CLEARWATER — Nearly every evening on Pier 60, Tequila the Parrot is working for tips.
This scene repeats itself over and over again: Tourist families stroll by and see the bright green bird. Camera-toting parents nudge their child forward.
Tequila's owners, Robert and Robin Murray, gently place their pet on the child's outstretched arm. The parents click away with their cameras, capturing a postcard-worthy portrait of their offspring holding this Florida icon. Meanwhile, the wide-eyed child gazes at the parrot with a mix of wonder, fear and joy.
Tequila was banished from the pier recently when Clearwater declared a moratorium on animal acts at Sunsets at Pier 60, a nightly festival.
Animal-rights activists had been complaining about how a couple of performing monkeys were being treated, so the city considered banning animals altogether.
But after the Murrays appeared before the City Council to plead the parrot's case, Tequila has made a triumphant return to her perch.
"Kids hold her and get their pictures taken with her. She's in all the high school yearbooks around here," said Robert Murray, who has owned Tequila for 28 years. "The kids love it, and we've never had an incident. I would never put her in harm's way."
Sunsets at Pier 60, a nightly gathering patterned after a similar festival on Key West, has been going on Clearwater Beach since 1995. Vendors line the pier, hawking T-shirts, henna tattoos, shark tooth necklaces and seashell crosses. Musicians and jugglers perform.
The problem started with two monkeys. They would shake hands with people. They'd accept quarters from tourists' hands and slip the coins into their owner's shirt pocket.
But the little monkeys tugged on their leashes, and they were stationed near a spray painter who generated fumes.
"People complained. People would scream at me," said Jean Hagen, manager of Sunsets at Pier 60. "It just snowballed."
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals started asking questions. PETA approached Clearwater and requested copies of records and contracts and city ordinances.
"Someone was concerned about the monkeys' well-being and safety," said city parks and recreation director Kevin Dunbar. "We spent 50 to 70 staff hours dealing with a series of animals rights groups."
'A parrot carve-out'
Finally, the city's staff drew up an ordinance forbidding all animal acts on the pier. Earlier this month, they brought it to the City Council for a vote. But the Murrays appeared at City Hall and made an impassioned plea to be allowed to stay.
They said their beloved parrot is well cared for. She's been held by a half-million people and has never bitten anyone. They bring her to assisted living facilities. She interacts with Alzheimer's patients and autistic children.
This sparked one of the oddest discussions the City Council has had this year. They debated whether to ban monkeys, dogs or all domestic animals.
After hearing that animal rights groups were concerned about paint fumes, Vice Mayor Paul Gibson said, "So the concern is that fumes might harm the parrot. But it's okay if the fumes harm the people, that would be okay, right? Don't we have a people rights group?"
Dunbar answered, "I think the assumption is that people are intelligent enough to move away from it."
"I don't know about that," Gibson deadpanned.
Councilwoman Carlen Petersen said of the monkeys, "I think primates generate a lot more concern than birds probably do."
Lawmakers sometimes "carve out" an exemption to a law that they're voting on, so Gibson asked, "Can we have a parrot carve-out?" He argued that it's educational for kids to see a parrot at the pier or an animal in a zoo.
"I'm tired of so much regulation," added Mayor Frank Hibbard. "All we do is regulate everything."
So the council decided to allow animal acts, and left it to the managers of Sunsets at Pier 60 to work out the details.
The monkey act was not invited back. A dog act has moved on as well, but that was the dog owner's choice, said Hagen, the Sunsets manager. And the parrot has now returned.
"We all missed Tequila," Hagen said.
Five or six nights a week, the parrot is stationed at the approach to the pier among the other performing acts. The Murrays keep her a good, respectful distance away from the spray painter, the juggler and especially the fire breather.
Next time you're near Pier 60 after 6:30 p.m., stop by and see Tequila. Hold your arm out, and she'll perch on it. She makes eye contact and emits little squawks. She tilts her head winningly.
"She'll pose," Robert Murray said. "She's a ham."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4160.