LOUISA — You hear them before you see them.
At this Louisa County sanctuary, more than 200 parrots, parakeets and macaws fill the woods with sounds more familiar to African and South American rainforests than to Central Virginia.
Known as Project Perry, the sanctuary is the inspiration of 1995 Spotsylvania High School graduate Matt Smith. Here, on 26 wooded acres near the town of Louisa, Smith and three colleagues care for these intelligent, social creatures.
How the sanctuary and its feathered residents got here in the first place is the story of one man’s dream and indomitable will.
“I got into bird rescue [after college],” said Smith, who is Project Perry’s founder and executive director. “I was hooked. This opened a whole new world to me. ... I’m 41 now, and I’m so glad I did what I did when I did it.”
With the help of a $200,000 donation from former TV game show host Bob Barker’s foundation, the sanctuary got off the ground in 2005 with seven parrots.
Since then, Smith has expanded the sanctuary to six aviaries, with another set for completion later this year. Spacious even by human standards, the largest one is nearly 4,000 square feet. This allows for what Smith says are the two most important living conditions for birds — flight and flock — both of which are often denied to parrots kept as pets.
Many of the birds in Smith’s care are quick to bond with humans, too, both their caretakers and visitors. One African grey parrot landed on a recent visitor’s shoulder in greeting, bending its head forward to be petted, and remained perched there for the next several minutes.
The birds reveal their personalities in other ways, too. One group of parrots is shy and standoffish — the “survivors,” Smith calls them, for the cruel treatment they endured in the animal trade. Others begin to gather in ones and twos until visitors find themselves surrounded by more than a dozen, all wanting to see who has come to visit.
It is a reminder of how social these birds are and why it is so hard for them to be locked in a cage alone all day. The isolation and loneliness cause some to rip out their feathers, according to Kirah Swanson, Project Perry’s co-director and outreach coordinator.
“African greys can have the intelligence of a 3- to 5-year-old” person, Swanson said. “You wouldn’t think of putting your children in a playpen with the same toys for 13 hours while you go to work.”
Visitors to the sanctuary learn that such treatment is not uncommon.
One survivor, an African grey named Stormy, was left in a closet with a towel over his cage while the family took a weeklong vacation. Rescued by animal control, he is alive and well more than a decade later at the sanctuary. He eyes visitors curiously as they pass.
But not every story has a happy ending. Despite its size, Project Perry turns away hundreds of birds each year, Smith said. It just does not have the space.