ABA Journal



Parrot’s Chilling Comments Aid Police in Elder Abuse Case

Dec 8, 2010, 07:12 pm CST


"Awwk. . . It's the plumber. He's come to fix the sink."

Good luck with the foundation on that one.

By B. McLeod on 2010 12 08, 11:55 pm CST

Here is where the rules of evidence should be bent a little. Just bring the parrot into the courtroom and let it perch. If it speaks during the trial, fine. If it does not speak, fine.
If there is video of the parrot speaking, fine.

Just remember that the rules of evidence were intended to facilitate the truth-finding of the jury and to help weed out irrelevant and unreliable information.

By Paul the Magyar on 2010 12 09, 2:29 am CST

If the parrot is an African Grey, then I am more likely to believe the parrot knows something related to the care or lack of care of the elderly mother. Having owned numerous grey's I know they tend to repeat anything and everything they hear and can match the tone and pitch of the item they are mimmicking. Anyone familiar with the family would know who the parrot was copying when it speaks.

By General MiSfIt on 2010 12 09, 4:01 am CST

Horrible case if it is true, quite disturbing. But how can the prosecutors prove that the parrot was not previously owned or learned those phrases from hearing it repeatedly on the tv? We had a macaw for awhile and it sure picked up a lot of stuff from us but he definitely came to us with sayings memorized from previous owners.

By smoney on 2010 12 09, 5:46 am CST

Below is a posting from the EvidenceProf Blog that ties into this. ( a link to the actual posting is at the bottom)

Hear Spot Bark: Washington Court of Appeals Rejects Argument that Dog Barking Constitutes Hearsay

Yesterday, in State of Washington v. Russell, the Washington Court of Appeals rejected Roy W. Russell's appeal of his conviction resulting from the slaying of 14 year-old Chelsea Harrison. The teenage victim was found dead in Russell's basement after a teen drinking party hosted by the then 45 year-old Russell. Russell was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole pursuant to Washington's "three strikes" law for repeat felons.

One of Russell's arguments on appeal was that the trial judge improperly allowed his neighbor, Christine Bisson, to testify that her dog barked every time she saw Russell. Russell claimed that the admission of this testimony violated his rights under the Confrontation Clause because the dog was the supposed [sic] witness and not [Bisson]."

The court of appeals, however, noted that Washington Rule of Evidence 801, which states that a declarant is "a person who makes a statement," ruled out the possibility that the hearsay rule might apply to sounds that animals make. The court thus concluded that Bisson could testify that her dog was barking without violating the hearsay rule because Bisson was the declarant and not her dog.

The court of appeals was correct in making this decision as is made clear from my favorite case involving alleged animal hearsay, People v. Centolella, 305 N.Y.S.2d 279 (N.Y.Co.Ct. 1969). In Centolella, the prosecution sought to have a state trooper testify that two bloodhounds trailed the defendant to prove his guilt. See id. at 280.

The defendant argued that this proposed testimony constituted hearsay, but the court countered that "[s]uch evidence falls into the category of opinion evidence rather than hearsay. The animals are not witnesses against a defendant any more than a microscope or a spectograph. They are not subject to cross-examination any more than the animal. It is the handler who is the witness and he is merely asked to testify to what the animal actually did, not his opinion as to guilt or innocence of a person. A person is no more placed in jeopardy by the action of an animal than he is by a breath analyzer or a blood test." Id. at 282.

By Ohio73 on 2010 12 09, 3:16 pm CST

Other evidence will likely be found to prove or disprove this case without having to rely on whom or what the parrot was imitating, but it makes an interesting story. Whether it’s deemed admissible evidence or not, elder abuse is shocking and all too common. My elderly mother knows two friends who recently died in large part due to adult children who were supposed to be helping them, but neglected and abused them until their accidents and/or health problems killed them. It is no wonder that those who prey on the elderly with investment scams, etc, use the fact that it’s the family who often abuses seniors, as ammunition to gain the senior’s trust and get them to shut out their relatives.

By CS on 2010 12 09, 5:25 pm CST

I forgot to add that my elderly mother and members of her friend's church all tried to report the abuse and were told by law enforcement that nothing could be done unless the abused seniors themselves ask for help. Since neither did until it was far too late, nothing was done. A few months later both her abused friends were dead, and the adult children have not suffered any consequences.

By CS on 2010 12 09, 5:28 pm CST long as they didn't have a TV or radio in the house.

By Dr Phun on 2010 12 09, 7:54 pm CST

"Now, Polly, just how many crackers did the prosecution offer you in exchange for your testimony today?"

By JN on 2010 12 09, 8:56 pm CST

That bird is a notorious liar and has been caged because of perjury; there's not a jury in the country that would believe him.

By Chuck Lyons on 2010 12 10, 11:18 am CST

@ No. 7
It may be possible that actual law enforcement officers could not do anything unless the elderly themselves complain, however there are agencies of government that could investigate. In Puerto Rico we have "El Procurador del Envejeciente" (Advocate for the Elderly) who can investigate these claims. Mor often than not, the average police officer may not have this information unless he/she belongs to a special unit.
I strongly urge anyone who thinks that an elder is being abused to contact medical specialists, especially gerontologists as they may have the contact information of who may have the power to investigate. Laws vary from state to state so verify within your own community.

By Guilin Expat on 2010 12 10, 11:20 am CST

#5 Ohio73 - thanks for that comment - interesting -

By coral gables on 2010 12 10, 2:34 pm CST

@ No. 3 "If the parrot is an African Grey, then I am more likely to believe the parrot knows something"


By Anon on 2010 12 10, 3:24 pm CST

Reminds me of a Gary Larson cartoon:
Prosecutor to the Parrot: Didn't you say "blah blah blah?"
Parrot: Of course I said "blah blah blah?" First, he said "blah blah blah?" Then, I said "blah blah blah?" I'm a parrot, that's what I do.
Also reminds me of a Florida case in which a judge refused to allow the deposition of an African Grey parrot regarding who owned the parrot, but did allow statements of the parrot into evidence as proof of ownership. Parrot couldn't understand the oath, so he was incompetent as a witness, said the judge.

By DC on 2010 12 10, 7:14 pm CST

Agency law has long recognized the principle of a parrot authority.

By R on 2010 12 10, 7:15 pm CST

No, a parrot is not a "person" who can make a statement subject to hearsay exclusion. But additionally, could a parrot's utterance be deemed a "recording" in a sense, and thus an admission, of a party?

By DH, Oregon on 2010 12 10, 8:45 pm CST

Wouldn't it be embarassing if, on the stand, the parrot said "Chief, do you have the DA's payoff money?"

By ipthereforeiam on 2010 12 11, 3:02 am CST

I have a parrot and I have observed that not only do they know what is going on, they are extremely sensitive and intuitive. My parrot can pick up my thoughts and starts squawking like crazy if he senses I am upset or stressed. I don't have to say a word - he knows everything I am thinking and feeling. I know it sounds creepy but they know. And not only that, they say the appropriate thing at the appropriate time - so they are not just "parroting - if they know what to say, they have no problem expressing it." If a parrot is witness to something over and over again that is upsetting, he will respond. My parrot must have been mistreated by his previous owners because when he starts squawking so that I can't stand it anymore, and I have to cover him up, as soon as he sees the cover he starts saying, "Sorry, sorry, sorry." And, if someone comes in the house that he doesn't like - he squawks, they pick up on the negative vibes, just like kids do. And they learn to associate certain actions with certain words. Every time I walk down the hallway with my handbag and I'm getting to leave, my parrot knows and starts saying, "Oh my God, oh my God, - but I don't know if he thinks I am rushing and I am late and that is what I am thinking or if he is getting separation anxiety. But he imitates the zipper on my handbag and tote as I am putting things together and he immitates it too - ziiiiiiip, ziiiiiiiiiip, ziiiiiiiiip, oh my God, oh my God. So if a parrot saw a person repeatedly being abused and there was dialogue going back and forth, he would definitely respond to the negative vibes. Yes ineed. I arrived at this decision one day when i ran out into the hallway to the linen closet for a towel stark naked and he yelled out "Oh-Oh!" Now I don't know if it was just because I was butt naked or becuase I looked so awful but he knew something was wroing. Go figure. And he is a mini macaw, not an African grey.

By Angie on 2010 12 11, 10:48 am CST

@13: Um... do you know ANYTHING about African Greys or parrots in general? Get a clue before posting why don't you?

By R on 2010 12 11, 10:40 pm CST

I would be afraid that if they let the parrot speak in court, it might start squawking out the theme song to the Hardy Boys TV series "The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure."

By B. McLeod on 2010 12 12, 2:24 am CST

I am the owner of a six year old female African Grey Parrot and I can tell you that they understand everything going on around them. They understand what you say to them and respond back to you with body language and spoken words. When I get my coat or purse or a suitcase out, my AGP looks at me and says, "go bye-bye"? Then she makes a sorrowful sound. When I am upset she knows and says "all right". At bedtime when I cover her room (cage), she looks and me and says, "I love you, see you in the morning"! If I'm having a conversation with my husband or someone else my bird will ask questions if she doesn't understand something or didn't hear what I said. She'll say "what" ? and I respond to her just like I would anyone, in a kind and respectful tone. AGP's are very intuitive, intelligent and affectionate birds and are the smartest Parrots in the world. Birds as a whole are very smart and most people don't know this. These birds are smarter than a lot of people I have met. Dr. Irene Pepperberg of Brandeis University has spent years doing research on AGP language and cognitive capabilities. She is an authority on the African Grey Parrot. Anyone who owns, has owned or has been around these wonderful birds know and will tell you just how smart they are. I would think twice, maybe even three times before you discount the accuracy of the birds utterances or spoken words. I just bet that this Parrot is telling the truth. Also, they talk in the voices of the people they are around. Usually my bird talks in my voice, but also talks in my husbands voice etc. This is another important clue. Who's voice is the bird using when crying out for help and who's voice when laughing. If it is the voice of the elderly mother crying out and the voice of the child caregiver laughing, then the case is cut and dry in my opinion. Some of you can laugh and joke all you want, but by doing so you are showing just how ignorant you really are.

By CB on 2010 12 12, 5:01 pm CST

I used to volunteer at an aviary for several years, where macaws and African Greys were raised. I can attest that these two birds in particular have the intelligence of an approximately 7 year old child, but unfortunately the emotional maturity of about a 3 year old. Greys, in particular, are highly intelligent and sensitive; they can count, communicate, recognize shapes, materials and food. They can ask for various food items; to go to sleep; to play with various objects. Google Dr. Irene Pepperberg for more information, along with Alex, her Grey.

By Enrica on 2010 12 12, 6:49 pm CST

Hey, CB, you should realize not everybody shares your weird hobbies. Just because most people in the world aren't experts in African Grey Parrot trivia, that doesn't make them "ignorant." It perhaps more tends to reflect they possess a higher degree of social normalcy, and do not have to rely on a pet bird's opinion for their social validation.

By B. McLeod on 2010 12 12, 9:27 pm CST

Polly want an indictment?

By Adamius on 2010 12 13, 6:39 pm CST

@ Enrica: you are mostly describing intellectual capacities of many 1 1/2 year olds that have just learned how to speak.

By Trewlibert on 2010 12 13, 11:06 pm CST

You can always report abuse of the elderly to adult protective service at your local Social Service Department. Don't let abuse go unreported.

By Margo on 2010 12 15, 4:31 am CST

If there is a question as to the bird’s cognitive ability as suggested @22 and @25, perhaps Dr. Irene Pepperberg, referenced for her expertise in the cognitive capabilities of parrots @21 will be called as an expert to testify that the bird has the brain capacity of a 5 year old. The headline will read: “Bird-brain expert clinches conviction.”

By Just the facts, Ma'am on 2010 12 15, 9:17 am CST

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