The Things We Do For Love
Like escorting a wee bird across the Atlantic
My daughter’s best friend in all the world is a bird. A sweet, cheeky, miniature parrot of a birb named FeeBea…
Feebs is a Green Cheeked Conure (also known as a Green Cheeked Parakeet or Pyrrhura Molinae), hailing from the jungles and forests of South America. FeeBea herself has never been to South America (though she has been to 16 US states and two continents)--she was hatched in a pet store, just over three years ago. Three months after she came naked and squawking into the world, she met Filha (who was not quite 7 at the time), and they’ve been fast friends ever since.
COVID quarantines, lockdowns, and school closures brought the two pals closer than ever. They are, quite literally, a bonded pair. In San Francisco, Filha completed the last term of 3rd grade and the entirety of 4th online in zoom school, and FeeBea sat in her shirt or on her shoulder, constant comrade for nearly every class. Until this past June, they were never far apart.
But the thing about pet birds is that most of them, wee conures included, fall under the purview of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a multilateral treaty enacted in the 1970s to protect endangered plants and animals. According to Wikipedia, “Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species in the wild, and it accords varying degrees of protection to more than 35,000 species.”
This is all well and good. But what it means when you want to leave the US and move to Portugal with your best parrot friend is that you have to get permission. Permission from the US to leave and permission from Portugal to enter. Much like a visa, with just as much paperwork to produce and hoops to jump through.
We began Feebs’ paperwork to prove we didn’t birdnap her from the jungle a tad optimistically, way back in February. That’s when we found out that the US, which in better times issues an export permit in 60 days, was taking upwards of six months to fill out a form. “Because COVID,” we were told.
Surely they wouldn’t take that long, I thought hopefully as we sent in our application on the first day of March. Vaccinations were coming. The world was re-opening. Surely an export permit for one little pet bird wasn’t going to be that hard to come by.
«this is where you can imagine me, slightly unhinged, laughing sarcastically at the naiveté of my former self»
It was that hard to come by. It really was. We didn’t wait quite six months--the permit arrived in five. But still, in June we had to leave for our new life without FeeBea.
Feebs was well taken care of by bird experts Jen & Isabella at Animal Connection in San Francisco. But Filha missed her terribly. We all missed her chirpy sass and head bobs, the fluff and chatter of her company. (Didn’t miss the splat of bird poo hitting the floor, though!)
When her US CITES permit finally arrived, we had to get FeeBea’s Portuguese import permit (in contrast to US bureaucrats, Portugal took only five days to review our documents and fill out their official permission slip). Export and import docs in hand, we started booking flights--and veterinary appointments.
FeeBea had to quarantine for 10 days at the bird hospital in San Francisco, supervised by a USDA-certified veterinarian who could verify that she was not in contact with any other feathered friends during that time. Three days into this quarantine, poor Feeb’s beak and cloaca (bird butt) were swabbed to test for avian flu (she’s flu-free). All of this was necessary not only to obtain her health certificate for airlines and customs inspection, but also to prevent a 30 day quarantine (at the zoo!) upon arrival in Portugal. Filha and FeeBea had been apart long enough, we didn’t want to extend the separation any more than absolutely necessary.
Right in the midst of the flurry of preparation and planning, Marido and Filha tested positive for COVID, as you may have read in my last post. (They are both fully recovered and healthy now!)
There is never a good time to get sick--especially not with this particular virus. But it seemed this was the worst possible timing. Thanks to a house with two floors, quick isolation, and a double tap of the Pfizer vax, I never contracted the virus. And as soon as I had that final negative test result and was able to travel, I hopped on a jet to San Francisco.
Sidebar: You can’t go home again
I don’t recommend returning to your old home less than three months after you leave it. I was only on the ground for three days--barely enough time to see a few friends, gather some old family photographs I had left behind for safekeeping, and get all the bird transport details lined up. But every moment of those 72 hours felt off-kilter.
The best analogy I can think of is when you return to your old school/university to visit one balmy September day, after having just graduated the previous June. Physically, it all looks the same. Your feet, on autopilot, follow familiar paths. You chat up old friends, regale former teachers with tales of your new endeavors.
Your body wants to belong.
But there’s no longer a place with your name on it. No desk, no locker (no home). You aren’t registered for any classes, and although your name might be inscribed on a plaque or yearbook page somewhere, you are old news. Everyone and everything is moving on without you.
You are moving forward, as well. Building something entirely new, entirely yours. But you can’t help but feel somewhat bereft.
San Francisco was my home, my haven, for two decades. Years that made me who I am today. I loved that city with my whole self.
But it’s not mine anymore.
Back to the bird at hand
I didn’t have much time to marinate in my bittersweet feelings. I was too busy meeting friends for fried chicken in Golden Gate Park and buying too many novels (again) at Green Apple Books and squeezing an all-too-brief sister sighting in between visits to the vet and a document pickup at the USDA and a bird inspection at the US Department of Fish & Wildlife.
Finally, FeeBea was all packed up safe and secure in her shipping crate at Lufthansa Cargo, ready to board a few decks lower than I would. (This is the same place where Filha and I said goodbye to our dog Vila back in June, when she traveled to Portugal a few days ahead of us.)
I don’t know why a teeny birb can’t ride in the cabin with her person’s mother, but I don’t make the airline rules. (And there are SO many airline rules. Especially for birds.)
One of the rules is that the bird’s owner (me, in this case, since Filha is a minor) has to travel on the same flight as the bird when leaving the country. So although Feebs was in cargo and I was in coach, we shared the same 2:55pm flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt.
Once in Frankfurt, I had a two-hour wait until my connecting flight to Lisbon. FeeBea, however, had to wait 10 hours. This is another one of those arbitrary airline rules: they want four hours between flights to transfer animals. Why they couldn’t move Feebs from one plane to another in the same time that they moved my suitcase, I don’t know. I assume it’s so they’re not rushing a pet across the runway into disaster.
Whatever the reason, when I arrived in Lisbon at 3:10pm, FeeBea was still hanging out somewhere in Germany. Supposedly they were taking good care of her, refilling her food and water. At that point I could only hope for the best.
It was beyond wonderful to reunite with Marido and Filha--and share the same living space without masks! In the 10 days prior to my departure, COVID had prevented us from doing that. So my return wasn’t just a reunion from my trip to the US, it was a recovery reunion, as well. (There was a LOT of hugging.)
Filha and I had to turn around and return to the airport at 11:30pm that night to meet FeeBea’s flight. Luckily with jet lag, my body wasn’t sure what time it was supposed to be anyway. Somewhere near midnight on the A2 highway to Lisbon, my phone rang. It was Flavio, calling from the Lisbon pet shipping company that was supposed to escort FeeBea through customs.
But Flavio wasn’t calling with good news.
“There is a problem with the documents,” he said through speakerphone.
“What kind of problem?” I asked, doing a rapid mental inventory of all the bird import/export documents I had painstakingly collected over the past 6+ months.
“You see, I was in a motorcycle accident on my way to the airport,” he said. “In the crash, the import permit--the CITES document--it was lost.”
Do you know those moments when time slows down, when you feel yourself slide from your body and watch everything happening in slow motion? For me, this was one of those times. My brain couldn’t process what I was hearing. I waited for him to say, “I’m only joking!” as I searched for a place to pull over in the dark. In the seat next to me, Filha frantically jiggled my arm, switching from elation to terror in one brutal breath, “Mom, what’s he saying? What motorcycle accident? Is FeeBea okay?”
Flavio wasn’t joking. He did indeed have a motorcycle accident (and I was so rattled--and really pissed off, honestly--that I didn’t even ask if he was okay until several hours later). The CITES paperwork I had worked so hard to get was gone. Blown across the freeway and carried away on the grills of passing cars. Like something out of a movie when everything starts to go wrong.
Without the all-important permission to enter paperwork, customs refused to release FeeBea from the holding center. She was stuck in her crate, the door still sealed with the zip ties I pulled tight in San Francisco the day before. We weren’t going to be able to bring her home that night as planned.
We continued driving through the night to the Lisbon cargo center anyway--Filha needed to reassure herself that her bird was still alive. And frankly, I needed to reassure myself of the same thing.
Although it wasn’t exactly protocol, the guys running the warehouse at 1am brought FeeBea’s crate out so we could see her. A good thing, because she had no water and her food was soggy. I guess in Frankfurt someone poured some water through the crate door, soaking her seeds and sloshing all over the newspaper lining.
Filha was sobbing as she snuggled her little bird to her chest. I was trying not to sob as I dumped out the sodden food and scraped bird shit and bits of wet newspaper from the walls of the crate. (Luckily I had brought fresh food and water, ready to feed FeeBea in the car on the way home.) This was not the reunion Filha had dreamt of, not the moment she had counted down days toward.
The cargo guys, a guilty (but unhurt) Flavio, and I watched as Filha bid her best friend goodbye yet again, and only minutes after seeing her for the first time in three long months. Then I gathered up my heartbroken kid and took her back home to bed, while FeeBea went to sleep in some back room of a warehouse.
The next morning, I woke after only two hours of sleep, determined to bring this freaking bird home at long last. Luckily, Flavio was just as determined to make up for the disaster of the night before.
*begin rant* I have ridden motorcycles for nearly 20 years. I sympathize with this dude’s crash--most of us who ride on two wheels have dumped our bikes at least once. So I understand that it was an accident--a freak one, at that. I’m glad he was wearing proper gear and came out of it uninjured. I understand that he didn’t mean to fuck everything up. What I DON’T understand is how you have this extremely important document and you just, what--stick it in your helmet box? How about an envelope or a folder or a backpack or some means of locking that shit down so it doesn’t randomly blow across the freeway? That’s the part I still don’t understand. Especially when importing and exporting pets with extremely important permits and documents is your JOB! *end rant*
He met us in Lisbon at the Instituto da Conservação da Natureza de das Florestas the minute they opened on Friday morning so we could attempt to replace the lost CITES permit. And this is where small decisions--and the kindness of strangers--make all the difference. A few weeks ago, when we picked up FeeBea’s import permit at the front desk, Filha left a drawing of thanks for Ana, the woman who had helped us obtain the permit.
As luck would have it, Ana was out on vacation. But the woman at the front desk remembered Filha and her drawing. “If Ana was here,” she told us, “she would replace your permit right away.”
Then, as Flavio was on the phone with someone else at the Institute, pleading for their help, and I was online re-filing an application for FeeBea’s permit, that woman made a phone call to the director of the CITES division. Two hours later (after some drama with their printer malfunctioning and refusing to print anything because it was just one of those times when everything has to hit peak difficulty level so you have a good story to tell later), the director came downstairs with a fresh permit and handed it directly to Filha, telling her kindly, “Go get your bird.”*
Filha looked at Flavio at that point and said, “I’m going to hang on to the permit this time.”
To his credit, he laughed and said, “That is probably a very good idea.”
The three of us returned to the customs warehouse at the airport, where more waiting ensued, because customs--in any country--will not be rushed.
Finally, we received word that customs had reviewed all necessary paperwork, including the freshly-minted CITES, and decided it was all in order. But we had to wait a bit longer for them to type up and print their approval. (If you haven’t heard this about Portugal yet, let me tell you: Portuguese bureaucrats loooooove paperwork. Love it. Cannot do something with one document when five more forms could be filled out.)
At Flavio’s suggestion,** Filha and I ate lunch in the cargo cafeteria (quite tasty, actually). Shortly thereafter, his cell rang. “It’s ready!” he told us, and hurried off to obtain the magic release form. Then we had to wait for an extremely unhurried warehouse employee to retrieve FeeBea from whatever back room they had stashed her in and amble back toward us.
And finally, FINALLY, 12 hours after it was supposed to happen, the party could actually begin:
In the six days since they were re-united, the girls have been apart only to sleep (because it’s really not safe--or hygienic--to sleep with a small parrot in your bed).
There have been all kinds of adventures had together, gelado treats shared, stories told. Filha is standing taller and laughing louder than she has all summer long. Which is a good thing because…
School is starting
This is a whole other post, deserving its own space and time (especially as I am fast approaching the substack email word limit). But we are on the precipice of total language immersion and (hopefully) new friendships and a decidedly different way of doing school.
In the next days and weeks, Filha is going to need all the courage and confidence she can find.*** I am beyond glad that her fine feathered friend is here to help her through it.
Wish us luck.
*Later, Flavio told us that the CITES director had also called the airport and demanded that the veterinarian go and check on FeeBea immediately and assure him that she was in good health. Obviously another Thank You drawing is in the works!
**Flavio did his utmost to make up for the loss of the original CITES, sticking with us from 8:30am-2:30pm on Friday when we got our hands on FeeBea. He translated for us, made dozens of phone calls, told the story again and again, and kept reassuring us that everything would work out ok. He was a trooper. I am grateful. All is forgiven.
***I am, too.