Suzy Heck is a wildlife rehabber, taking in animals that have been abandoned, hit by cars, or simply need a little extra care. In the mid-1990s, she got an odd request concerning a parrot named Echo. She was instructed not to tell anyone of his presence; she was to just keep him safe — and quiet. The unlikely reason for Echo’s sudden residence at Heck Haven, her animal rehabilitation center in Lake Charles, Louisiana, was this: The parrot was in a sort of witness-protection program, but for animals.
Seriously. Echo’s story forms the backbone of Laurel Braitman’s fascinating Digg/Atlas Obscura chronicle of not just Echo but other animals called to testify against alleged criminals (the Atlas Obscura version is here). Echo, it seems, had once been a New Orleans crime boss’s pet, and had been “at the wrong place at the wrong time, seen something he wasn’t supposed to, and wouldn’t stop talking about it.” Most of the time, he was a perfectly unremarkable bird. But not always, Braitman writes:
[S]ometimes late at night, when she was in another room, she’d hear the sound of a child loudly crying, then moaning, then a giant THWACK. Then, worst of all, a kind of maniacal laughter. She’d rush into the room to see Echo swaying back and forth on his perch, now quiet. This made a certain sick sense to Heck because King had told her the crime boss was under investigation for child abuse.
Echo’s story highlights two debates concerning animal behavior, each one mind-bending in its own way: Can animals tell right from wrong? And if an animal witnesses a crime, could it possibly testify in court about the experience? These are actual, serious questions that some are currently weighing. A group called the Nonhuman Rights Project, for instance, is pushing to recognize certain “cognitively complex” animals as “persons” rather than “things.” Steven Weiss, the lawyer who founded the group, doesn’t think that animals will ever be considered witnesses, exactly, but that one day their unique point of view could be submitted as evidence in a case.
Legally, it’s pretty near impossible for a parrot to be called to the witness stand, mostly because of the tiny fact that a parrot is not a person. Braitman explains:
Erin Murphy, a law professor at NYU, says that a parrot can’t be denied testimony, at least on the basis of hearsay, because hearsay can only be presented by a person. Something a parrot says could be admitted as evidence, in her opinion, but she’d never heard of it happening. Matthew Liebman at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, an expert on animal law, told me that parrots can’t be witnesses because they’re not people, but also because, in many states, you’d have to prove that a bird could tell right from wrong, and then take an oath about it.
Echo’s story is fascinating, but it is not necessarily unique. Parrots are a unique breed of animal in that they are highly intelligent creatures, capable of forming words to not only communicate with humans but also with one another. And yet they can’t necessarily be trained or untrained, and they are excellent mimics, making them a uniquely capable potential witness in the animal kingdom.
For example, in South Carolina in 2010, a woman went to jail for abusing and neglecting her elderly mother. When local police entered the house they found a parrot that repeated “Help me, help me” — then laughed. They believed the parrot was mimicking the mother’s pleas, then the daughter’s laughter. Sometimes the birds can be roped into criminal activity themselves. In September of 2010, in the Colombian city of Barranquilla, a parrot named Lorenzo was taught by his owners — members of the Cali drug cartel — to say “RUN, RUN” when he spotted the police. Lorenzo was guarding a load of guns and marijuana. (Don’t worry about Lorenzo — he wasn’t prosecuted.)
As Braitman notes, Echo “wasn’t the first parrot to see something he wasn’t supposed to and start talking about, and he isn’t the last.”