'I started . . . buying anything--parakeets, canaries, finches, anything I could get.'

Len Lariccia's life ambition has changed dramatically over the years. After working with children on probation for almost eight years, the 33-year-old San Diegan says his present job as owner of a pet shop specializing in exotic birds and parrots will be his career for life. Lariccia grew up in New Jersey and lived for a time in Maine but moved to California almost 10 years ago for health reasons. In Los Angeles, he ran a group home for children that had been abused or convicted of crimes. In 1980, Lariccia moved to San Diego after divorcing his wife and gaining custody of his son, now 11 years old. He pursued his lifelong love for birds, first as manager of a local pet store and now owning "Bird Crazy," where he sells parakeets, cockatoos, macaws, and Amazon and African parrots. He himself has more than 70 birds in the aviary attached to his North Park area home he shares with his son. Times staff writer Kathie Bozanich interviewed him in his bird shop and Times staff photographer Bob Grieser photographed him there.

My mother said that from the time that I could walk I was bringing home baby birds. It's always been in my blood. Even when I worked with the probation kids, I would incorporate animals and animal care.

With my health problems, I had plenty of time to learn so much about birds. I couldn't play a lot of sports, the birds were always an attraction, so it just kind of happened that they filled all my time. At first, I would bring home birds from the wild. Then, I started to save my pennies and buying anything--parakeets, canaries, finches, anything I could get.

I had a lot of birds where we lived with the kids (in the group home), and I would use them as rewards. If one of the kids wanted to do something with one of the birds, I would say, "O.K., if you do your chores for two days straight and you don't mess up, then you can take the bird to the park with you." These birds would get them the attention they needed. They were learning that they can do good things and get positive attention as opposed to negative attention.

I wasn't scared, though. I'm a tough little guy, and I think I had a really good rapport with most of them. If there were some really serious questions about one, I'd just refuse to allow them in the home.

There was a high burn-out rate doing that kind of work. It just got to the point where I was frazzled all the time. It was a seven-day-a-week, 24-hour-a-day job. It just got to be too overwhelming.

A lot of people get fanatical about birds, hence the name of the shop, "Bird Crazy." My son named it. People will get one bird, then all of a sudden they have to have another, then another. People who have bought birds from us, they'll come in and tell us what this one is saying or what this one is doing. It's like parents talking about their children.

Birds don't need half of the room dogs or cats do, and they are a lot cheaper to keep up, although initially a lot of the birds are more expensive than a dog or a cat. Also, birds are smarter than any dog or cat I've ever seen.

For example, Siam, my son's bird that we keep here in the shop, will all of a sudden start screaming when the other birds get noisy, "No, shut up, be quiet." He does so many things on cue, appropriately, it's amazing. He also does this one thing where he'll playfully bite my son, then say, "Ouch, no Siam, no," mimicking my son's voice. He goes through the whole thing exactly as it should be done.

As a single parent, owning my own store gives me the opportunity to spend time with my son. I can bring him to the shop when he gets out of school, and we can spend time together. He works his little tush off. He knows more about birds than I would say 90% of the managers of any pet shop in this city. He could sell a bird to anybody.

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