Parrot sanctuary is something to squawk about

You simply have to go

When I first heard about a new attraction in East End called the Cayman Parrot Sanctuary, I admit I wasn’t expecting much.

I had visions of a fairly rinky-dink place about the size of someone’s backyard with a few parrots and local plants, and that was about it.

Before everyone gears up to pelt me with mangoes, allow me explain: It wasn’t that I expected it to be small because of where it was – it was more the fact that I had heard so little about it in the lead up to its opening, I was convinced it couldn’t be that big a deal.

Well, I was dead wrong.

After piling my nephews and niece – along with my friend Lynne – into the car to take a wild trip to the sanctuary last weekend, I can’t tell enough people about this wonderful new addition to the island.

Kai Bodden spends some quality time with Lil Bit.

Ron Hargrave, the larger-than-life Aussie owner of Tukka Restaurant, Eagle Rays and Taco Cantina – with the support of his lovely wife Lana – has poured two years of good old-fashioned hard work into the pretty unforgiving island interior landscape to create a haven for local flora and fauna. The result is a wildlife park shaded by fruit trees and featuring little walking trails with minimal impact on the natural topography of the area.

The fun begins
From the moment we first arrived at the gates, it was obvious the thought and consideration that had gone into first impressions. The signage is professional and colourful with very clear arrows directing guests to the entrance desk and into the preserve.

From left, Kai, Savannah and Tristan Bodden get ready to enter the sanctuary.

Regina Nowak, resident zookeeper, first took us to see Lil Bit, a baby agouti that was saved after its mother was unfortunately hit by a car. Lil Bit has been bottle-raised by the staff at the sanctuary, and judging by her demeanor on the day, she was doing very well in their care.

She has an area all her own, which includes a patch of soft earth so she can bury peanuts she’s given if she wants to save some for later.

“She was never taught how to do that,” Ron said. “It’s just pure instinct.”

Spotting agoutis in the wild in Cayman is a pretty rare occurrence, and even if you do, don’t expect them to hang about when they are made aware of your presence. It was therefore really exciting to interact with one up close. I felt like a kid, holding my peanut, ready to hand it over when she looked my way.

From Lil Bit’s home, it was a straight shot to the reptile room, where we could hold a non-poisonous racer snake if we wished. There was also a glass case housing some impressive scorpions (nice to observe them without instinctively reaching for a slipper or similar weapon) and a box with three or four large hermit crabs sporting their mobile home shells.

Arjan Wheaton has his own encounter with a racer snake.

It wasn’t long into our visit when it occurred to me that many of the creatures we were seeing were so plentiful when I was a child growing up in Cayman, yet now they have almost disappeared from view. Hermit crabs used to be everywhere, but I can’t remember the last time I saw one just out and about.

The next stop after the reptile room was upstairs. Up we climbed to an observation deck, complete with built-in binoculars set at the perfect height for children. Speaking of children – or the young-at-heart – the fastest way to get down onto terra firma once again is to take one of two slides from the front of the deck, or head into the twisty tube on the side.

There are two slides and a twisty tube from the observation deck to the ground.

Aware of my post-COVID spread, images of the fire department coming to extricate me from the bend in the tube flashed across my mind. I also didn’t fancy my generously proportioned posterior’s chances against the width of the slide. I therefore left it to the kids to fly down the alternative routes and I made my way via the stairs.

We followed the trails to large enclosures of doves, iguanas and more agoutis as Ron explained how the sanctuary had come about. He had wanted to create a space where abandoned or injured animals could be rehabilitated, while showing children how to respect other living creatures. He had designed it to be fun, educational and – most importantly – local.

Kalyan, Isabella and Arjan Wheaton take a breather with Ron Hargrave at the doves enclosure.

His son, Ledger, 9, is clearly a big fan of his family’s business. He is a bit of an up-and-coming zoologist in his own right, having helped with the hand-rearing of Lil Bit and looking after the other animals.

As we walked around, I was taken back to the days of my youth in Cayman and running barefoot over the ironshore as a child (unthinkable now – holy cow). There was so much less development back then. I asked Ron how long it had taken for him to create all of this out of what must have been, essentially, wilderness.

He replied that it took him two years, in total. He and “three other guys” had to clear the land in parts, cut back the rock, and make paths with wooden railings for ease of navigation.

From left, Ron Hargrave, Ledger Hargrave and Regina Nowak. Ron spent two years creating the Cayman Parrot Sanctuary.

Every corner brought fresh surprises, informative signs and new critters, with bottles of complimentary bug spray strategically placed throughout the sanctuary. I have to say that it was only really near the end of our tour that we became aware of the mosquitoes, which have been appalling everywhere around the island. I certainly didn’t find them as bad as they are in my own back garden.

Preserving the Cayman Parrot
You might wonder why I haven’t yet mentioned parrots, considering the name of this new venture. That’s because it was only at this stage in our day that I managed to leave the kids and Lynne to play with guinea pigs so I could chat to Jane Haakonsson from the government’s Department of the Environment.

She explained that the preservation of the Cayman Parrot was quite the task, what with some illegal private ownership, mistreatment of the birds and injuries that happen in the wild.

“We have been heavily involved in the conservation of the national bird, and we started monitoring the population of it in 2004,” Jane said. “Invariably, we’ve had people come to us with birds with various types of injuries and/or confiscated birds that were on their way [off the island].

“Another thing we’re struggling with is the illegal pet trade. People were selling these birds – poaching them from the wild and selling them.”

She admitted that the industrial area where her department is located is not ideal for any kind of bird or animal rehabilitation, so when Ron spoke to her 18 months ago about his plans, she was immediately interested.

Three resident parrots happily enjoy a meal together.

He originally asked if he could have a Cayman Parrot for the sanctuary, but was turned down due to the laws protecting them. So, then he took a different tack – he asked if they had any he could look after or foster.

Jane and a representative from the Cayman Turtle Centre subsequently went to look at the fledgling facility and agreed that it could be a “beautiful partnership”, according to Jane.
Since taking in its first Cayman Parrot, the sanctuary has managed to release 10 into the wild, and still has nine in residence. Not all are fit for release.

“We want to give every bird a chance at being a wild bird, but most of the time that’s just not going to happen,” said Jane, “[particularly if] they’ve been poached from the nest and hand-reared, so they don’t know what to do out there.”

The existence of the sanctuary has also meant that confiscated parrots have a place to go.
“We’ve had all sorts here,” said Ron. “Birds that have been abandoned, sold, hit by cars or really badly neglected.”

Two of the sanctuary’s residents – Stumpy and Shorty – are examples of the latter. Stumpy had five of his toes bitten off by other parrots because he’d been kept in an overcrowded cage.

Shorty had no tailfeathers after being kept in a small cage more suited to a budgerigar for 15 years.

These two parrots and all the others appear to be thriving at the sanctuary. We got the chance to go inside Shorty’s 30-foot flight cage, purpose-built for bird rehabilitation. Not only was he moving along a branch like a Broadway dancer, he also happily spread his wings and flew to the other end of the cage, proving that a lack of tailfeathers was not going to stop him.

After visiting with Shorty, we took a look at other features of the preserve, like the large children’s games area, perfect for parties.

There is a dedicated children’s play area which would be perfect to book for private parties.

We also couldn’t possibly leave without my nephews having a go on the seated zipline near the exit. Simple, and yet so much fun. My brother and his wife may have to look at installing one in their back garden in the future.

All told, we were at the sanctuary for just over two hours, and it was a wonderful time. We could have ordered food from Tukka to have there, but instead decided to head over to the restaurant itself, where cold lemonades and appetisers were enjoyed by all.

Kalyan Wheaton gives the seated zipline ride a try. Located near the entrance/exit to the park, this is one of the most popular stops.

Ron said he is planning to expand the park over the land to the north, where he’ll include larger animals. To see him talk about it with such enthusiasm, hands pointing, eyes lighting up, all I could think was, yeah, Shorty’s not the only one who can fly without tailfeathers.

The Cayman Parrot Sanctuary is located in East End, on the left just before Tukka when heading east. It is open Tue., Wed., Thur., Sat. and Sun. from noon to 5:30pm. Admission is $10 for adults ages 16 and older, $7 for children ages 3-15 and free for 2 years old and under. For bookings or more information, email [email protected] or call 936-4400. Visit the Facebook page for pictures and more.

Support local journalism. Subscribe to the all-access pass for the Cayman Compass.

Subscribe now