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Rescuers save 250 parrots from Pine Island after Hurricane Ian


Will Peratino and his partner Lauren Stepp would not leave their property on Pine Island, even as authorities begged residents to leave their homes due to damaged roads, including a collapsed bridge that prevented the delivery of food, gas and other life-saving supplies.

But the couple couldn’t leave without their two lemurs and a flock of birds – 275 parrots, including some of the world’s rarest.

So a rescue mission — dubbed “Operation Noah’s Ark” — was launched Tuesday to capture, cage and transport the birds off the island, as a condition of persuading Peratino and Stepp to leave the island.

“We wouldn’t let them down. I would never leave them. Never,” said Stepp, as volunteers worked to collect the flock from dozens of pens at the Malama Manu Sanctuary. “If they cannot be fed or watered, they will die. And I can’t live with that.”

Project Dynamo had already rescued a few cats, dogs and birds before Operation “Noah’s Ark”.

“Malama” is the Hawaiian word for protect, “manu” means bird.

Since Hurricane Ian struck, the birds have been relying on food donated by conservationists, but supplies of fruits, peanuts and other edibles would soon be hard to come by due to the bridge crash and the island’s scarcity of gasoline.

Hurricane Ian ravaged southwest Florida a week ago with gusts of 150 mph, making some roads impassable and islands inaccessible. Wind-driven rains and ocean waves brought dangerous flooding.

In the hours before the storm, the sanctuary owners would tend to their flocks of birds and put them in their homes to protect them from the ferocity of the elements.

“You don’t know what we’ve been through here. We had three feet of water in the house, damn near drowned,’ Peratino said, before succumbing to tears.

Will Peratino and his partner would not leave their property without all their birds.
Will Peratino and his partner would not leave their property without all 275 of their birds.

“Keeping any bird safe is a huge undertaking,” Peratino said. “I mean, it’s almost impossible to do. So the kind of help we’ve received has been invaluable.”

Many of the birds were rescued from homes that could no longer care for them. Some are used for breeding rare species.

While the focus of many search and rescue missions has been on human life, there have also been pet rescues.

Bryan Stern, the founder and leader of Project Dynamo, which assembled four boats for the mission, said his team rescued at least six dogs, three cats and, before Tuesday’s mass rescue, three birds.

Operation "Noah's Ark" was launched to save Peratino, Stepp, the birds and 2 lemurs.
Operation “Noah’s Ark” was launched to rescue Peratino, Stepp, the birds and 2 lemurs.

“Our animal numbers are about to be blown out of the water by 100 cages of parrots,” Stern said, before embarking on the rescue mission.

“It’s been crazy,” said James Judge, owner of the boat “Slice of Life,” which led the small fleet of lifeboats.

“Will and Laura, who own the sanctuary, put their heart and soul into the birds. So they’re going through their own suffering from the hurricane,” Stern said, “and have to rebuild their lives. They have lost everything. Is the answer to lose more?”

The crew of volunteers had no intention of letting that happen.

On Tuesday, the volunteers put nets and their bare hands into cages for several hours to pen the birds in cages. The birds—from macaws to cockatoos and rare specimens of king parrots (only two dozen pairs are kept in the United States)—screeched and flapped their wings, and their handlers tucked them into cages.

Some whistled and spoke, including some with naughty vocabulary.

Ghassan Abboud, a Chicago dentist who owns a bird farm in West Palm Beach, is an acquaintance of the sanctuary’s owners. Hearing of their plight, he gathered his resources to help. He had envisioned using a small boat to carry cages from Pine Island to a dock on the mainland, where an air-conditioned trailer would transport the birds to his property across the Florida peninsula.

But by chance, he came across the Project Dynamo team, which has volunteered to help rescue people stranded by flooding and damaged roads.

“I could never write a script like this. It was perfect. I thought I’d be back in a small boat all day,” Abboud said. “What these guys have done is unimaginable. They have committed their resources. They have saved so many birds.”

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