Jim & Angela Otoski

My husband found The Oasis online and we’ve been donating what we could for a couple of years, but always wished we could actually go there.  This May, for “Discover The Oasis,” we were finally able to make it happen.

The surrounding country is breathtaking— cliffs, mountains, a long row of trees in the distance (denoting a river, perhaps), desert vistas so expansive you can watch the shadows of the clouds as they drift by overhead.

The Oasis itself, several miles past the end of the paved highway, is nestled behind a gracefully aging pecan orchard.  You might hear the birds before you can see them, but soon enough the aviaries and cages come into view.  It’s when you get out of the car that the beautiful cacophony of over 600 birds hits you.  Giving the parrots, cockatoos, and macaws a run for their money in the vocal department are chickens, geese, and even a pair of turkeys.  We were lucky enough to see the tom turkey fan his impressive tail and wiggle his technicolor wattle and snood.

The incredibly dedicated people who work at The Oasis welcomed us and unhesitatingly allowed us to help.  Far from being made to feel as if we were in the way (as has happened to some of us when we’ve volunteered for other organizations), we were treated by the folks at the Oasis as if we really were valued and useful.  We were only able to offer one day’s work, but even so we weren’t turned away.
My first job was to help hang toys in the cockatiel aviary— as if that could be called a job.  The more appropriate word would be “joy”.  One of the birds immediately landed on my shoulder and supervised my work through the hanging of several toys.  All of the little birds were inquisitive and adorable, and grateful for their new toys.  I felt like one of Santa’s elves.

It was in this aviary that I first observed the birds’ food and water.  The food was plentiful and looked quite delicious, with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables.  The staff must do an unimaginable amount of prep work every day to keep the birds in such a delectable and nutritious diet.  The water was clean and likewise plentiful.  The excellent care showed in the birds’ health, which was easy to see even for an amateur like me.  And the same meticulous attention to detail was evident in every aviary and every cage I saw.

After hanging a few more toys in the adjoining lory aviary, I went to help my husband, who had been assigned to rake the pole barn.  The pole barn houses mini flights and large cages, most of which hold just a few birds: up to two large birds (such as macaws), between two and four medium birds (such as Amazons or African Greys), or several smaller birds (such as cockatiels who might not have been happy in the aviary).  My husband had just about finished raking the first aisle.  Knowing him, I suspect he stopped to say hello to every bird, which might have slowed his progress somewhat.  But saying hello to birds is half the fun.  We worked together to finish the other two aisles.  If you value meditative activity, this is the job for you.  Why rake pebbles in a lifeless Zen rock garden when you can rake shards of happily munched bird toys out from under cages?  And bonus: while raking the pole barn you’re supervised by an amazing variety of curious, colorful, chatty birds.  Many of the kinds of birds there I had never even heard of before.

Our final “task” of the day was a dream come true for us.  We are owned by two African Greys, and were excited to see all of the Greys (plus two Amazons) in the gorgeous Grey Aviary (which is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s famous Grey colleague, Alex), so imagine our delight when we were told that next, we’d be hanging toys in the Grey Aviary.  We worked with staff member Jean and had the most enjoyable time putting together and decorating the Greys’ home with them.  At one point we had three Greys dancing and clucking along with us as we worked.  And Jean’s special Grey friend, Nigel, inspected and approved all of the toys before we hung them.  What a treat it was to return the next day and find signs of destruction under the toys we’d helped to put up.

Before we left for the day, we had the very special opportunity to meet the indoor birds in the barn, the hospital trailer, and the pumpkin trailer.  Some of the indoor birds are celebrities (for example, Gulliver the Blue-and-Gold Macaw rescued from Micronesia, and the conures from The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill), but all of them are unique, each with a story – sometimes a tragic story – to tell.  More than one brought tears to my eyes, especially the mother macaw who refused to abandon her disabled son.  They are still snuggled up together in their shared home inside the barn.  Every bird, no matter what its personal history, does its best to live with dignity, grace, love, and fun.  Many of the birds have found friends and mates, and truly a new life at The Oasis.

Volunteering at The Oasis was an unforgettable experience.  As much as I’ve said here, I couldn’t possibly convey or describe everything.  It was the best “vacation” I’ve personally ever had, and both my husband and I hope to repeat it— as soon as possible, and with any luck for a longer period than just one day.  Some people spend weeks at a time at The Oasis, and I can understand why.

Jim & Angela Otoski