From tragedy comes an unexpected legacy

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    Electra Churchill with her cherry-headed conure, Leonard.
    Fred Phillips and Electra Churchill

    Photos courtesy Fred Phillips

    By Kimberly Knab
    Special to The SUN

     Electra Churchill was an animal lover through and through. Every day she woke up, gave her partner of 24 years, Fred Phillips, a kind smile and a kiss good morning and then quickly turned her attention to loving on her dachshund, Lowla, and her pet bird, a cherry-headed conure named Leonard.

    Lowla and Leonard hardly ever left Electra’s side when she was at home or, in Leonard’s case, never left her shoulder. In the mornings, Electra would shower, put on her makeup, fix her hair and then get down on all fours and swish her hair back and forth and exclaim “car wash!” while Leonard would dangle from Electra’s shirt sleeve and Lowla would excitedly run back and forth through her dangling and swaying hair. Even after playing “car wash” with Lowla and Leonard and totally messing up her recently styled hair, Electra was absolutely beautiful. 

    Electra wasn’t just beautiful on the outside. She was the type of person who could light up a room, always smiling and bringing joy to those around her. She was an exceptionally kind, compassionate and generous woman who was a committed and engaged member of our Pagosa Springs community, regularly supporting our local businesses and charities alongside her partner, Fred.

    One year ago, on Oct. 11, 2019, tragedy struck the Pagosa Springs home of Fred and Electra. A gas explosion destroyed their guest home and part of their primary home, tragically killing Electra at the far-too-young age of 45 and severely injuring Fred. Fred spent several months at Swedish Hospital in Denver recovering from significant burns to his body and undergoing multiple reconstructive surgeries. 

    Electra’s two beloved companion pets also suffered from the blast. Lowla the dog was by Electra’s side that fateful evening and sadly lost her life as well, while Leonard the bird miraculously survived. 

    In the scene of destruction and devastation, the Pagosa Springs Fire Department found Leonard and immediately called the Humane Society of Pagosa Springs to see if they could help care for the bird. But even though they are experts at caring for cats and dogs, they don’t have the expertise to care for a bird like Leonard. Fortunately, they knew exactly who to contact whenever a parrot was in need of a home or a safe place to go. 

    Kimberly Knab-Reyes and her husband, Robson Reyes, share their home in Pagosa Springs with more than 35 parrots, all of which have come to them as rescues from various circumstances. 

    “Our bird rescue efforts started more than seven years ago when we lived in California,” Kimberly said. “As is often the case, it all started with just one bird, a beautiful and friendly little cockatiel who I spotted outside my office window in Santa Monica …

    “For the first hour or two, I didn’t think anything of the chirping. ‘Just another bird,’ I thought. But the chirping didn’t stop. So I finally decided to look outside and I noticed a colorful bird perched on a balcony of a hotel across the street. He definitely did not look or sound like a wild bird, so I went running over to the hotel to notify the front desk staff that someone’s pet bird must have gotten loose. They explained that they don’t allow pets so it couldn’t have belonged to any of their guests. When I went back outside, he had flown to the rooftop of my building. I ran back inside, up three flights of stairs and out onto the roof. There he was, obviously lost and scared because when I got within 10 feet of him, he hopped right over and jumped up onto my finger. I spent several weeks posting flyers, doing outreach on social media and searching for his owner through a multitude of calls to local animal shelters, bird clubs, bird rescues and local veterinarians, but nobody ever claimed that sweet little guy. From there, my life changed forever.” 

    Kimberly continued, “Although I had always been an animal lover, I never intended to own a bird, but I quickly fell in love with him and from then on was committed to his well-being. I own a business doing marketing and graphic design for nonprofits, and the day that cockatiel flew into my life, I acquired a large client in Dallas, Texas. So I named the bird Dallas and he is still with us today.

    “Once I realized Dallas was going to be a permanent part of my family, I began doing research, learning all that I could about proper care and enrichment to keep a cockatiel happy and healthy. Through research, I learned about the often overlooked and unknown plight of captive parrots in the United States. There are thousands of captive parrots living in deplorable conditions, and thousands that are abandoned or orphaned or neglected and in need of a safe and permanent home. It was heartbreaking and the more Robson and I read, the more we knew it was up to us to do something and make a difference. So, we started taking in one more bird, and then another and another …”

    Recently, the paths of Fred, Kimberly and Robson crossed. As Fred recovered from the accident, he started spending time again at his Pagosa Springs home, building a beautiful on-site memorial to honor Electra. He reached out to Kimberly because he wanted to visit Leonard, who Fred describes as “his last living immediate family member.” A meeting was arranged so that Fred could spend time with Leonard, Kimberly and Robson, and learn about their rescue efforts, also getting to see firsthand how Leonard had been cared for since Electra’s passing.

    After meeting Kimberly and Robson (and their entire flock of rescue parrots), Fred was moved to want to support their efforts. At the time, Kimberly and Robson had been taking in parrots and providing their care using their own personal savings. 

    “We have invested a lot of time, energy and money into these birds,” said Robson. “We never hesitate to provide veterinary care to an ill or injured parrot, for even the smallest little budgies deserve top-notch care when it’s needed. But regular veterinary care for more than 35 parrots comes at a significant cost. Between paying vet bills, purchasing a vast variety of foods and toys, and building structures appropriate to house the birds, we have spent tens of thousands of dollars of our own money into enriching the lives of the birds in our care.”

    Because of Fred’s enthusiasm to offer financial support and his desire to do more to remember his beloved Electra, Kimberly and Robson have started a 501(c)(3) to take their rescue efforts to the next level. This will allow them to raise funds from donors in order to sustain and grow their parrot rescue efforts. 

    “Starting an official nonprofit organization has been in the back of our minds for years,” Kimberly said. “When we moved to Pagosa Springs four years ago, we assumed the demand to take in parrots would slow since we’re in a small mountain town where we didn’t think many people owned parrots. But since moving here, we have taken in 12 parrots from Pagosa Springs and the immediate surrounding areas. They are complicated pets to care for — messy, destructive, loud and sometimes dangerous — and their lifespans range anywhere from 10 to 80 years depending on the species, making lifetime care for many owners impossible. Many times, parrots outlive their owners and there is no plan for placing birds, so they end up with us.

    “In order to sustain what we do, we knew we were going to have to start fundraising at some point, but we needed the motivation — someone who believed in us and our parrot rescue efforts and someone willing to step up, dig deep and support our cause. We are incredibly proud of what we do and we are incredibly grateful for someone like Fred to recognize our efforts and support our new nonprofit organization, A Place to Land Parrot Rescue and Sanctuary. 

    “Although I never had the pleasure of knowing Electra personally, I feel connected to her through Fred’s stories about her loving and compassionate treatment of animals, so we are honored to be able to continue Electra’s legacy and share her story and love for animals through the work that we do. And we will continue to give Electra’s adored Leonard, the cherry-headed conure, the lifetime love, care and enrichment that every captive parrot deserves.

    “Electra may no longer be with us here on Earth, but her caring and compassionate spirit will live on through each and every parrot that finds peaceful and permanent sanctuary at A Place to Land. From this tragedy comes a most unexpected legacy, Electra’s legacy. Because of Fred’s donation in memory of Electra, she will always be remembered as an integral part in starting and sustaining A Place to Land.”

    The purpose and mission of A Place to Land is to offer a safe and permanent home to abandoned, surrendered, neglected and orphaned captive parrots where they can live out their lives with the proper care and enrichment that they need and deserve. If you’d like to make a donation in honor or memory of Electra or your loved one, or to learn more about the organization, visit www.aplacetoland.org.