A 40-year-old parrot with Houdini-like skills has landed in the middle of a custody dispute between her owner and widely known wildlife trapper Vernon Yates.
Lucy, a yellow-naped Amazon parrot known for singing Itsy Bitsy Spider, escaped from her cage on June 1 in the Five Towns area of St. Petersburg. Yates removed the bird a day later from a condominium.
That's when feathers became ruffled.
Lucy's owner, Vanessa Munoz, insists Yates is holding her bird "for ransom."
As of Monday, Yates wants Munoz to pay $550 to get Lucy back. That's the cost for Yates' $100 removal fee and $25 daily charge for storing the bird. He compared the fees to the ones that tow-truck drivers charge to release cars or ones that pet owners pay animal shelters to house lost pets.
"I am not extorting her," said Yates, director of Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation, a Seminole animal shelter. ''I charge everybody the same."
This isn't Lucy's first escape.
"The bird is a little bit of a Houdini," Munoz said. "She knows how to undo her lock."
The tale started when Lucy let herself out of her cage and flew outside, where she perched atop a tree on her street, Fareham Court. She would not come down. Munoz expected Lucy to glide down the next morning. That had happened before — but not this breakout.
Munoz panicked. She plastered the area with photos. She looked for Lucy around the neighborhood. Finally, after a week, she ran an advertisement in the Tampa Bay Times.
In the meantime, Yates removed Lucy from a nearby condo complex after a resident there reported it on a balcony. Yates then answered the newspaper ad bemoaning a lost bird.
Yates said he called Munoz to say he had the bird, but noted that he wanted his $125 fee first.
The two argued when Munoz couldn't properly identify Lucy, he said. In the following days, Munoz delivered a letter to Yates that convinced him the bird was hers.
By then, the $125 fee had climbed. The duo battled more. Munoz called the police, but lawmen have steered clear, calling it a civil dispute.
Munoz, a hospice worker, said she can't afford the $550 fee because her soldier husband has been out of work since returning from Iraq last year.
She doesn't understand how Yates can justify $25 a day when it only costs her $37 every three months to feed Lucy and three other birds. She fears that Yates will sell Lucy for $800 to $1,000.
If true, he said, he would have never called Munoz. He typically keeps animals 60 days before finding them new homes.
"I don't want the animal," Yates said. "I want her to have her bird back. All she has to do is pay the money. I made an extreme effort to get the bird back."
It's not the first custody dispute over a parrot in the Sunshine State.
In 2009, a Palm Beach County judge returned a parrot to its owner after an accidental escape. The judge ruled that Florida laws are clear on property, saying: "Pets are chattel, they're no different from your automobile."
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Munoz has owned for Lucy for about seven years.
Her former owner is Doug Scull, once a Pinellas County science educator and notable kids' nature enthusiast at the Great Explorations Museum.
Lucy still pays homage to Scull at 5 p.m. daily by belting: "Doug, Doug. Come quick. Come quick."
At the same time, the storage fee jumps by $25.
Mark Puente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.