WESLEY CHAPEL — Patricia Norton grabbed a handful of peanuts and stepped into the 1,500-square-foot aviary, home to 42 macaws whose colors rival rainbows. She raised her arms and two blue and yellow birds imitated, lifting their wings in return for a treat. Along came 12-year-old green beauty named Fenix, who just wanted his head scratched.
"His owner is in the Army,'' Norton said, "in Afghanistan.''
Nearby in a much smaller cage, an Amazon parrot named Jesse whistled Over the Rainbow and Beautiful Dreamer with such perfection and clarity it turned visitors' heads.
Of course being around 370 parrots, many quite articulate, comes with a risk. "Some cuss,'' said Norton, who started the nonprofit Florida Exotic Bird Sanctuary on a single acre near Quail Hollow 13 years ago. "When kids visit, we have to keep that in mind.''
Because these birds are so magnificent, so talented, the darker side to their story often gets overlooked. Norton, 51, has made it her mission to change that and in the process create a new sanctuary and education center on 5 acres in Hudson that seems certain to receive national attention.
Norton and her small board of directors have secured the land near U.S. 19 and Casper Avenue that is zoned commercial and residential. A caretaker will move into a mobile home in two weeks. How fast the project takes hold will depend on fundraising efforts, but Norton expects to start erecting donated flight cages and moving birds within the next six months. Norton says her sanctuary already is the largest in the nation still accepting exotic birds and she expects to have 1,500 parrots within the next five years.
She gets 25 calls and 50 emails a week from people asking about placing their birds in her care. She accepts five a week, with some owners driving them down from places like Michigan and Wisconsin.
The proliferation reflects the booming business of the pet trade, she says. People buy the captive birds and for a number of reasons decide they can no longer care for them. It might be a soldier deploying overseas. Maybe a divorce or job loss. But one big reason is especially easy to predict.
Many of these birds can live longer than the average human.
Norton talks to kids about the birds. "You're going to grow up, get married, have children,'' she says, "and that bird is going to be with you through all of it.''
The people who find the Florida Exotic Bird Sanctuary most often care deeply about their pets. Some even plan well in advance through wills and trusts. They are assured that the birds will never be adopted or sold and that they will be safe and healthy.
The sanctuary buys about $2,500 worth of feed each month. It gets by on donations and a requirement from bird owners to sponsor their birds for at least the first five years. The monthly fee during that time ranges from $20 to $80, depending on the size of the bird. Owners often visit their birds, which receive a veterinary examination and arrive with a biography and often their own cage and toys to assist in acclimation.
Norton says her job as executive director is "seven days a week, 365 days a year.'' She doesn't mind and explains how she keeps her sanity even amid some periods of deafening squawking: "God puts people in front of me every day that are amazing.''
Like the 8-year-old girl who on her birthday asked friends and family to contribute to the sanctuary in lieu of gifts. She came by recently with her parents and a jar wrapped in pink paper with hand-drawn stick figures of birds. Norton thought it was full of coins until she noticed in the clear bottom a $100 bill.
"She had collected $500,'' Norton said.
Norton expected to follow in her father's footsteps as a veterinarian after graduating from Clearwater High School in 1979. She attended St. Petersburg College and the University of South Florida and interned for avian veterinarians conducting independent parrot research.
Norton decided the world didn't need another veterinarian clinic. It did need a sanctuary and education to protect these "amazing creatures.''
She moved to the property in Pasco with that intention and began raising the birds and two children —- John, now 16 and a junior at Wesley Chapel High, and Katie, 14, an eighth-grader at Weightman Middle. Both are straight-A students.
Norton's priorities contributed to divorce, she said, adding that she understands her obsession with saving parrots. She is known as "Birdmother.'' It's on her license plate and email address.
"I'm really trying to stay away from becoming that 'crazy bird lady,' '' she said. "But this will be my life's work.''
She relies heavily on volunteers, including high school students who get credit for community service. And she couldn't have built the nonprofit without the board of professionals led by Bob Cook, a financial planner with a Ph.D. in business management who learned about Norton when he and his wife had to find a new home for their Moluccan cockatoo.
On Monday, Cook joined in the morning feeding.
"It's a special place,'' he said.