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Pretty Mama by Nate Becker

It was 1996 and Michele Raffin was barreling down Lawrence Expressway on her way to the gym. As she was driving, she noticed a bird lying limply on the ground. “Initially I drove past it, but it just bothered me that an animal would be left injured by the side of the road, so I doubled back and picked it up” (Raffin). Michele had always had a soft spot for animals, but until then she had no experience with birds. She took the wounded white dove to an avian vet in Los Gatos. The vet could tell it had been dropped by a hawk because of the puncture wounds on its body. “I went to visit it every morning and my first amazement was that it seemed to recognize me” (Raffin). On the fifth day, before Michele could make it to see the bird, she got a call. The vet informed her that the bird had not survived and Michele was devastated. “I was surprised by the depth of my feeling of loss. This was a bird I had only met five days earlier, but it had become important to me” (Raffin). Michele did not want her children, who were young at the time, to see her crying, so she picked up a copy of the Los Altos Town Crier

to hide her tears. She opened the newspaper to a random page and sat down at the table where her children were eating breakfast. As Michele was scanning the page she had opened to, she glimpsed an ad in the paper. This ad read, “Desperately looking for a home for a dove.” Michele was shocked at the coincidence. “So I figured this is meant to be” (Raffin). She called the phone number in the paper and adopted six doves that day. The adoption of these doves was the catalyst that eventually led to the creation of Pandemonium Aviaries. Michele realized that she could only save a few birds by herself, but as a large community in the form of a nonprofit, she could accomplish much more. Pandemonium became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit bird sanctuary in 2009 and is continuing to expand. It is located in the backyard of the Raffin household and is home to over four hundred different birds from some forty different species. Michele has devoted her life to saving these endangered birds from extinction. She is also an olympic weightlifter. Michele won a gold medal in 2011

at the Pan American Olympics and broke nine records. Weightlifting has taught Michele some valuable life lessons that help her with the work she does at Pandemonium. Birds have greatly influenced our culture, inspiring art, literature, and inventions throughout history. Scientists are currently mimicking the thick skulls of woodpeckers to devise football helmets that protect against concussions (Pappas). Birds also have a significant impact on our environment. Brown tree snakes were introduced to the island of Guam in the 1940’s. These invasive snakes killed ten of the twelve species of birds native to Guam. The lack of birds on the island resulted in a rapid increase in the spider population because they no longer had a competitor for insects (Braun). In addition to keeping the spider population in check, birds serve many other valuable functions in our environment. They provide seed dispersal, insect and rodent control, scavenging, and pollination (Owen). Birds are vital to our environment and their extinction rates are currently higher than even. Hunting, deforestation,

and the introduction of non-native species are all causes of this mass extinction brought on by humans. Michele is currently in the process of developing a five-year plan for Pandemonium but thinks she really needs a twenty-year plan. Future goals for Pandemonium include opening up some satellite sites and moving bird breeding to another location. This will allow Pandemonium to transition into more of a community center, allowing people to come and see the birds. The other goal is to eventually go out of business. Michele wants to eventually give up all of the birds at Pandemonium to another organization that will transition them to the wild. In order to do this, Pandemonium needs a third collaboration with someone that will protect the land once these birds are released. However, these goals are not likely

to be accomplished in the near future. Many of these birds are native to New Guinea and it is currently too dangerous to release them there. “I don’t think that the problems and challenges in New Guinea are going to be resolved anytime soon and I’m pretty old. I don’t have any illusions that it’s going to happen in my lifetime. But in some ways that’s okay. Although I wish it could happen today, I wish it could happen sooner, I’m resolved to do whatever it takes. I think that it’s unfair to ask that I see the results in my lifetime. I just need to know that I’ve done everything that I can do.” (Raffin). When I first arrived at Pandemonium, I walked under an archway, through a lush garden, and up a set of stairs to the front door. I rang the doorbell and waited. As I was standing there, I read a sticker that was stuck to the window

adjacent to the door. It read, “He who dies with the most birds wins,” a clever play on an old bumper sticker. I was greeted by Michele’s son, who welcomed me inside and showed me to the backyard where Michele was. As I stepped onto the back porch, I saw a woman wandering around barefoot, holding a flyswatter in her right hand. It was Michele. She had deep wrinkles under her eyes and appeared to be very tired. I later found out that she had been feeding a baby bird every two hours, even throughout the night, for the past two weeks. She was running on a couple hours of sleep, but she still seemed enthusiastic. Michele has given up so much to care for these birds. She was unable to compete in the remaining events at the Pan American Olympics. She was invited to compete for both national and international titles, but had to decline because she had work to do at Pandemonium. She used to travel a lot and now she can hardly leave the house. She went camping and was only away for two days before she had to come back to help with a problem. Michele has put relationships with friends on hold because she does not have enough time to socialize. She stopped cooking ten years ago because she is just too tired at the end of the day. She has missed activities of her children and was rarely able to visit them in college. She has little to no privacy because Pandemonium is run out of her house. She works fifteen hour days, seven days a week. She refuses to accept a salary as long as she is associated with Pandemonium. She says she would never profit from these birds. The sun has yet to rise, the sky is matte black, and everyone is fast asleep in their warm beds. Except for Michele. Her days begin

long before anyone else. She is out of bed by four in the morning every single day. She must feed the baby bird every couple of hours. She also has paperwork to do, utensils and cages to clean, and a book to write. She has rewritten this book, Pandemonium: Love, Life, and Birds on the Edge of Extinction, from scratch five times and is finally satisfied with it. She is expected to be done by November. The first volunteers arrive at seven thirty in the morning and the last ones leave by seven thirty at night. Pandemonium has forty volunteers at any one time and roughly ten volunteers on site each day. Many of them spend their time doing various marketing and administrative tasks while others work with the birds. The volunteers are all very enthusiastic and close with the birds. They talk to them, feed them, and occasionally bring them out of their cages for dance parties. Each of the birds has a different personality and different volunteers have unique relationships with each one. Michele spends her days taking care of the birds and supporting the volunteers. She goes to bed with a smile

on her face and wakes up ready to work early the next morning. Michele has been feeding the baby bird for five weeks now. It is a green-naped pheasant pigeon and will be the first of its kind to be successfully raised by a human. Michele has taken on this task as she does everything else, with extreme optimism. There are rarely books or other sources that have information on raising these birds. Almost everything Michele knows about birds is through observation and trial and error. She has developed methods for feeding this baby bird that simulate the natural feeding process. The baby bird is recovering from pneumonia and Michele brings him outside because he is supposed have roughly thirty minutes of sun each day. She sets him in a crate on the ground outside, but decides to go back inside to get a blanket. I am left to watch over the bird and admire the magnificent creature that was nothing more than an egg only five weeks earlier. Michele returns with a blanket and proceeds to lay it on the ground. Then she picks up the baby bird, who violently flaps his wings. She sets him down on a the blanket

and he runs into the deck. Then he turns ninety degrees and runs into some bushes along the deck. Michele was a half step short of catching up to him and now he is lost. We are searching for the baby bird and Michele is softly whistling a bird call. After several minutes, I spot him sitting still in between the bushes and the deck. Michele tells me to pick up the bird and I attempt to do so. I bend over and extend my right arm, hoping to scoop up the baby bird. Just as my hand cups his tiny body, he flaps his wings violently and scurries through a tiny hole in the deck. A feeling of panic washes over me. I remember a week earlier how she held the bird with such care. She looked at him with such love in her eyes. She talked to him as though he was her baby as she stroked his feathers. I look at Michele and she appears calm. She thinks for a minute, then hands me some pruning shears, instructing me to cut back the bushes so we can look under the deck for the baby bird. Because it has pneumonia, the dust under the deck is extremely dangerous. She does not think the bird will last very long. Volunteers come pouring out of the

house ready to help. We are unable to see the baby bird under the deck, but Michele is still calm. She tells us to start pulling the floorboards up from the deck. I work alongside a couple other volunteers, using a crowbar to pry up boards from the deck. Michele says that she will rip up the whole deck if it is necessary. The search proceeds for roughly five hours until one of the volunteers spots the baby bird under the deck. The bird is alive, but has a broken leg from the ordeal. He is safe and Michele is relieved. This bird is her baby. She has given him life and protected him from harm. Without Michele, this bird, and many others like him, would not be alive. Saving birds is not all Michele adoes, even though her work at Pandemonium alone is more difficult than just about any other job. She has lifting sessions with her coach three times a week. She is dedicated to the sport and loves it with a passion. Michele has gained much more than just last year’s gold medal from her years of weightlifting. “One of the things I find the most gratifying about raising birds, saving birds, and Olympic weightlifting is that you really have to trust that everything’s going to be okay. You have to act even though you don’t know what the right answer is. You have to give it everything you’ve got plus stuff that you didn’t think you had and you have to do it in a way where if you fail, you pick yourself up and you just keep going. At the end of the day, you never know if you are going to make that lift. Every lift is a new lift. Every time we have a baby born and I have to hand raise it, it’s a new baby with its new, unique needs and I don’t know if it’s going to survive because some of these birds are so rare. We just don’t know what to feed them, we don’t know

what temperature to keep them at, we don’t know when to wean them. We don’t know anything about raising them. There’s nobody to ask. It’s the same thing with doing a lift. You look at that weight and you think, ‘Oh, shoot, how am I ever going to do this?’ and you just block that out of your mind and you do it. And that’s such a terrific feeling” (Raffin). Michele walks outside with several peanuts in the palm of her hand. All of the birds begin to chirp when they recognize her. She addresses each one by name, asking them how they are doing. She goes from one cage to the next, feeding each of the birds a peanut by hand. She unlocks the door to one of the cages and takes out a Yellow Headed Amazon named Shana, who climbs onto Michele’s right shoulder. Michele says, “Can you say hello?” Shana chirps back, “Hello.” Then out of nowhere says, “I love you,” to which Michele replies, “I love you too.”

Shana then replies, “Pretty mama.” Michele smiles and explains this is what Shana calls her. Michele replies lovingly, “You’re my pretty bird.” Michele has sacrificed so much for these birds, but she feels that she has gained more. She is extremely close with the birds and even closer with the volunteers. “It’s a strange thing about what’s most rewarding. I got into this because I love animals and what has been most rewarding is the people I’ve met along the way who’ve come to help. It’s incredible. I feel like I have a charmed life because I’m surrounded by so many enthusiastic, optimistic, hard-working, dedicated people who want to solve a very serious probem. And they do it for no personal gain on their own. They are doing it because it’s the right thing to do and it’s very seldom that you get to live a life where those are mainly the people that you are with.” (Raffin). n

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