Finding Pepper

When I was little I used to watch TV with a scarlet macaw named Pepper. He was smart and chatty. He knew the Mexican hat dance. He could sing Happy Birthday. He bobbed and weaved. He liked to crack sunflower seeds. Before I was born he was my parents’ main child. Then they had me. Then they had my brother, Jake. For Pepper, this was the final insult. He didn’t like becoming third string. I don’t blame him. He started to chase visitors around the house and screamed and screamed. I was a kid but I remember seeing adults cringe under the painful tsunami of Pepper’s angry voice.

My parents started to think about finding a new home for Pepper. One day, my mom announced that he was going to go live at the zoo. We packed him up in a dog crate with a few of his wooden toys and drove to Santa Barbara. I loved the Santa Barbara Zoo, or…I should say I loved the capybara exhibit at the Santa Barbara Zoo. The giant rodents had a muddy, watery area, enclosed by a low wooden fence. The rodents seemed semi-free and I loved the snorting sounds they made. Pepper was going to live nearby. I was thrilled. For the next few years, on school trips to the zoo, I was fantastically popular. I walked up to a leafy island called Parrot Garden and sang “La cucaracha…la cucaracha.” Pepper would appear, swaying from side to side, among the crowd of the other, nonplussed, parrots. It was like having a superpower. Sometimes I could get him to sing “happy birthday.” The other kids looked at me with awe and asked me to talk to the rabbits, the gorillas, the tortoises. I told them my gift only worked with parrots.

I eventually stopped going to to the zoo. I left home to go to highschool, then college, then work and graduate school.  Adult life yawned open and swallowed me up. Pepper became an animal lodged in my childhood. “I wonder whatever happened to Pepper..” my mom would say, as if we couldn’t find out.

We didn’t talk about him much because we all felt a little guilty.  We didn’t want to discover that he’d become a serious feather plucker, or died, or stopped dancing. Until recently that is. Last year I announced to my family that I was going to go look for him.

Macaws can live well into their sixties. I called the zoo. It turned out that for fifteen years, he had been in Parrot Garden, with a mate he’d chosen for himself named Henny. Pepper, they also told me was a she. Only she wasn’t there anymore. She’d been sold to a safari park in the wine country in Northern California. Henny had not gone with her.

Safari West is a weird sort of African wildlife experience in Santa Rosa. There are tents “imported” from Africa. They have an event called “Wine, Wheels and Warthogs.” How scarlet macaws fit into the African experience I do not know. Perhaps there is an Amazonian extension. But on the phone they wouldn’t tell me whether or not they have Pepper. I am going to have to visit and wander the grounds myself, singing Happy Birthday and the Mexican hat dance, hoping that somewhere, out amongst the warthogs, he’s still listening.

12 Comments on “Finding Pepper

  1. I hope you find Pepper! So sad she couldn’t continue her journey with Henry!

    I love that you were the “parrot whisperer!”

  2. I love this story about Pepper. I really would like to go on a rescue mission this summer to see if I can sneak her back to her big H.

    This post comes at such an opportune time. I just arrived home to find that my angel of a dog, Downtown Leroy Brown, chewed the crotch out of my sweatpants, mangled my flip flops, shredded my only other bra… I should have known something was up when he did not immediately pop his darling head up to greet me as I pulled in front of our house.

    I know it sounds crazy, but I think he knew he was about to get in trouble. This is sort of remarkable because Leroy never gets in trouble. He hasn’t chewed up anything in a very, very long time. But today, I came home doing my usual overly excited, practically drooling routine (he’s so darn cute, he makes me drool!) and instead of the love wiggler I usually am greeter by, I found a dog who would fail every lie detector test in the world. He sort of did an abbreviate tail waggle, and a side ways glance at the living room where the carnage lay strewn about in all its gory glory. This was sort of amazing to me. I immediately thought, “I wonder if Laurel has come across stories of other animals who feel guilt.” I really believed our species had invented guilt and regret. Now, I am pretty sure we aren’t alone.

    I can’t wait to read Animal Madness!

    (For anyone worried as to what horrible consequence would inspire such visceral regret in my pitbull, I should explain that punishment for such a crime consists of a stern, “Leroy! I am shocked!” as I hold up my strapless flip flop and shake my head while looking him squarely in the eye. Then I implement the silent treatment/no petting routine for about seven minutes. It’s pretty harsh around here.)

  3. NANCY. I feel for you this afternoon. Oh…Downtown Leroy Brown…what were you thiiiiinking? Though honestly–I am secretly, selfishly glad this happened just so that I could read about it. Is that wrong? And for the record, I do believe dogs can feel, and act, guilty. There was one study (see the book “Inside of a Dog” I believe, for more) that said otherwise. But I think the study was problematic. If I remember correctly the conclusion was that the dogs “acted guilty” even when they hadn’t done anything wrong, if their human expressed anger at them doing something wrong. Rather than prove that dogs do not actually feel guilty–I think it proved that dogs can “act guilty” even when they’re not. Which is something humans do too. Especially when confronted unfairly. We quiver, lower our eyes, etc…or at least some of us do.


    ps. “love wiggler” might be the best phrase I’ve heard in ages. Though it also sounds like an adult toy.

  4. Here it is: I’d need to read the actual paper to see what she said herself (as opposed to the journalist’s summary) but to me it seems problematic. Dogs react in a guilty way whether or not they did the crime they are being scolded for. This does not prove that they don’t feel guilt.

  5. genius! the love wiggler! i feel we should patent the name, and then see how much good vibrations will buy it off of us for! thank you so much for sending this paper. I can’t wait to read it. xo,n

  6. p.s. Another fascinating development- Omar said he’s sure Leroy ate my clothes because he left Leroy without saying a proper goodbye this morning. They normally have this whole routine where Omar gives him a snack after their morning walk, and he tells Leroy that he has to do a good job watching the house, and then he leaves. However, today Omar was running late and just left Leroy right after their walk with no snack and no conversation. Omar says he’s sure Leroy was just mad this morning… Do dogs get mad? Do they get disappointed?

  7. I think the funniest thing about Pepper was how he(she…..who knew?) was how
    She tried to communicatevwith you when you were a baby…so when you made baby noises she would mimic them, when you spoke arrrgh or waaaaaa
    She would do the same …only she did it louder! you and pepper had this game she said what you said and then you said what she said!,,,But all of this was done at a very high decibel range…your grandmother was sure you would never learn to speak very funny I thought,
    I am sorry we had to find a home for Pepper but with all the menagerie, new baby brother, and other events in our family she just needed and deserved more attention., also she chased the housekeeper , and she could really cover territory even on the ground.

  8. LOOOVVVEEE your sensitive pitbull’s name ‘Downtown Leroy Brown’…. does he have any nicknames??? I used to have a lovely ‘ghetto bull’ named Buster, but we called him Boots Brown and Booty Brown as well…. he loved to lounge around with a golf ball gently clasped in his mouth. i think he enjoyed how his canines fit into the dimples of the ball.

  9. ha! Booty Brown! I love it! That might be Leroy’s new nickname. And, golf balls! Wow. We’ve never tried those… Jodi, you have expanded our horizons. Thank you! Leroy has many nicknames. He mainly goes by Leroy, but he also responds to: 1) Senor Sniff Olympics, 2) Beans, and 3)Von Beanenberg Concerto. (You may notice a certain flatulence theme. Let me say, it is not accidental. ) My sister Kate’s fiance calls him something in Spanish that roughly translates to “Chocolate Cheeks.” I think this is his favorite.

  10. Laurel I am up for a Pepper adventure this summer with you and Nancy! Seeing the picture of the living room on the ranch makes me happy.

  11. Hi Laurel! I’d love to go meet Pepper with you.

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