The Loxahatchee Horror – Could It Happen to Your Aviary?

© Howard Voren. Click here to use this content.

If everyone in your household should suddenly disappear, would anyone notice? If they did notice, would they have the initiative or the authority to break into your house to rescue your birds from starvation? In the case of Moses Lall, the well-known bird importer, the answer was no–at least not in time to save the lives of most of the approximately 1,000 birds whose cages lined the open field behind his rented house. On June 15, l994, after the continued urging of several concerned parties, local authorities entered the property. The gruesome sight that they beheld was something that should appear only in ones’ worst nightmare.

What Happened

Moses Lall and his aunt, Lila Buerattan, both natives of Guyana, South America, had lived on a rented 5-acre ranch in Loxahatchee, Florida, since December of 1992. They had moved to the rural community with the idea of starting a large bird-breeding farm. They spoke with no one in the local avicultural community, nor did they interact with anyone at any of the surrounding ranches. They lived extremely private lives, and no one, except their veterinarian, was ever permitted to see their birds. In fact, they even refused to purchase a license that would have allowed them to legally breed and sell birds within the state of Florida. When approached by Florida Fish and Game officers the previous year and urged to purchase a permit and undergo the minimal inspection procedures, they declined. They claimed that the birds were not for sale or breeding, and were being maintained for their personal pleasure. Most of us locals who knew of them never saw them, and were aware of their existence only because we all used the same feed company. In fact, it was the feed company that began sounding the alarm that something was wrong.

On June 9th, the driver for Bird Haven Feed Company arrived to deliver the weekly supply of primate biscuits, sunflower seeds and dried corn to Lall’s farm. No one was there to let him in. Finding no one at the gate to receive the feed was highly unusual. Realizing that they never purchased reserve supplies, and not wanting the birds to go hungry, he piled the feed up in front of the gates. They tried to reach Lall by phone to make sure all was well, but no one answered. Feeling uncomfortable about the situation, they returned the next day. The feed was still piled up outside the gate and had been ruined by the rain. At this point, they called several local aviculturists, as well as Lall’s veterinarian. The questions put to all of them were the same: Do you know where Moses and Lila are? Do you now them well enough to jump the fence, walk through the pack of dogs and go around to the rear of the property to see if someone has been feeding the birds? They all gave the same negative answer.

Between the 11th and the 15th of June, several concerned parties, including the seed company and the veterinarian, began calling the authorities and demanding that action be taken. As birds were starving to death, the concerned parties were sent in a circular motion from one agency to the next. The Palm Beach County Sheriffs’ Department, upon hearing the story, said that animal abuse was the jurisdiction of the Palm Beach County Animal Control. When Animal Control heard the words macaws and parrots, they explained that jurisdiction over exotic birds had been taken way from them and given to Florida Fish and Game. Florida Fish and Game explained that since the facility was not permitted by them, they had no right to enter. They added that if, in fact, birds were starving, a misdemeanor had been committed and that was the jurisdiction of the Sheriffs’ Department.

On June 15th, the feed company contacted Bob and Liz Johnson, who rescue abused, mistreated and crippled birds through a branch of their nonprofit organization, Life Awareness Inc. At that point, Liz contacted me and Dr. Susan Clubb to get a full update on what avenues had been pursued. Upon discovering that pleas for action had been thwarted by “red tape,” she called the Sheriffs’ Office and made demands. After “much insistence,” they reluctantly agreed to send out someone to investigate. The deputy immediately called the Johnsons and reported that our worst fears had been realized. The Johnsons, Dr. Clubb, I and my daughter Stacie raced to the scene to offer assistance in the feeding and care of the birds. By that time, all three of the previously contacted agencies were present.

We were totally unprepared for the sight that we encountered. It was a horror beyond belief: row after row of cages with either dead or dying green-winged and blue-and-gold macaws. Literally every pair of macaws had at least one dead member. Several had succumbed to starvation and dehydration, with their heads in their empty food bowls–a final desperate move with the hope that food would arrive before their last breath was drawn. Although the collection was made up predominately of large macaws, there were also hundreds of smaller parrots and toucans. These included Amazons, hawk heads, African greys, Jardine’s, Pionus and mini macaws. Most of these had succumbed. There were several cages with 25 to 30 birds in them that had either one or no survivors. It was a miracle that any of the birds were alive.

The feed company had told us what the farm’s approximate weekly consumption was. By taking inventory of the feed that was left in the garage, we were able to determine that the birds had not been fed in at least 10 days.

Inside the house awaited another horror. Incubators, still operating, contained dead babies that had hatched but were never fed. Aquarium brooders that were lined up against the wall all had one or two dead baby blue-and-gold macaws. All had starved to death, sitting on clean bedding, while waiting for their next meal. An open bucket of handfeeding formula was on the kitchen counter with a bowl and spoon next to it. It appeared as if someone had changed the bedding in the brooders and was ready to mix up some formula when he or she was interrupted. With our assistance, Dr. Clubb was able to tube-feed those that were too weak to eat or drink. One died in Bob Johnson’s hands while it was waiting to be tube fed. Another 60 birds that were too far gone died the following day. In all, there were only 335 birds left alive from the flock of almost 1,000. The following morning, the birds were taken to the Palm Beach Animal Control facility. Food donations, as well as volunteer labor from all the local bird clubs and organizations, began pouring in. When Lall’s family from Guyana tried to claim the birds as family property, they were presented with a bill for $130,000. The majority of this bill was Animal Control’s standard charge of $10 per animal per day for the care of confiscated animals. Ten dollars per day multiplied by 335 birds adds up very quickly. As the Lalls fought to regain the birds at a more reasonable price, the bill rose to approximately $180,000. On August 22, a judge ordered that the birds be auctioned off individually to the general public in order to raise the most money. Exactly what happened to Moses and Lila is still officially a mystery. Those who knew them said that they truly loved their birds and would never have deserted them. Moses and Lila are now considered dead. The murder investigation cannot proceed any further until their bodies are found. There were also two other people staying at the farm that were originally considered missing. They were Daljeet “Harry” Gobin, a fellow Guyanese, and Felix Eyuom, a reptile dealer from Africa. Harry Gobin is being sought for questioning.

The purpose of this article is not to try to solve an unsolved crime. It is to make everyone aware that such things can and do happen. Although this situation may be unique due to its magnitude, it is not unheard of on a smaller scale. It is not uncommon to read about animals dying from lack of care due to the undiscovered death or incapacitation of those responsible for their care.

What You Can Do

To prevent such a calamity from happening again, each and every one of you should have a plan. This plan should ensure that, should anything happen to you, it will be discovered without delay and your animals will be cared for. This can be as simple as a regularly expected phone call to a friend, a relative or someone’s answering machine. A simple statement like “I’m okay” is all that is necessary. The receiver of the regular call must be ready to notify someone who has been given written authority by you to break into your house and aviaries to care for your birds if you cannot be located. It must also be specifically stated, in a notarized document, who will hold and care for your birds until your whereabouts are discovered, or until your estate is settled. Your birds must never be allowed to be considered legally abandoned.

Lall’s birds were considered abandoned. They suffered the ultimate fate of being sold to the highest bidder without regard to the bidder’s expertise. Two thousand people converged at the auction on September 10th. Most were there to buy a cheap bird for their kids. Most bought bronco wild breeder macaws with the intention of turning them into pets.

Luckily, due to some generous monetary donations, the Johnsons were able to purchase the birds that were blind or crippled. These were purchased to be retired to the parrot sanctuary that they maintain.

All the birds were sold in small temporary holding cages with no doors and with two tiny metal cups. The idea behind no doors was to keep the public from opening the cages at the auction site after the purchase. It was explained to the buyers that the birds should be transferred to suitable housing after they were removed. Unfortunately, two weeks later buyers were still showing up at local vets with their purchases still in the temporary cages with no doors and nothing but the two tiny cups for food and water. As time went on, a large percentage of the birds were diagnosed with papilloma infections.

All proceeds from the publication of this article will go to support the parrot sanctuary run by the Johnsons. Private donations are also appreciated. Their address is Life Awareness Bird Sanctuary, P.O. Box 641032, Miami, FL 33164.