Now Or Never

Caring for surrendered pet birds no 'birden' for Alberta couple

Janine Couture and Ian Sprague have dedicated their life to caring for hundreds of rescued and surrendered pet birds — and there's little downtime. 'Because of the volume we have, it's all day, every day.'

'Because of the volume we have, it's all day, every day. There's no break,' says Janine Couture

Janine Couture, left, and Ian Sprague have become around-the-clock caregivers for abandoned and surrendered pet birds at Meika's Safehouse in Sherwood Park, Alta. (Tanara McLean/CBC)
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At Meika's Birdhouse in Sherwood Park, Alta., you hear the birds before you see them.

Walking into the small store in a suburban strip mall feels more like a warm, relaxing Caribbean getaway than a sanctuary for nearly 60 abandoned and surrendered pet birds.

"They [keep] coming and coming," says Janine Couture, co-owner and operator of Meika's Birdhouse, a supply store, and Meika's Safehouse, a bird rescue centre.

Becoming a caregiver to birds was never on Couture's radar. She and her partner, Ian Sprague, somewhat fell into opening the rescue and supply store after agreeing to help a desperate friend rehome his pet birds more than a decade ago.

"People found out that we had parrots, and then one thing led to another," says Sprague, who co-owns and operates the store and rescue with Couture.

'All day, every day'

With help from a small team of volunteers, Couture and Sprague spend every waking moment tending to the birds' needs.

"Because of the volume we have, it's all day, every day. There's no break," says Couture. "You're always cleaning, you're always feeding, you're always either showering them or bathing them or chopping up their food.… It doesn't stop for us."

You're always cleaning, you're always feeding, you're always either showering them or bathing them or chopping up their food.... It doesn't stop for us.- Janine Couture, co-owner of Meika's Birdhouse

All of the birds that come into Meika's Safehouse first start at the couple's home.

"Envision every public room in your home lined with cages," says Sprague. "We have shower curtains on the walls because the birds do tend to throw their food sometimes, so it's easier to take the shower curtain and throw it in the wash than it is to repaint.

"It wasn't a choice. It's out of necessity."

Along with his partner Janine Couture, Ian Sprague runs Mieka's Safehouse, a rescue centre for tropical birds in Sherwood Park, Alta. 0:24

More than just feeding

Over the years, Couture and Sprague have learned the birds need more than just physical care.

Captive birds can form deep emotional bonds with their human companions, and they mourn the loss of friendship when they're surrendered to the rescue.

"You do see the devastation in them. It's like a human kid losing its parents and having to go into foster care," said Sprague. "They're a captive animal that shouldn't be. They're not meant to be in a cage. They're not meant to be in Canada. But they are."

Emotional care is also needed on the human side when heartbreaking cases come in.

Sprague fondly remembers a small bird named Gucci, who showed up at Meika's Safehouse in a tiny shoebox.

Gucci, a white-eared conure, (pictured before and after) underwent a major transformation in his appearance and general health during his time at Meika's Safehouse. (Meika's Safehouse)

"He had been fed strictly apple seeds and basically it destroyed his liver," said Sprague.

With the help of a veterinarian, Sprague and Couture nursed Gucci back to health. But despite a year of recovery and nurturing, Gucci didn't wake up one morning.

"The damage was done and it was too much for him. It was devastating," Sprague recalls. "That's one of the times where you think you're going to quit and say you're not going to do this anymore. But then you start cleaning another cage and you keep going."

To help keep perspective and get a break from it all, Couture and Sprague don't stray too far from what they know and love.

"We do have one week a year where we go on … a parrot lover's cruise," says Couture. "It's the way that we like to see the birds. It's out in the wild, flying free how they're supposed to be.

"It just gives us the drive to keep going."

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