Owner of Stanwood parrot sanctuary dies, along with dozens of birds

STANWOOD – When Lori Rutledge started taking in unwanted parrots in 1992, she hoped to offer them a haven at her home in North Edmonds. But as her aviary grew and neighbors complained, she moved to a 40-acre lot near Stanwood.

In 1998 Rutledge founded Cockatoo Rescue and Sanctuary as a non-profit organization.

There, she reportedly cared for dozens, if not hundreds, of wild-caught cockatoos, macaws, African grays and other parrots. Bird owners seeking to return their pets have been promised a “peaceful park-like setting”. Cockatoos and parrots, which can live up to 70 years in captivity, could “live their lives with their own species”, according to the sanctuary’s Facebook page. Rutledge did not allow adoptions.

Facebook photos from 2016 show pink rhododendrons in bloom, a lush green oasis dotted with large covered enclosures.

Now the evidence suggests that all but one of the birds she housed are dead.

On March 14, authorities responded to a medical emergency at Rutledge’s shrine and home, where she lived alone.

Medical personnel transported Rutledge to a nearby hospital. They saw the decomposed remains of about 50 birds in the outdoor enclosures, said Debby Zins, animal services officer for Snohomish County.

“These are not birds that died recently,” Zins said.

Inside the house, two dogs and two birds were discovered, but Rutledge did not allow them to be removed for treatment.

Animal control obtained a search warrant and recovered the animals.

“It took a little while because she was lively and consistent initially, but she wasn’t super cooperative,” Zins said.

Only one of the birds, a cockatoo, survived.

Five days later, Rutledge died at Skagit Valley Hospital in Mount Vernon. She was 66 years old.

On the sanctuary’s Facebook page, Rutledge’s next of kin posted: “We are deeply saddened to announce that Lori (Keene) Rutledge, Director of Cockatoo Rescue and Sanctuary, passed away unexpectedly at Skagit Valley Hospital. on March 19, 2022. The birds residing at the Sanctuary also died.

“Lori has dedicated over 30 years of her life to loving and caring for these birds, she has lived every moment dedicated to them,” the statement continued. “It is a tragic loss for all.”

“So Many Birds”

Some members of the bird rescue community have speculated that there were hundreds of birds housed on the property, and if so, hundreds more dead.

If there were, they hadn’t been seen in years.

Michael Jacobs, a Lynnwood attorney representing his next of kin, said after Rutledge died, his family visited the sanctuary and discovered about 50 dead birds.

“There were no live birds,” apart from the cockatoo removed by Animal Control, Jacobs wrote in an email to the Daily Herald.

Reports of hundreds of birds in a remote part of the sanctuary are baseless, he wrote.

“There were never any birds in the ‘back lot,'” Jacobs wrote.

The family does not know exactly how many birds were housed at the sanctuary before his death.

“Lori was a private person and the family was not involved in the operation of the sanctuary. The family was shocked to learn of Lori’s death and the death of the birds,” Jacobs said. “This is a very sad time for the family and the bird community.”

Shellie Hochstetler, who runs Holidays Exotic Avian Rescue, a nonprofit shelter in White Pigeon, Michigan, visited the Stanwood Sanctuary in August to drop off 12 cockatoos. Rutledge told her she had hundreds of birds housed in the rear portion of the 40-acre property, which was not easily accessible.

But Hochstetler did not visit the premises. It was evening and she only saw the outdoor enclosures near Rutledge’s house – where the remains were found last month.

“She had so many lines of defense to protect her and them,” she said of Rutledge’s self-proclaimed attempt to keep many of her birds out of sight and away from prying eyes.

“She had so many birds…worth millions of dollars altogether,” Hochstetler said.

Cockatoos and exotic parrots regularly sell for thousands of dollars. Theft can be a problem.

Hochstetler does not believe that Rutledge deliberately neglected the animals.

“I don’t know what happened to him,” she said. “She would have called the devil himself to take care of those birds if she had known something was wrong.”

The search warrant obtained by Snohomish County Animal Control was limited in scope and did not allow us “to investigate further,” Zins said.

There were a few outbuildings on the property, she said, but no evidence or reason to suspect there were live birds inside.

There was no complaint history, Zins said.

“We are complaints-driven,” she said. “We don’t allow or inspect such places. She was operating on private property.

“Tears us apart”

Reports of animal deaths at the sanctuary have torn the area’s bird community, generating hundreds of posts, many of them saddened, others angry.

“It tears us apart,” said Bob Dawson, who operates Macaw Rescue & Sanctuary in Carnation, Washington. “They all assume we don’t have plans in place.”

Dawson, who hadn’t spoken to Rutledge in seven years, estimated she may have had as many as 400 parrots in her care over the years. He doesn’t blame Rutledge for their disappearance.

“It must have been a catastrophic event for Lori not to take care of things,” Dawson said.

For those who recently abandoned a cockatoo in Rutledge’s care and believe their bird is among the dead, the loss is crushing.

“Unfortunately my bird died of starvation and cold,” one person wrote on the sanctuary’s Facebook page.

Zins hopes to dispel rumors that hundreds of birds have perished.

“I certainly don’t want these rescue groups to think there are all these birds locked up on the property,” Zins said, “because there’s no evidence or reason to think that.”

“Next of kin have access to the property at this point and they have not reported anything further to us,” she said.

Zins said there wasn’t much left of the remains. “There are only a few feathers but they are all out.”

Betsy Lott, who runs the Mollywood Avian Sanctuary in Bellingham, last visited the Rutledge Sanctuary in 2004. She was impressed.

“She had these beautiful carport aviary frames with the greenhouses on them and neat landscaping and beautiful walkways,” Lott said. “She had these big Great Dane dogs that were like her protection from predators. She had no volunteers and no one was allowed to visit her.

Lott is heartbroken by the deaths.

“I’m devastated. I crash at least once a day,” said Lott, who placed a cockatoo with Rutledge a few years ago.

Rutledge may have had good reason to keep people away, said Dawson of Macaw Rescue.

“A lot of his birds were wild-caught birds that don’t do well when people visit him. They are traumatized. »

It is unknown what happened during the rescue of the parrot preceding Rutledge’s death.

Rutledge was devoted to her birds, some rescuers say.

In 1996, his Edmonds aviary ruffled neighbors, resulting in charges of public noise nuisance. In response, she swore never to abandon her flock.

“If I have to, I’ll go to jail for my birds,” Rutledge told the Daily Herald in 1996. The charge was later dropped.

“It’s a reminder”

The last time Rutledge posted on the rescue’s Facebook page was in February 2019. She described moving all the birds indoors due to an impending snowstorm.

“I don’t like working outside in cold weather,” Rutledge said. “Most birds that overwinter outdoors have heated, bulletproof Plexiglas greenhouses. Once I saw the forecast for snow and freezing temperatures, I brought all the birds inside. She added, “Yes, there is room.”

Snohomish County Animal Control operates in unincorporated portions of the county. Zones generally have fewer restrictions on livestock and animals than cities and towns because of their strong agricultural history, Zins said. Despite the Cockatoo Sanctuary’s Stanwood address, it is located in an unincorporated section.

Private rescues that house pets, such as cats, dogs, and birds, are mostly unregulated.

“We inspect the kennels,” Zins said. “With four or more dogs, you must have a special license.”

People usually get into rescues because they really care about animals, Zins said. But sometimes they get in over their heads or fail to provide for animal care in the event of illness or death.

“It’s a reminder for anyone to have a living will,” she said.

For pet owners who need to give up or rehoming an animal, visit or take a ride, Zins advised.

“If you’re not feeling well, then trust your senses,” she said.

We may never know how many cockatoos and parrots perished on the grounds of Stanwood, or even why.

There is not enough evidence to say whether it was a disease that caused their death or a lack of food and water, Zins said.

“There are not enough remains to investigate, and there are no suspects to charge with a crime,” Zins said. “So it’s just an unfortunate and sad event.”

Herald writer Jacqueline Allison contributed to this story.

Janice Podsada: 425 339-3097; jpodsada@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @JanicePods.

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