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Coombs woman behind refuge was devoted to parrots

A woman who devoted her life to caring for unwanted parrots at a non-profit sanctuary in Coombs has died. Wendy Huntbatch, 71, died Feb. 3 of cancer.
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Wendy Huntbatch with Andy the Hyacinth Macaw at the World Parrot Refuge in Coombs.

A woman who devoted her life to caring for unwanted parrots at a non-profit sanctuary in Coombs has died.

Wendy Huntbatch, 71, died Feb. 3 of cancer. She leaves behind 700 to 800 exotic parrots at the 23,000-square-foot World Parrot Refuge on the Alberni Highway. “She understood them very, very well,” partner Horst Neumann said Friday. “She just had a way of reading them and knowing what they needed.”

Huntbatch spent her waking hours caring for the birds, starting in the morning tending to those with medical needs, and working until evening, when she and Neumann would pick up unwanted produce from a local grocery store for the birds.

“Wendy never took a dime from the refuge,” said Sue Watkins, a director of the For the Love of Parrots Refuge Society, which plans to carry on with the sanctuary. “[She] really, really loved these birds.”

Once parrots come into the refuge, they are there for life, living as natural an existence as possible. None are sold. Flight areas allow them to live together in flocks.

Parrots are intelligent, often passed from owner to owner. Behavioral issues and the time commitment needed to properly care for a parrot, which can live for several decades, are among reasons owners tire of them. They can end up in what Neumann calls a “pet go-round” of homes.

Unhappy and stressed parrots may pluck out their own feathers, prompting refuge staff to slip socks over their naked bodies. There are about 20 full and part-time staff at the refuge, which is funded by admission fees and donations.

Some parrots arrive addicted to drugs. One had been kept in a steel dog crate on the floor, with no perch.

Huntbatch’s desire to help the birds started in the mid-1990s in Abbotsford after someone broke into an outbuilding and stole their own parrots, Neumann said. People started calling, asking them to take parrots. Within three weeks, they had a dozen.

Numbers kept on climbing and by 2004, they had between 300 and 400 parrots. Fearing that their birds might be targeted for culling during the avian flu scare, they purchased land in Coombs. Neumann built the large building for the refuge and they made their home on that land, along with Wendy’s son Justin Huntbatch, also a refuge director.

Neumann’s company, Custom Metal Products, is based on the property and has helped support the refuge.

In 2010, the parrot sanctuary become home to rabbits live-trapped at the University of Victoria, but some escaped and were shot after they got into a nearby farmer’s field.

Today, the refuge receives about 10,000 visitors a year, Neumann said.

Justin said his mother was angry that no one was doing anything about the birds’ plight.

“Her goal was to educate people why parrots should not be pets, to stop the trafficking and importing of parrots into Canada and to provide a home for life for those parrots that were here already.”

A team consisting of board members and senior staff is working on developing a more structured operations plan for the refuge. A memorial gathering for Huntbatch is being held today at the World Parrot Refuge’s Thrift Store, between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.

cjwilson@timescolonist.com