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MAX -- The Story of a Cockatoo with Beak and Feather Disease
by Linda Niedweske

Max is a lesser sulphur crested cockatoo with beak and feather disease who came to live with me six years ago. I first saw him on March 5, 1987 at my brother's veterinary hospital, where he had been living for the previous three months. He had been left on a street corner in his cage with no covering to protect him from the elements. He was terrified of everyone and everything and clung for dear life on the side of his cage. He shook so violently with fear that I was convinced he would have a heart attack. Needless to say, I fell in love immediately with this featherless, scrawny, terrified little creature. I took him home that day to live with me and my three cockatiels in Boston.

Max acclimated quickly to the quiet, safe environment I had provided for him and the others. However, I began to notice that his beak was chipping and he began to develop sores in his mouth and on his body. In addition, his feathers were not growing in and those that did grow were not normal. In June 1987, I took him to the Angell Memorial Hospital to see Dr. Petrak, a renowned bird specialist, who diagnosed him with beak and feather disease. She explained that there was no cure and he would face an increasingly debilitating and painful future.

From June until December 1987, I saw Max deteriorate dramatically. His mouth was totally infested with sores, his body and his toes were covered with sores, his beak was so brittle that he lost most of his bottom beak, and what was left was almost transparent. He couldn't eat seeds or anything of any consequence, so I would soak his safflower seeds, which he loved, overnight and spend hours shelling them so that all he would have to do was swallow. I gave him creamed brown rice cereal mixed with chocolate ice cream, soup, and puffed corn cereal soaked in milk so that he could mash it in his gums. By the end of December 1987 he was reduced to eating the soaked safflower seeds and dried red hot peppers. In sheer desperation, I called Dr. Petrak once again and begged her for some assistance. She informed me that her colleague, Dr. Marjorie McMillan, was experimenting with shots of gammaglobulin with some success. Two days later, in ten degree weather, Max and I drove one hour to see Dr. McMillan.

Max received his first shot on a Wednesday and became very ill almost immediately. He was having difficulty maintaining his balance, wouldn't eat, and remained fluffed in the corner of his cage. However, on Sunday morning, I woke up to find that all of the sores in his mouth had dried up. We went every week for the next four weeks for injections. During that time I saw the sores on his back and toes begin to clear up and his beak got progressively stronger. The chipping and breaking had subsided and the terrible odor of decay that emanated from his beak no longer existed. We continued the treatments twice a month for the next four months and then once a month from thereon in.

After four months of treatments, he was eating seeds again. He slowly regained all of his previous activities and even added new ones. Max was so enthralled with his good fortune that he began climbing where he didn't belong, eating furniture and woodwork, tearing wallpaper off of walls. At last he could use his beak once again. His feathers have never grown back so he is unable to fly, but he can run and climb with the best of them.

Over the years, Max's personality has changed completely. He is outgoing, loves all people (except children), runs down the stairs when people come in the house, sits in the window for hours watching the world go by, kisses anyone who is willing, and dances to his Great-Aunt's singing. He loves "tic tac" breath mints because they fit so perfectly in his mouth and carries them all over the house. He sits on the dinner table with the family each night and goes from plate to plate eating whatever looks interesting. His vocabulary increases daily so that he now says "hello", "here", "what are you doing", "where are you going", "good boy", "Faye" (his singing Great Aunt), and argues with conviction in unintelligible gibberish.

His diet is as varied as we will provide and he will try anything. He begins his day with a scrambled egg and a poppy seed muffin with butter. He then has available to him throughout the day a variety of seeds, including a parakeet mix, sunflower seeds and safflower seeds, four Dunkin munchkin donuts, hot and jalapeno peppers, and corn chips. At approximately 2:00 p.m., he screams for his meal, which is a combination of his leftover scrambled egg and pastena. By 7:00 p.m., he is ready to eat again and will consume whatever is for dinner. His particular favorites are ziti with eggplant, pasta of any kind, salad, fruit, rice, all varieties of soup, egg foo yong, pickles, and on and on and on. Oftentimes he will get some dessert, including ice cream or whipped cream of which he is very fond.

I marvel each day at this creature who has brought so much love and joy to those around him. It never ceases to amaze me the power of love, attention, and modern-day medicine, together has given Max such a high quality of life. I consider the fact that he is still alive a true miracle and one for which I am grateful each day that I have with him.

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