Nearly 30 years ago, Lilly Love lost her way. She had just completed her five-year tour of duty as an Alaska-based Coast Guard helicopter rescue swimmer, one of an elite team of specialists who are lowered into rough, frigid seas to save foundering fishermen working in dangerous conditions. The day after she left active service, the helicopter she had flown in for the previous three years crashed in severe weather into the side of a mountain, killing six of her former crewmates. Devastated by the loss and overcome with guilt, Love chose as her penance to become one of the very fishermen she spent much of her time in the Coast Guard rescuing. In less than a year on the job, she nearly drowned twice after being dragged overboard in high seas by the hooks of heavy fishing lines.
Love would not formally receive a diagnosis of severe post-traumatic stress disorder for another 15 years. In that time, she was married and divorced three times, came out as transgender and retreated periodically to Yelapa, Mexico, where she lived in an isolated cabin accessible only by water. She eventually ended up living on a boat in a Los Angeles marina, drinking heavily and taking an array of psychotropic drugs that doctors at the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration Medical Center began to prescribe with increasing frequency as Love proved resistant to traditional treatments like counseling and group therapy. One night, after her fifth stay in the center's psych ward, she crashed her boat into a sea wall. Finally, in 2006, she was in the veterans' garden and happened to catch sight of the parrots being housed in an unusual facility that opened a year earlier on the grounds of the center.
"This place is why I'm still here," Love, now 54, told me one day last summer as I watched her undergo one of her daily therapy sessions at the facility, known as Serenity Park, a name that would seem an utter anomaly to anyone who has ever been within 200 yards of the place.
Inside one mesh-draped enclosure, Julius, a foot-high peach-white Moluccan cockatoo with a pink-feathered headdress, was madly pacing, muttering in the native tongue of the Korean woman who, along with her recently deceased husband, had owned him. Next door, a nearly three-foot-tall blue-and-gold macaw named Bacardi, abandoned by a truck driver who was spending too much time on the road, kept calling out for someone named Muffin, before abruptly rising up and knocking over his tray of food to surrounding squawks of delight. Across the way, Pinky, a Goffin's cockatoo, the castoff of a bitter custody battle between his original female owner and the husband who threatened to spite her by cutting off her beloved pet’s wings, was mimicking a blue jay's high-pitched power-saw plaint. More screams rang out and then, in the ensuing silences, random snippets of past conversations:
Whoa! C'mon man!
Soon, from a far corner, came the whistling, slow and haunted, of the theme from "Bridge on the River Kwai."
"They had me loaded up on so many kinds of medications, I was seeing little green men and spiders jumping out of trees," Love continued, as a six-inch-tall female caique parrot from the Amazon Basin named Cashew dutifully paced across her shoulders. Back and forth she went, from one side to the other, in determined, near- circular waddles.
For the next 10 minutes, Love, her eyes closed, her arms still at her sides, continued to engage in one of the many daily duets she does with each one of Serenity Park's winged residents, listing her shoulders up and down like a gently rocking ship, Cashew's slow, feather-light paddings all the while putting Love further at ease. Now and again, Cashew would pause to give a gentle beak-brush of Love's neck and ear, and then crane her head upward toward Love's mouth to receive a couple of kisses. She made a few more passes, back and forth, then abruptly climbed atop Love's head. Smiling broadly, Love let her loll around up there on her back for a time, Cashew using the same upward scooping wing flaps that caiques employ to bathe on wet rain-forest leaves.
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