Birdwoman of Arleta Must Abandon Her Idyllic Nest
With unflappable British elan, June Matthews apologized for the stacks of boxes, furnishings, papers and objects d’art that blocked all but one small passage through the living room of her Arleta tract home.
It was a moving day, as it has been almost every day for most of the past year.
Piece by piece, Matthews is boxing the memorabilia of her life and storing it in a truck-sized steel cargo container parked outside at her curb.
“Aren’t these wonderful,” she said. “You rent them for $75 a month and they take them wherever you want.”
No Place to Send Container
Right now, though, Matthews doesn’t have a place to send it. She’d like to address it to a country chalet. But she hasn’t been able to find one yet.
The problem is that Matthews has a jungle to move. It’s growing in her backyard.
Matthews, a slender, sandy-haired and stately British widow of 65 who lives in the house with her mother, is one of those people who cannot say no to an animal in distress, especially an exotic bird.
In her ordinary suburban yard she runs a sanctuary for damaged, neglected and orphaned animals, mostly jungle birds that have lost their value on the commercial market.
“They say, ‘Would you take them on?’ I say, ‘Of course,’ ” she said, explaining how it all came about.
She now cares for about a dozen exotic jungle birds she identified as green and blue winged macaws, blue fronted Amazons, Australian cockatoos and African Senegals.
There are also about a dozen refugees from the local habitat and her own stock of Japanese silky and sea brite hens, a couple of ducks and dogs and pet mice.
And, finally, come the pearly and pied cockateels, the Indian ringnecks, the rosettas, the rock peddlers and the ringneck doves. She breeds those to pay the way for the rest of the establishment.
This menagerie is cleverly distributed around a labyrinth of cages and pens that are camouflaged in a garden of tropical splendor. Matthews has been growing it for 10 years.
Jasmine, cymbidium and azaleas. Gingko and mimosa trees. Curtains of bamboo. Apple, plum, lime, orange and apricot. A swimming pool drained to the last two feet of water, which is covered with hyacinth and water lilies.
But her paradise is facing extinction.
Matthews, who lives on Social Security and the remnants of her inheritance, has been asked to leave her home. Her landlord, though sympathetic to her mission, told her about a year ago that he has other plans for the house. On top of that, the Department of Animal Regulation has notified Matthews that her birds are not compatible with a residential neighborhood.
Not that the authorities consider her one of those animal nuts who occasionally turn up with hundreds of cats or dogs in their houses. Actually, Matthews has been recognized for her contribution to the welfare of animals. When pet-store owners or others hear that someone is having a problem with a bird, they will call her for help.
It’s just that her work has apparently outgrown its suburban setting.
Like the curator of a condemned museum, Matthews led a goodby tour of her sanctuary this week.
Along the way, she talked interchangeably to her guest, to her animals and to herself. For an hour or so, thus submerged in her private world, she managed to hold at bay the real pressures from outside.
It was feeding time.
First, she opened a small cage and tossed some green leaves to the turtle.
“This is the tortoise, Sam,” she said. “Here, love. Isn’t that nice. He lost his wife, poor thing. He’s lonely. Sam lives with two burrowing owls. Come on out you shameful thing, Chester.”
The owls had a galvanized trash can with a large hole in the side as a home. But they had burrowed under it instead. They looked up with wide startled eyes when she lifted it.
Chester darted in graceful flight across the cage. She took him in her hand and stroked him.
“They eat baby chicks and mice when I have them available frozen,” she said. “I can’t kill anything.”
Two squirrels darted about the next cage, which they shared with three sparrows, three scrub jays and a blue jay.
“I released 18 squirrels since last November,” Matthews said. She said tree trimmers who destroy squirrel homes bring them to her as babies. When they are adults, she lets them go. But she has decided to keep a mutant white squirrel.
“If I released him he would be instant pray for a red tail hawk,” she said.
When she approached, the jays opened their mouths and squawked.
“This is Estelle,” she said. “Watch her eat out of my hand. I’m mother.”
“I can’t go on,” Matthews told the bird. “You’ve got to learn to live on your own.”
Then she ducked under a hibiscus tree and walked down a narrow path toward the jungle birds.
“Day lilies coming up,” she said to herself along the way.
“Look at my datura,” she said, pointing out half a dozen bell-shaped yellow flowers. “I just love nature altogether.”
The jungle birds cocked their heads and struck threatening poses as she approached.
She opened the cage of a large blue and gold bird that opened its two-inch beak as if to strike when Matthews put her hand in. Then it dropped its head and let her scratch its neck.
“Nelson, the darling, lost his wing and the people didn’t want him anymore because he wasn’t whole,” she said.
Suddenly Nelson recoiled.
“I’m sorry I pulled a feather,” Matthews said. “Very touchy this morning, aren’t you?” Next she took two blue fronted Amazons from their cage.
“The lady bought one and loved it so much she bought another one,” she said. “It turned out the other one was a male. So, when he reached puberty, you know what happened. . . .”
“What do Amazons do?” she said sweetly, interrupting the story to coddle the bird. She made the near-growling sound of a baby leopard. The bird copied.
“That’s a good boy. Smart as a whip,” she said.
“He bit her. She didn’t know how to control the male.”
Two white cockatoos in the next cage looked scraggly.
Matthews said the male had stripped the female of her feathers to keep her from leaving the nest.
“What do you say, Blue?” she asked him. “You’re an ornery thing, aren’t you, Blue? Do you love Momma?”
“It was a divorce,” Matthews said. “He hated the husband. The husband threatened to kill the bird if she didn’t get rid of it. That’s how I got my Blue Blue.”
“I love you,” Blue said.
“I love you too, darling,” Matthews cooed. “Could you ever hate a bird that does that for you?”
For each bird a new story unfolded.
A red macaw, which stood a stately two feet tall, was delivered by a woman who said she couldn’t afford to keep it any longer.
Matthews said she offered to buy the feed. The woman said that wasn’t the problem.
“She didn’t mind too much losing the dining room set and the bar. But when it assaulted the baby grand piano, that’s when she decided she couldn’t afford to keep it,” Matthews said.
“Very, very sweet bird. Loves me.
“Where’s my kissy,” she said, poking her face into the cage. The bird tickled her cheek with its tongue. “That’s the way. Thank you. Give me a kiss again.”
Matthews’ easy way with birds has never been mirrored in her practical affairs, she said.
When her landlord asked her to move, she made a plan to buy a mobile home and park it near the Wildlife Waystation in the Angeles National Forest, of which she is a board member.
But, in what a friend described bittersweetly as Matthews’ “typically British extravagance,” she bought a double-wide “mausoleum” that was too big for the lot she had in mind.
She has not yet come up with an alternative.
She knows that her time is running short. Her landlord has been understanding, she said. But not everyone has.
With a fatalistic smile, Matthews conceded that some of her neighbors have let her know they are not happy with the jungle sounds her yard produces every morning and night.
At least one called the Department of Animal Regulations. An officer visited her yard in April and left a notice stating that city law requires her birds to be at least 100 feet from any other residential dwelling.
The officer returned in May, writing another notice, slightly more strident in tone, ordering her to correct the violation.
Matthews believes she is being allowed a little extra time. She doesn’t know how long that will last.
“For a whole year, everything I’ve tried to do has fallen through,” she said, almost surrendering to a tear. “I always say God wants to put me someplace. I say, ‘My dear God, will you show it to me pretty soon because I’m getting desperate.’ ”