Their Peck and Call : Animals: Life is getting back to normal for June Matthews and her huge flock of adopted birds, whose sanctuary in Box Canyon was destroyed by a mudslide.
As heavy rains pounded the roof of her mobile home earlier this week, June Matthews found herself in prayer. “Please, God, not again,” repeated the 74-year-old woman known as the bird lady of Box Canyon.
When the rain let up, she nervously checked the boulder overhanging her property. “They say there’s a chance that rock could fall,” Matthews said. “I just pray that it doesn’t.”
For six years, Matthews and the 300 cast-out birds in her care lived peacefully on her one-acre property nestled among boulders and shaded by a canopy of oak trees in the rugged canyon southeast of Simi Valley.
Then last February’s storms unleashed a rocky mudslide that destroyed her bird sanctuary and left a gash in the side of her mobile home. The storm caused $48,000 in damage to her property, forcing Matthews, her 94-year-old mother, and the birds to evacuate.
Matthews, who has no insurance, spent six months getting the mud cleared out and the bird cages repaired so she and her menagerie could return. Much remains to be done to restore the bird cages and mobile home, but the bird lady and her extensive flock are slowly returning to life as it once was.
For the past seven years, Matthews has rescued hundreds of unwanted birds and brought them to her rural corner of Ventura County.
“Each one has a story,” she said, pointing out several exotic birds with brilliant feathers.
Amigo, for instance, is a parrot whose owner said he would be gone a week, but never returned. Hobo, a multicolored cockatoo, is a case of self-mutilation. Blueberry, a white macaw, is the casualty of a divorce. Paco, a red and blue parakeet, has only one leg and cannot find a home.
“People just don’t want them any more,” Matthews said. “They say, ‘We’re moving, can you take them?’ and I take them. They can live with me as long as they live or I live.”
Such an extensive menagerie would be hard to locate anywhere less remote than this rocky canyon. When someone passes by, barking dogs set off a cacophony of squawks, honks and whistles. Although the racket easily penetrates the thin walls of her mobile home, it doesn’t seem to bother Matthews. “Those are happy sounds,” she said.
In her home, Matthews watches over a chick incubator, gingerly removing two Salmon-crested cockatoos from the warm glass box on her kitchen table.
“How are my little babies?” she cooed, as tiny beaks poked through tissue paper, eager for their hourly feeding. The featherless, flopping birds could fetch as much as $1,000 apiece when fully grown, Matthews said.
But money is not her motive.
Half of her monthly Social Security check goes to pay for the care and feeding of her birds, her dogs and a guinea pig. It’s been two years since she has sold an expensive bird, an African gray parrot that went for $800. “I’m more interested in keeping them, anyway,” she said.
Her devotion to her animals becomes evident as she visits with her birds, grouped in cages of various sizes in a large, plastic-covered shanty.
“Blue?” she asked a white cockatoo, “Can you send me a kiss?”
“Cluck, cluck, cluck” said Blue, pecking her gently on the lips.
After morning rounds with the birds, Matthews, a dog handler by profession, spends her afternoons out grooming and training. No animal is too rough for the tall, British-born woman whose energy and optimism belie her years.
“I’m not afraid of anything,” she said. “You just have to be firm and loving.” That plan backfired only once, about 10 years ago when a raccoon she tried to kiss bit her on the mouth. A tiny white scar remains on her lower lip. She hasn’t kissed any of the ring-tailed varmints since.
Most animals are more appreciative of Matthews’ attentions. On her days off, she takes some of her friendliest birds to local schools and nursing homes, where they cluck, coo and kiss for their audience. “They won’t perform if they’re unhappy,” Matthews said. “You can see by the way they sing that they are happy.”
Matthews has gained recognition from many animal officials.
“A lot of times I think the animals get taken care of before she does,” said Kathy Jenks, head of Ventura County animal control. “If everyone were as responsible as June Matthews, there would be no reason for us to exist.”
She is held in equally high esteem by other animal lovers. “I know June is really devoted,” said Beverly Johnson, who runs an animal shelter in the Santa Monica Mountains. “You give up a lot for your children. It’s the same motivation.”
Matthews, whose husband, father, sister and nephew all died within a two-year period in the late 1960s, says now the animals are her family. “I help them and they help me,” she said.
Matthews came to California when her husband died and helped start a sanctuary for unwanted birds in Santa Monica. She decided she needed more space and, after four years of searching, found Box Canyon.
The rocky canyon has long attracted an eclectic assortment of residents. The house across the street from Matthews was once the hangout of a religious cult. In 1958, two cult followers set off a bomb that killed nine people on the property. Years later, the site attracted mass murderer Charles Manson, who spent a few days at a commune there.
In the early 1970s, American Indian activists living there were charged and then acquitted of murder.
In recent years, artists and executives, rich and poor have coexisted more peacefully than in the canyon’s colorful past. Mutual tolerance seems to be an essential ingredient to the success of the area.
The incessant chirps, shrieks and barks don’t bother next-door neighbor Lorraine Call. “It’s like being in a completely other world,” Call said. It’s “like living in Brazil up here with the birds and the rushing water” from recent rains.
Bob Wood, a real estate agent who sells property in the canyon, said people like Matthews are part of the canyon’s attraction.
“Most people who move to that area are not looking for a cookie cutter house with city problems,” Wood said. “They’re looking for the unusual, for animals and a rural feeling.”
Matthews appreciates the latitude. “Where else could I do what I do?” she asked. “It’s the right place for the birds.”