Flock Party

Article in Stanford Magazine Michele Raffin strides into her aviary complex, calling out hellos in lilting rhythms. A cacophony of cackles, screams, screeches, whoops and coos greets her in response. Mama's in the house.

Raffin, MS '87, a former venture capital consultant, has turned her private plot of land minutes from the Stanford campus into an asylum for exotic birds that are homeless, sick or unwanted. Since rescuing her first dove on a roadway 13 years ago, she has learned how to talk to the animals and read their thoughts, emotions and needs like a female Dr. Dolittle. Every morning, she even gets them dancing to the beat of rock 'n' roll.

Pandemonium Aviaries is a sprawling, joyful affair of 54 enclosures housing several hundred birds representing 42 species. Flitting, strutting and swinging about are East African crowned cranes, Indian ringneck parakeets, golden Chinese pheasants. Some are missing a leg, some are too ornery to make good pets, some have outlived their owners. Resplendent in iridescent greens, blues, reds, yellows and blacks, some are on the endangered list.

With an estimated 20 percent of bird species worldwide likely to become extinct in the next 50 years—a conservative figure, Raffin says—Raffin's work to save exotic species and breed other rare birds is important. "I feel guilty that I'm not doing enough," she says. "I turn down four to five requests a week to take in new animals."

Having mastered the vocalizations needed to communicate with her winged companions, Raffin finds that some of the birds are conversant in English. A querulous yellow-naped Amazon named Shana, for instance, offers a flirtatious "Pretty mama!" to unsuspecting female guests. "When she came here she was in mourning for six months, crying out, 'Come get me, Betty, Harry,' the names of her former owners," Raffin says. Then there's the rock pebbler, Abraham, who comforts frightened comrades with a cooing "It's OK! It's OK!"

'I want to do big things. I have the land. I have the vision. I have the plan.' —Michele Raffin

Raffin, who holds a master's in management science, built her first aviary in 1997 after her encounter with the wounded dove on the roadway. Responding to a serendipitous ad that sought a home for six doves but not knowing how to properly care for them, she sought the advice of Joe Passantino, an exotics breeder. He sent her home with instructions—and a passel of his own castoffs. Raffin's husband, Tom, '68, MD '73, now a professor emeritus at the Medical School, supported her burgeoning interest, which eventually filled their property not only with a maze of aviaries, but also colorful sculptures, mosaics and other artwork. The four Raffin children, including Stanford undergraduates Ross, a senior, and Lizzy, '12, have tolerated their mother's avocation with good humor. "Their sibling rivalry was with the birds," Raffin admits.

Raffin recently transformed her sanctuary into a nonprofit, so she can now solicit funding, volunteers and perhaps staff. This has allowed Pandemonium to expand its long-term foster care service for birds whose human owners are battling life-threatening illnesses or financial crises. "We simply could not afford to meet the demand for help without reaching out and asking others to join us," Raffin explains.

Already busy spreading knowledge about birds through her writings and educational tours, the sanctuary owner will soon teach local schoolchildren observational skills by using birds as a model. "Once kids notice things, the whole natural world opens to them," she says. She also plans to expand her endangered-bird breeding program and save birds in the wild.

"I envision us as being the kernel of a group of individuals who want to reverse the decline of birds," Raffin says. "I want to do big things. I have the land. I have the vision. I have the plan. What I need is people and money and a concerted effort to tackle a large, incredibly difficult, but solvable problem."

Reflecting on life with her feathered friends over the past 13 years, Raffin says, "I feel beholden to the birds, but I would not trade what I've done for anything. They've been wonderful companions and teachers."

By Marguerite Rigoglioso