Friday, November 17, 2017
News Roundup

'Captain Tut' provided safe harbor for neglected parrots

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ST. PETERSBURG — The location feels unlikely, the result of some misunderstanding or Mapquest gone haywire. No way the Pinellas Suncoast Parrot Sanctuary could be located on a closely packed residential street.

But pull up alongside 4130 Queen St. N, and the cacophony of shrieks, warbles and trills makes it clear: This is the place.

Old palm fronds cover a large cage in the driveway. Exotic birds roam freely, including macaws, cockatoos and African greys. But for Robert Barrett, a crusty avian specialist better known as Captain Tut, many of the 75-plus birds here might not have survived. Instead they have outlived their owner, as parrots often do.

Mr. Barrett, a certified avian specialist and self-styled pirate who educated the public about the needs of exotic birds, died July 10, nearly two weeks after a fall at his home. He was 59.

His birds have ridden on the handle bars of his Harley choppers, attracted crowds at Disney World, SeaWorld and Universal Studios. Silly Willie, a rainbow lorikeet, played Hulk Hogan's buddy in McCinsey's Island, a forgettable 1998 movie. Captain Tut had also co-hosted a national radio show, Talkin' Pets, and created the long-running Captain Tut's Pirate Parrot Show at Sunken Gardens, where he served as assistant zoo director.

The gigs brought him more fame than money. Mostly they brought him birds. People who had seen Mr. Barrett on the Animal Planet or giving talks at a Petland store consulted him about their bird problems.

"He could read them," said his cousin Mary Olsen, 61. "A lot of people can't look at a bird and tell if it's going to bite them or not. He could walk up and confidently reach out and put his hand out."

Visiting with owners gave him a chance to teach. "He'd say, 'You need to have it out of the cage. This is what the bird needs, this is what the bird's trying to tell you,' " Olsen said.

Robert Louis Barrett was born in St. Petersburg in 1953. He graduated from Dixie Hollins High and served two years in the Marine Corps. A string of adventuresome jobs followed. Mr. Barrett worked as a diver helping Pinellas County build artificial reefs. He captained boats.

He earned a degree in veterinary technology and multiple certifications in avian studies.

He was married and divorced.

In 1995 Mr. Barrett suffered head injuries after a car turned in front of his motorcycle. After that, he sometimes struggled with words. He returned to what is now St. Petersburg College, relearning things he had forgotten.

Rescue birds kept coming his way. Sometimes it was a concerned veterinarian who called. Other times it was Pinellas County Animal Control. Someone had been evicted, or was moving.

"People don't understand" the life expectancy, said Freda Linde, 59, Mr. Barrett's fiancee. "They think, 'Okay, 10 to 12 years, like a dog or a cat. And here this animal is going to live 40, 50, 60 years."

Mr. Barrett was caring for at least one bird older than himself: Mr. Magoo, a scarlet macaw once photographed tilting back a can of Budweiser in its beak, was born in 1949.

Mr. Barrett established the Pinellas Suncoast Parrot Sanctuary as a nonprofit corporation five years ago. It is a symphony of unusual sounds.

"The African greys here will (mimic) the phone," Linde said. "They will do the cellphone; they'll knock on the door; they'll clap like an audience."

The parrots noticed the commotion June 30, when Mr. Barrett was discovered unconscious.

"They knew something happened when the emergency vehicles came," Linde said. "And they're not seeing him anymore. That's another thing."

The Pinellas Suncoast Parrot Sanctuary is seeking donations or land to relocate the sanctuary.

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