada, “Shellie Hochstetler, who runs Holidays Exotic Avian Rescue, a nonprofit refuge in White Pigeon, Michigan, visited the Stanwood sanctuary in August 2021 to drop off 12 cockatoos. Rutledge told her she had hundreds of birds housed in the back part of the 40-acre property, which was not readily accessible.
“But Hochstetler did not tour the grounds,” Podsada noted. “It was evening and she only saw the outdoor enclosures near Rutledge’s home where the remains were found.”
Of what Podsada called “Rutledge’s self-described attempt to keep many of her birds out of sight and away from prying eyes,” Hochstetler offered, “She had so many lines of defense to protect them and her. She had so many birds, worth millions of dollars total.”
More people claim to have seen the extinct Carolina parakeet in recent years than actually saw the Cockatoo Rescue & Sanctuary
But verified parrot thefts in the U.S. have fallen from more than 1,000 per year between 1994 and 1998, to just a few in recent years––albeit that the most recent reported mass theft, of 30 birds, came in 2015 at the Macaw Rescue & Sanctuary in Carnation, Washington, 60 miles south of Stanwood.
The Macaw Rescue & Sanctuary is an 800-bird facility run by longtime Rutledge acquaintance Bob Dawson.
Dawson “hadn’t spoken to Rutledge in several years,” Podsada learned.
“Betsy Lott, who runs Mollywood Avian Sanctuary in Bellingham, Washington,” 40 miles north, “last visited Rutledge’s sanctuary in 2004,” Podsada continued.
Said Lott, “She had beautiful carport aviary frames with greenhouses on them and a manicured landscape and gorgeous pathways. She had these big Great Dane dogs that were like her predator protection. She had no volunteers and nobody was allowed to visit.”
“They get traumatized”
Rutledge’s self-isolation should have set off alarms, as should self-isolation on the part of anyone in care of animals, but did not.
Claimed Dawson, “A lot of her birds were wild-caught birds that do not do well when people visit. They get traumatized.”
But––except when nesting with a clutch of eggs or chicks, and a legitimate sanctuary does not breed animals––few birds are more gregarious than parrots, or less intimidated by humans than cockatoos, especially.
And yes, ANIMALS 24-7 has experience with both captive cockatoos, among other parrots, and parrots in the wild.
Last posted to Facebook in February 2019
Noted Podsada, “The last time Rutledge posted on the Cockatoo Rescue & Sanctuary’s Facebook page was February 2019. She described moving all the birds indoors due to an impending snow storm.”
Said Rutledge then, “I don’t like working outside in colder weather. Most of the birds who winter outdoors have bullet-proof plexiglass heated greenhouses. Once I saw the forecast of snow and frigid temps, I brought all of the birds indoors. Yes there is room.”
Why did no one ask why Rutledge thereafter vanished from Facebook for three years, and why was anyone still taking birds to her without inspecting the Cockatoo Rescue & Sanctuary premises, two and a half years into her self-imposed silence?
Began in rescue amid breeding boom
Rutledge became involved in parrot rescue, Of Parrots & People author Mira Tweti of Los Angeles indicated, after “The business of parrot breeding underwent a major change in 1992, when Congress passed the Wild Bird Conservation Act. With the legislation, the United States effectively closed its doors to imports of birds caught in the wild. That fueled a boom in domestically bred parrots.
“With U.S. breeders controlling the population,” Tweti explained, “the birds available for sale were plentiful and the species varied. They also were less expensive to consumers.
“In 1990, there were an estimated 14 million pet birds in the United States. By 1996, there were 40 million,” rising by 2005 to “50 million to 60 million pets with an estimated two million young parrots added each year.”
Rutledge, Tweti wrote, “once complimented a local breeder who kept his birds in large outdoor cages.
“I said to him, ’Your birds must absolutely love you for giving them this much space, fresh air and sunshine,” Rutledge recalled. “He said, ‘They think I am the devil. They hate me. I take their babies. You should hear them scream.’”
Martha Scudder’s Parrot Depot
By then, first the Humane Society of Tacoma & Pierce County and later People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had been receiving complaints for at least six years about Martha Scudder’s Parrot Depot breeding facility in Roy, Washington. Necropsy reports described bird deaths from a variety of allegedly avoidable causes.
The Humane Society of Tacoma & Pierce County, Tweti reported, in 2003 contracted with Cockatoo Rescue & Sanctuary to house the Scudder parrots, if confiscated.
“Rutledge said she could accept most of the estimated 800 birds at Scudder’s on her 40-acre property,” wrote Tweti. “The facility already houses several species of rescued breeder birds,
including a dozen types of cockatoos, nine kinds of macaws, six species of Amazons, and African grey parrots.
“Rutledge said she also would send birds to a conservation park that her colleague, aviculturalist Bob Dawson, has built on 20 acres in Carnation.”
“The joy in their eyes is unforgettable”
Rutledge told Tweti that at Cockatoo Rescue & Sanctuary, parrots “can choose their friends, where they want to hang out, if they want to sun themselves. They love it. The joy in their eyes is unforgettable.”
But the anticipated confiscation from Scudder never occurred. The Scudder parrots were never delivered to either Rutledge or Dawson.
Noted Tweti at the time, 17 years ago, “The U.S. Department of Agriculture is drafting an amendment to the Animal Welfare Act that would include minimum care standards for birds. The amended law is expected to be years off.”
The draft minimum care standards were finally published in February 2022.
“The lesson learned”
Concluded the Seattle “parrot lady,” Debbie Goodrich, “For me, the lesson learned is that we must force the current Animal Welfare Act law being proposed to absolutely include all sanctuaries and rescues.
“Secondly, that if someone is not responding to you about the care you paid them [for] when you delivered your animal, then I think you can call for a wellness check.
“I know there are many cases where dozens of complaints are filed, but the complaints do not result in action,” Goodrich acknowledged.
“In the same light, I’ve seen whole confiscations happen with little to complain about in real abuse, and have also seen abusers get their animals back with the animal control officer dumping evidence for lesser charges,” which might be less likely to happen in cases involving federal rather than just local agencies.
But Goodrich also objected to publicity about the details of the Rutledge case, which at the very least have possible warning and deterrent value, and help to show the need for the proposed Animal Welfare Act extension to cover bird facilities.
“Find a designated contact”
Longtime Florida parrot breeder Laurella Desborough, 87, who frequently comments on ANIMALS 24-7 postings, advised colleagues to do more than ” just make a will. Find a designated contact, Desborough said, “who is willing to call every morning and say ‘Hi.’ When the bird owner dies not answer, then the contact person knows the bird owner is either ill or dead. This is what serious older and ill bird owners do, if they care about their birds. This has been done for many decades to prevent bird deaths by older single bird owners. It works.”
Desborough also emphasized that the Rutledge case demonstrates the need for the Animal Welfare Act to cover “rescues” and “sanctuaries,” as well as breeders, a deficiency in the Animal Welfare Act regulations as currently written pertaining to mammals as well as to birds.