Many of us were captivated by Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden as children. There’s something about the alignment of those words that evokes a feeling, a belief that once you’ve entered that particular space all sorts of magical things could happen. Given this, when I learned there was a secret rainforest garden in Key West, I had to pay it a visit. Nancy Forrester’s (don’t you just love it when people’s names match their passion?) Secret Garden was our last stop before heading back to the Miami airport.
From the front, the house at 518 Elizabeth Street looks like any other dwelling on the residential block. But, once you pay your admission, sanitize your hands, and round the corner, you’ll be immersed in that sensory experience the Key West Literary Walking Tour promised. Twenty or so parrots reside in about a city block of space, a virtual palette of Fran Decker’s colors, their squawks and shrieks easily fitting into Ann Beattie’s auditory impression of the island.
The Secret Garden is no ordinary animal shelter or petting zoo; it’s an educational sanctuary for parrots. Nancy, who taught “Rainforest Ecology” for almost three decades in an attempt to save the last undeveloped wooded acre of land in old town Key West, now teaches Parrot 101 to garden visitors as well as using her “educational ambassadors” to teach the public.
Each large enclosure has a history of the bird(s) who reside in it, their name, evolution story, how they prefer to communicate, and their likes and dislikes, along with any special talents they might have. By the time you reach the end of the placard, you’ll have a good sense of what that particular bird is all about, though this may be the first time you’ve met!
As we wandered around the parrot’s haven, Nancy herself emerged to give a talk about her work with the parrots. One curious thing about this aviary is that these birds had never been an interest of hers, that is until the first resident in her backyard was dropped over her fence one night. Subsequently, word got around and soon she had a full house of vocal birds to care for, and rehome when possible.
Never one to refuse a challenge, the environmentalist and storyteller taught herself to train her new highly intelligent but sometimes temperamental students. Parrots have an extremely strong sense of who they like and who they don’t and Nancy has housed birds who have so much animosity toward her that she has to leave their care to someone else. For example, volunteer, Sean Vermeer’s has been helping her with Hammerhead, who will not tolerate Nancy to the point where he’s attacked her, likes Sean and it’s obvious watching them interact how fond the bird is of his caretaker.
Other birds like Baby Blue will do just about anything she asks. He responds well to positive reinforcement and treats (nuts and cooked egg whites that day). Baby was eager to showcase a few of his tricks, hamming it up as he hopped like a bunny across the table, dangled upside down, and allowed Nancy to stroke his feathers.
Has Covid impacted The Secret Garden? Absolutely. Nancy explains that, like humans, her charges are highly social and enjoy both the tourists who visit their home and traveling to other sites (schools, libraries) to inform the public about their short and long-term needs. Suddenly seeing no one but Nancy for days on end was highly stressful and there was a noticeable increase in feather pulling and other maladaptive behaviors. Their caretaker had her own issues, including personal burnout from caring for the bird’s solo since her volunteers were compelled to shelter in place, personal anxieties, and the economic stress brought on by the drastic loss of tourist income due to the Keys’ road block and cruise ship bans.
A chronic issue with the pet industry is the fact that there are more birds being bred in captivity than in the wild in the 21st century. Hence The Secret Garden’s motto, “Adopt Don’t Shop”. It was disheartening to realize just how much we humans are able to interfere with what should be natural, biological progressions. Especially when you hear about how these beautiful and clever wild creatures have been physically and emotionally mistreated by previous owners. But Nancy seems optimistic that parrot advocates can swing the pendulum in the other direction by continually emphasizing the importance of allowing the birds to be free, flying about in their countries of origin.
Will this piece of precious property with its colorful inhabitants survive once Nancy is no longer there to protect it? Or be swallowed up by Florida development as the Keys continue to expand? Additionally, though she appears ageless, Nancy is in her eighties and the majority of he feathered friends will likely outlive her. Will the time and energy she put into welcoming others into her back yard pay off?
Parrots were not high on the list of birds I wanted to get to know better. However, this last-minute stop turned out to be an unexpectedly delightful learning experience and one of the highlights of my Key West vacation. Individual efforts can make a real difference and The Secret Garden was a timely reminder of how important environmental stewardship continues to be, not only here in America but around the globe. And, that there are still people in the world who are doing good things simply because they are the right thing to do, rather than for material gains.
To learn more, visit Nancy’s website at https://www.keywestparrots.com or check her out on Facebook or Instagram