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Parrots in Costa Rica

Each September, before the new season begins, the networks give parties here in Southern California. Huge affairs to which all their affiliate stations are invited. These things go on for three days. During the mornings and afternoons, the affiliate members who either own or manage TV stations around the country are shown pilot films of the new shows and given the hype about what a great season has been lined up. The evenings are cocktail parties, sumptuous dinners, fairly nice wines on each table of ten or twelve, and they trot out their stables of current series stars to mingle, drink, and dine with the folks who are running the shows.

Vic hated those things and left as soon after dinner as he could. I enjoyed myself and in 1964 got into a conversation over cocktails with a very nice man, about my age, named Rene Picado who owned the affiliate station in San Jose, Costa Rica. His English was excellent and I still remembered some of my Spanish, which pleased him no end. We got to talking about firearms and hunting and Rene asked if I’d like to hunt jaguar, as his guest. We set a possible date for October. Gene arranged to write me into the beginning of one show and the end of the following. Rene arranged plane tickets, asking if I’d be willing to make an appearance on his TV station.

Costa Rica is known as the Switzerland of Central America: a true democracy with a large European and American population and no standing army. For defense they have only the Guardia Civil (Civil Guard). San Jose is a most cosmopolitan city, enough above sea level to give it a year-round climate averaging in the low seventies.

At my arrival at the San Jose airport, I was greeted on the tarmac by Rene and a few of his assistants. To my amazement, I was introduced by an American attaché to the U.S. Ambassador, who had also come to greet me. Beside him was his eight-year-old daughter who, when she found out I was to be in Costa Rica, got her father to bring her to the airport.

Behind the chain link fence there was a crowd. No, a mob of shouting Combat! fans holding up signs of welcome in English and Spanish. After a few minutes with the Ambassador and his daughter, I had to excuse myself. As Rene and his entourage led me away, his Excellency called out that he’d see me again before I went home. We waved to each other.

The moment I entered the airport terminal, I found myself surrounded by 5,000 happily shouting fans. We were packed in this big hall like sardines. Rene and his constituents were swept away by the wave of bodies and it was all I could do to get my arms away from my sides.

There were seven or eight police assigned as body guards, all on a staircase at the far end of the terminal. They were hanging over the railing, motioning to me to work my way over. Children were sitting atop their fathers’ shoulders, some were on the ground all around me, and there was constant pushing and shoving in these swaying waves of humanity.

I began to get scared, not for me, but I was afraid if someone lost his footing one of the children could get trampled. It took me about fifteen somewhat frantic minutes (keeping a smile on my face all the time and waving to everyone) to get to the banister. Three beefy guards reached over, grabbed my arms, and literally plucked me out of the crowd.

Rene was an individualist, and a Latino individualist, to boot. He’d bought an African lion cub in Rome several years before. The cub had been born in Rome of a mother used in some ancient Roman spectacle movies.

The lion, now full grown, lived in a large compound in Rene’s back yard. Rene would get into the cage with five hundred pounds of male lion and they’d wrestle with each other. The lion was crazy about Rene, who was the only one he’d allow in his home territory, except for the vet, but only if Rene accompanied him.

The ranch we hunted on was ten thousand acres of jungle with a lot of beach front at the Pacific ocean. Here and there they’d chopped out a hundred acres or so, and plant grass to run a few hundred head of cattle. One of the ranch workers was our guide. He had no shoes but wore spurs strapped to his bare feet and rode his horse bareback. Mostly we were on foot.

The ranch house was a simple affair of wood and stone with running water, none of it hot. And speaking of heat, I don’t remember any place before or since that was as hot and humid. We’d leave the ranch after breakfast, about 7:00 a.m. and within ten minutes I could squeeze the tail on my shirt and wring out the sweat.

One day we worked our way down to the beach. There were three of us: me, Rene, and Rene’s brother, Stefan, who managed the ranch. You could see tracks where sea turtles had crawled up on the sand to dig holes and lay their eggs, then lumber back into the ocean. The tide hadn’t yet come in to wash away the remnants of mama’s sojourn.

It was so hot, even on the beach, that we all decided to strip off our clothes and go for a swim. As we were getting undressed, Carlos, the guide, pointed out into the water about two hundred yards. "Tiburones," he said, matter-of-factly. I looked, and sure enough there was a school of about fifteen shark fins swimming back and forth.

"What now?" I asked.

"We check each other for any open cuts on our bodies. If there are none, we’ll go in for a swim but no further out than ten to fifteen yards. Carlos will keep an eye on them. If there’s no blood in the water, they won’t bother us."

It was a fine swim. I never realized before just how wonderful the water can be when the humidity is almost ninety seven per cent and the heat not much below it. The sharks never took notice of us.

One day, while we were walking along a jungle path that had been made by a jeep, we came to a large glade in which were five huge trees. We stopped for a rest and a drink from our canteens. Rene said, "Watch." He pointed his rifle in the air and fired a shot. Suddenly the trees came alive. Out of each one, about five hundred green parrots flew, once around the tree, and then disappeared back into the foliage.

"Wow!" I said, "that is something."

Carlos had brought his ten-year-old son along that day.

"Rene," I asked, "do you think Carlos’ son could climb into one of those and get me a baby out of one of the nests. I used to raise birds so I know how to hand feed them. I’d love to take one back to the States."

The boy tried, but he couldn’t find any fledglings. We didn’t get a jaguar, either, but that’s hunting. I had just as good a time.

We returned to San Jose and I did an interview on Rene’s station. Also, a series of parties were given in my honor.

One morning Rene called at my hotel. "Good morning, Rick. Do you still want to take a parrot home?" He’d found a double yellow head through his vet, who also owned the pet store in town.

We went to see it and the poor thing was in a handmade reed cage that hardly gave it room to turn around. I asked the vet, "Is he hand trained?"

"I don’t know," was the answer.

"Well," I said, "we might as well find out now. Would you take it out of the cage, please?"

The vet got a stout piece of dowel, unlatched the door, and stuck it in and under the bird’s breast. It stepped on the stick and he lifted it out. Now or never, I thought to myself, the worst I can get is a badly chewed finger. I spoke softly to the bird as it looked at me, its eyes dilating and constricting. It was scared to death.

I talked to it softly for a few minutes. Presently, its eyes stopped dilating and I slowly held my hand out, index finger extended, and softly placed it under the bird’s breast. It looked at me. No chewing yet, thank God. I gently pressed upward and backward. The bird stepped onto my finger. Hurray! So far, a winner.

I asked how much the bird cost and the vet said U.S. eighteen dollars, but there would be a problem taking it into the states. There was a four-month quarantine law for out-of-country parrots, unless the bird had been in your possession for four months.

Rene reminded me that, "The Ambassador is giving a cocktail party for you this evening at the embassy. Maybe he can help."

I thanked the vet and we left the store. That evening as I was sipping my first martini of the day, His Excellency walked over and asked how I was enjoying myself in Costa Rica.

"Just fine, thank you," I said.

"Is there anything I can do for you while you’re here?"

"As a matter of fact, sir, there is. Can you help me get a parrot into the States?"

He thought for a moment. "That’s a little outside my territory…but, I think there’s someone here who can help."

A few minutes later, a nice looking Army Captain about my height walked over. He introduced himself as Hershel Flowers. "What can I do for you Mr. Jason?"

"You can start by calling me Rick," I said.

"And I’m Hersh, to my friends," he smiled.

"I found a parrot in a pet shop run by a vet . . "

"I know him," Hersh said, and went on to tell me that he was also a veterinarian, assigned to the embassy to study poisonous snakes. We made a date to meet at the pet shop the following morning. Hersh examined the bird and found it in perfect health. The only thing that drove me crazy was the tiny cage they had it in. The pet shop owner agreed to make a large plywood box with a hinged door, and one side made of steel mesh, big enough for the parrot to climb around. As a favor to his friend and good customer, Rene, there was no charge for the box. Herschel and I went out for a bite to eat.

"When are you leaving?" he asked.

"Day after tomorrow. Got a few radio and newspaper interviews to do before I go."

"C’mon out to my place for lunch tomorrow. About one."

The following afternoon, parrot and box in hand, I presented myself at the front gate of a charming old house that Hersh was renting. He showed me into a lush garden at the rear where we would eat in the shade of a gigantic tree. On one iron stand was a military macaw (the blue and red variety). On another was a green double yellow head just like the one I had, as I entered it said in a clear voice, "Hiya, kiddo, welcome to the Flowers house." After a delightful meal, Hersh handed me a copy of the laws pertaining to citicine birds entering the United States, and a letter he’d written.

I had my parrot (in its box) on my lap during most of the flight home. As I was on the customs line in Los Angeles waiting to open my bags for inspection, a uniformed man came up to me, employee at Western Airlines on which I’d flown.

"Excuse me Mr. Jason, that box you’re carrying. Do you have a parrot in there?"


"Why didn’t you tell someone about it when you presented your passport?"

"Nobody asked me."

"Well, the health officers want to see you downstairs. Let’s go. I’ll have someone hold your luggage."

As we walked he asked, "How long were you out of the country?"

"About two-and-a-half weeks, why?"

"That bird’ll have to go into quarantine," he said with finality.

"I don’t think so," I said.

We got into the elevator. "I can assure you the bird will be quarantined," he said.

"I’d be willing to bet the bird will go home with me."

"I’ve seen this happen before. You’d be losing your money."

"How much?" I challenged.

"Five bucks? You wanta go for that much?"

"Aw, let’s make it interesting. Let’s make it twenty."

"You sure?" he said, and I could see sucker written all over his eyeballs.

"Absolutely! Deal?" We shook on it.

With the parrot’s box on the desk, one officer (in what appeared to be Navy summer tans) on his side of the desk and me sitting on the other, we had about a twenty-minute conversation about the spirit of the law as opposed to the letter of the law. Until a passenger is released by Health and Customs when coming in from a foreign country, he/she is technically considered legal property of the airline. My Western Airlines guide was standing in the doorway, arms folded, with a slight smirk on his face. I noticed it as I turned back and forth addressing myself to both health officers.

"I don’t care if a U.S. army veterinarian claims the bird is healthy. The laws says…" and he repeated it for about the fifth time.

"In that case will you read this?" I handed over the letter.

He perused it and handed it back. "Same argument," he said.

"No it isn’t. Look at the letterhead. What does it say?"

He read slightly under his breath, "United States Embassy. So what?"

"Isn’t a U.S. Embassy considered American soil? And doesn’t the letter say that Captain Flowers purchased the bird for me five months ago and has been holding it pending my arrival in Costa Rica?"

He stopped for a moment and looked at his partner, then at me. "Yeah, I guess you might say that".

"Not only might," I said, "but definitely! This bird has been on American soil for five months and has only been in transit to the mainland."

He stared at me for a long moment as he pursed his lips, then picked up the phone, "I’m going to kick this upstairs."

Next, he was in conversation with a superior. "Yeah, that’s right, the bird has been on U.S. soil for five months. Uh-huh, uh-huh. Okay." He hung up the phone and pushed back his swivel chair. "All right," he said, "take your goddamned bird and get out of here."

"Thanks," I said as I got up. I took the parrot’s box in my left hand and insisted on shaking hands with him and his cohort, neither of whom were anything but pissed off.

I got to the door, where my airline guide’s arms had come unfolded and he was staring at me as if I’d just parted the Red Sea. I stopped, and as if remembering something, snapped my fingers and held out my palm. He placed a twenty in it without changing expression. So I got my parrot and made two dollars on the deal.

I named the bird Linus. He was an excellent companion and pet. He decided to move out with Pat (my fourth wife) after the divorce. I don’t know what ever became of him.

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