STANWOOD — When Lori Rutledge began taking in unwanted parrots in 1992, she hoped to offer them sanctuary at her home in north Edmonds. But as her aviary grew and neighbors complained, she moved to a 20-acre tract near Stanwood.
In 1998, Rutledge founded the Cockatoo Rescue and Sanctuary as a nonprofit.
There, she reportedly cared for dozens, if not hundreds, of pet and wild caught cockatoos, macaws, African greys and other parrots. Bird owners seeking to surrender their pets were promised a “peaceful park-like setting.” Cockatoos and parrots, which can live up to 70 years in captivity, could “live out their lives with their own kind,” 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, evidence suggests that all of the birds she sheltered, save one, have died.
On March 14, authorities responded to a medical emergency at Rutledge’s sanctuary and home, where she lived alone.
Medical staff transported Rutledge to a nearby hospital. They saw the decomposed remains of some 50 birds in the outdoor enclosures, said Debby Zins, Snohomish County Animal Services manager.
“These were not birds that passed away recently,” Zins said.
Inside the house, two dogs and two birds were discovered, but Rutledge wouldn’t allow them to be removed for care.
Animal control obtained a search warrant and retrieved the animals.
“It took a little bit of time because she was alive and coherent 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.
On the sanctuary’s Facebook page, Rutledge’s next of kin posted: “We are deeply saddened to report that Lori (Keene) Rutledge, director of the Cockatoo Rescue and Sanctuary, passed away unexpectedly at Skagit Valley Hospital on March 19, 2022. The birds residing at the Sanctuary have also passed away.”
“Lori dedicated over 30 years of her life to loving and caring for these birds, she lived every moment devoted to them,” the statement continued. “This is a tragic loss for all.”
‘So many birds’
Some members of the avian rescue community speculated there were hundreds of birds housed on the property, and if so, hundreds more dead.
If there were, they hadn’t been seen for years.
Michael Jacobs, a Lynnwood attorney representing her next of kin, said after Rutledge died, her family went to the sanctuary and discovered about 50 dead birds.
“There were no live birds,” other than 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 unfounded, 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 she died.
“Lori was a private person, and the family was not involved in operating the sanctuary. The family was shocked to learn of Lori’s death and the deaths of the birds,” Jacobs said. “It is a very sad time for the family and the bird community.”
Shellie Hochstetler, who runs Hollidays Exotic Avian Rescue, a nonprofit refuge 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 back part of the 40-acre property, which was not readily accessible.
But Hochstetler did not tour the grounds. It was the evening and she only saw the outdoor enclosures near Rutledge’s home — where the remains were found last month.
“She had so many lines of defense to protect them and her,” she said of Rutledge’s self-described attempt to keep many of her birds out of sight and away from prying eyes.
“She had so many birds … worth millions of dollars total,” Hochstetler said.
Cockatoos and exotic parrots regularly sell for thousands of dollars. Theft can be a problem.
Hochstetler does not believe Rutledge willfully neglected the animals.
“I don’t know what happened to her,” she said. “She would have called the devil himself to take care of those birds if she knew something was wrong.”
The search warrant obtained by Snohomish County Animal Control was limited in scope and didn’t allow “us to do any further investigation,” Zins said.
There were some 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 complaint-driven,” she said. “We don’t license or inspect these kinds of places. She was operating in a private property home.”
‘Tearing us apart’
Reports of the animal deaths at the sanctuary have ripped through the region’s avian community, generating hundreds of posts, many grief-stricken, others angry.
“It’s tearing us apart,” said Bob Dawson, who operates Macaw Rescue & Sanctuary in Carnation, Washington. “They’re all assuming we don’t have plans in place.”
Dawson, who hadn’t spoken to Rutledge in several years, estimated she may have had up to 400 parrots in her care over the years. He doesn’t blame Rutledge for their demise.
“It had to have been a catastrophic event for Lori not to take care of stuff,” Dawson said.
For those who recently relinquished a cockatoo to Rutledge’s care and believe their bird is among the dead, the loss is overwhelming.
“Sadly, my bird was one that died by starvation and cold,” a person wrote on the sanctuary’s Facebook page.
Zins hopes to dispel rumors that hundreds of birds perished.
“I certainly don’t want these rescue groups to think that there’s all these birds locked up on the property,” Zins said, “because there’s no evidence or reason to think that.”
“The next of kin have access to the property at this point and they have not reported anything additional to us,” she said.
Zins said there’s not much left of the remains. “There’s just some feathers but they’re all outside.”
Betsy Lott, who runs Mollywood Avian Sanctuary in Bellingham, last visited Rutledge’s sanctuary in 2004. She was impressed.
“She had those beautiful carport aviary frames with the greenhouses on them and a manicured landscape and gorgeous pathways,” Lott said. “She had these big Great Dane dogs that were like her predator protection. She had no volunteers and nobody was allowed to visit.”
Lott is heartsick over the deaths.
“I am devastated by it. I fall apart at least once a day,” Lott said.
Rutledge may have had good reasons for keeping people at bay, said Dawson, of Macaw Rescue.
“A lot of her birds were wild-caught birds that do not do well when people visit. They get traumatized.”
It’s unclear what transpired at the parrot rescue preceding Rutledge’s death.
Rutledge was devoted to her birds, some rescuers say.
In 1996, her Edmonds aviary ruffled neighbors, leading to public noise disturbance charges. In response, she vowed never to relinquish 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 February 2019. She described moving all the birds indoors due to an impending snow storm.
“I don’t like working outside in colder weather,” Rutledge said. “Most of the birds that winter outdoors have bullet-proof plexiglass, heated greenhouses. Once I saw the forecast of snow and frigid temps, I brought all of the birds indoors.” She added: “Yes there is room.”
Snohomish County Animal Control operates in unincorporated portions of the county. The areas generally have fewer livestock and animal restrictions than cities and towns because of their robust agricultural history, Zins said. In spite of the cockatoo sanctuary’s Stanwood address, it’s located in an unincorporated section.
Private rescues harboring domesticated animals, such as cats, dogs and birds are unregulated, for the most part.
“We do inspect dog kennels,” Zins said. “With four or more dogs you have to have a special license.”
People generally get into rescue operations because they genuinely care about animals, Zins said. But sometimes they get in over their heads or don’t plan for the animals’ 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 must surrender or re-home an animal, visit the place or take a tour, Zins advised.
“If you don’t feel good about it, then trust your senses,” she said.
It may never be known how many cockatoos and parrots perished at the Stanwood compound, or even why.
There’s not enough evidence to to tell whether it was an illness that caused their deaths, or a lack of food and water, Zins said.
“There’s not enough remnants to investigate, and there’s no suspect to charge with a crime,” Zins said. “So, it’s just an unfortunate, sad event.”
Herald writer Jacqueline Allison contributed to this story.