Rio, the top box office draw over the last two weekends, is a story of liberation. The main character, Blue, is a large blue macaw and the last male of his kind. He was taken forcibly from the wild as a chick and raised in the U.S. by a caring human; however, he never learned to fly. Now 15 years old, he volunteers to go back to Brazil to meet up with the last female of their species, Jewel, who trapped from the wild and now residing in a large flight, is desperate to escape.
Blue and Jewel in Rio
These aren’t the only two characters who are trapped. The woman who came of age with Blue, lives a happy, though apparently solitary and staid life. She meets up with the Brazilian conservationist, who is caught up in his own narrowly focused and urgent need to save a species. The foils of the story, the “boss” of an illegal animal trade business and his two henchmen, unable to rise above their favela (slum) origins, are caught in a web of desperate business adventures that often turn to violence. A temporary member of their gang is an orphaned street boy, who out of necessity aids the trappers, and then regrets his actions.
The movie shows how birds and humans are not living the good life, except for the wild birds in the opening and closing musical number who joyfully dance and sing “Rio” in a jungle scene reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. Their paradise is shattered when humans enter their realm and catch them, including Blue as a chick. We see the contrast of a beautiful nature without humans, and a devastated earth with humans. Reminding us of the movie Avatar, this movie screams “pop culture” in that it raises the question increasingly before us, “How are we humans to escape a future where we are so caught in our consumerist ways that we threaten all lives around us?” I don’t mind trendy movies at all, and in fact adore them when they help us understand who we are, especially in terms of parrot conservation.
I especially find Rio poignant because human ownership of parrots has tenaciously been before me in the last two weeks. The weekend the movie came out, I was amongst many captive birds. I was invited to be the guest presenter at The Avicultural Society of Chicago during a fund raising dinner for my conservation work (thank you!). After all day staffing a booth on behalf of One Earth Conservation and Lafeber Conservation and Wildlife while it snowed (yes in mid-April), we gathered in th evening to learn about the people and parrots of Latin America, and what we might together do to preserve the splendor of the earth. Though I never brought up the inherent tension between birds in homes and birds in their native habitats, many people did. It was on their minds, for they spoke of how much they wanted their birds to fly free, and the inappropriateness of caging their beloveds. I suppose they also wished that for themselves, for like the humans in the movie Rio, they too are trapped, each in their own way. They wanted to know what I thought of the movie, and I believe also, what I thought of their lives.
Kaieteur Falls, Guyana
Their lives are in sharp contrast with where I had just come from, a land of wild jungles, indigenous peoples, and free flying parrots – Guyana. For the last 12 days I had been traveling in Guyana with Foster Parrots, a bird sanctuary as well as a leader in Guyana conservation. While in Guyana we saw amazing jungle scenes, replete with startlingly and awe inspiring free flying parrots. They might not have been singing to a calypso beat as did the cartoon birds in Rio, but observing them inspired awe and a sense of liberating joy, much like the opening and ending scenes in the movie.
Red and Green Macaws Flying in Front of Falls
What haunts us though is whether the real life trappers and resource extractors of the Guyana forests will win out. It has already in fact happened at least with one macaw species much like the movie depicts. The Spix Macaw, also all blue in color, used to fly over the northeastern landscapes of Brazil. Their numbers declined due to trapping until there was only one lone male left in the wild. A female bird was found in captivity that had originally been caught from the wild, and she was relocated to the jungle, and then released in the area of the lone male. Unfortunately the female disappeared before a successful union took place, and the male died in 2000. Now there are no birds in the wild, only captive birds who are hopefully the beginning of a new flock, and not the end of a species.
Last Known Nest Site of the Spix Macaw
This movie shows how we might bring about a different ending than what happened to the Spix Macaw. Though the birds are repeatedly caged, chained, and grounded, Blue eventually learns to fly, and in so doing, frees his new love who has an injured wing. Blue discovers the thrill and passion of flying and he elects to stay free. With his new mate, they return to the wild and live happily ever after. So too do Blue’s woman companion, the conservationist, and the orphan boy who become a family. The trappers end up defeated and their evil days come to an end.
Let be me so pedestrian as to suggest some underlying themes that jump out at me in this movie:
1. Many of us do not know we are trapped, or that life could be more wonderful and liberating.
2. If we don’t know we are trapped, we cannot free ourselves, or others. If we are trapping others, we ourselves are trapped.
3. We are interrelated in our imprisonment – the tragedies wrought by humans damages humans who end up orphaned and in slums, or birds who never know of flight. If any one of us is imprisoned, so are all of us.
4. We are interrelated in our liberation – in freeing others, we become free. To free everyone, we must work together and be in solidarity with the plight of both the trapped and trapper.
5. There are no clear demarcations between the trapped and the untrapped. Some free flying birds suffer greatly, while some others in cages lead what looks to be good lives and seem to flourish. Ultimately, only the individual his or herself can know what is missing, or where the wounds are. Even though we may never know the “other” or even ourselves with much clarity, we can always offer freedom to ourselves and others by cultivating choices.
6. We are trapped by our evolution and culture, yes, and we are freed by our choices in how we wish to live, grow, and give to others.
Am I saying that the story of our 21st century can end like the movie Rio with happy, joyful humans and birds frolicking together in a beautiful forest? In so many ways we already do, at least that’s what it feels like sometimes during my parrot conservation work in Latin America. However, I am ever so cognizant of the dual reality of how much we are losing, and how fast; birds and humans are frantically trying to survive. Even if we somehow make it eventually in some century, we won’t ever vanquish the reality that the jungle is a harsh place, with our without humans. There will always be sadness, loss, harm, pain, and yes, the cruelty of our ways, and evolution’s.
I accept this reality, and so reject the surrealism of Rio which suggests that we can totally excise suffering from our world. However, knowing this, I believe we come begin to accept what we as a species have wrought, and open ourselves to all of who we are, the good, the bad, and the ugly. In this embrace of a world both wondrous and terrifying, we can intentionally find the ways to guard our failings without trapping beauty, unlock our potential, and set ourselves free, and all beings with us.
How will you gain your freedom, and offer it to others?