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.