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WIU Associate Professor Patricia Anderson is pictured with one of her five pet parrots.
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WIU Anthropology Professor Studying Human-Avian Bond

November 18, 2014

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MACOMB, IL – Her fascination with a pet parrot and her academic study of anthropology have inspired Western Illinois University Associate Professor Patricia Anderson to study the human-avian bond.

As a result, she has recently published a groundbreaking study of her research in the multidisciplinary academic journal, "Anthrozoös," which is published by the International Society for Anthrozoology (ISAZ) and Bloomsbury Publishing of London. Anthrozoology is the interdisciplinary study of human-animal interactions, which began about 30 years ago at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

In addition to having her work published in "Anthrozoös," Anderson is a co-editor of the journal. She is also one of the few anthropologists in the world who studies the human-avian bond.

"There are many anthrozoological studies of pet keeping, but most of these focus on dogs and cats," Anderson said. "Although birds are among the most popular companion animals kept in the United States, little research has been devoted to them."

Anderson added that according to the 2013-2014 survey by the American Pet Products Association, 6.9 million households own an estimated 20.6 million birds.

Anderson's interest in the human-avian studies began shortly after she joined the faculty of WIU. She said she "chattered so relentlessly" about her new pet parrot that a colleague encouraged her to "do something scholarly with it."

Through her research, Anderson has carried out two electronic surveys of bird owners, resulting in the collection of hundreds of responses, which she said left her "stunned."

"Parrot owners from across the United States and beyond sent me pages of essays about their birds and how living with a parrot has transformed their lives, some even sharing songs and poetry composed for their birds," she said.

Anderson also completed an ethnographic field study in a veterinary clinic, which specializes in avian and exotic medicine. She observed clients and veterinarians interacting with patients, as well as surgeries.

"My research produced some interesting and surprising insights," she said. "The majority of pet owners who participated in the survey are married, female and in the age range when their own children have left the proverbial nest. Parrot owners describe their feathered companions as family, 'fids' (feathered kids) with immortal souls. The human-parrot bond is often very affectionate, with birds seeking their humans for head rubs, petting and other social interaction."

Through Anderson's research, she found that the majority of bird owners (66 percent) agreed that their parrots use human language meaningfully at least part of the time.

"One family even avoided divorce through the intervention of their parrots, wise birds who knew the flock should not be split," Anderson said.

Dr. Anthony Podberscek, editor of "Anthrozoös" commended Anderson's research, saying it "provides intriguing insights into how birds can be beneficial to their owners'/guardians' health and well-being, especially through the provision of social support."

Anderson has been teaching at Western since 1999 and lives in Macomb with her husband, Steve Monger, and her five parrots. She teaches an award-winning anthropology class each spring semester that emphasizes how culture affects attitudes toward animals. The course also considers animal behavior, behavior modification and force-free training, and is an elective in the WIU post-baccalaureate certificate in Zoo and Aquarium studies.

She has completed three courses with psychologist Susan Friedman (Utah State University), two of which were also with trainer Steve Martin, at his facility, Natural Encounters, Inc. in Winter Haven, FL, and one course with trainer Lara Joseph at the Animal Behavior Center in Sylvania, Ohio. She also completed the intensive course for zoo and aquarium specialists with Ken Ramirez, of the John G. Shedd Aquarium, in August.

After receiving her bachelor's degree in sociology and anthropology and her master's degree in geography, both from Western, Anderson completed a doctoral degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago.
Anderson is currently studying pet owner's attitudes toward the loss of their companion animals, as well as attitudes toward a parrot species introduced to Illinois.

Her research is funded, in part, by a WIU Research Council (URC) grant.

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