By Marlena Chavira-Medford
Tucked away off Jimmy Durante Boulevard is Free Flight, a small sanctuary that is home to more than 40 exotic birds. Here, beneath a canopy of trees, you can walk the garden and meet birds such as Rama, an African Grey parrot who prefers to sit near the pond so she can gaze at the coi fish, or Lapis and Ziggy, two McCaw parrots who are best friends and practically inseparable.
“After just a few minutes here, you really start to see their personalities shine through,” said Sarah Booher, outreach programs coordinator for the center. She started volunteering here when she was 15 and said she soon discovered “this is the kind of place that becomes a part of you. I can’t ever see myself leaving. Birds will always be a part of my life.”
Part of her love for birds was fostered by Dr. Robert Stonebreaker, the veterinarian who founded Free Flight in 1981 and someone Booher considered “like a mentor.” Dr. Stonebreaker was a guiding light for many of the people at Free Flight, she said, making his sudden death last January that much harder. Dr. Stonebreaker was found dead after he crashed his car in the Rancho Santa Fe area and was found collapsed at a nearby driveway. Police never determined what caused his death.
“Now that [Dr. Stonebreaker] is gone, it’s more important than ever that we honor his memory by keeping Free Flight going,” Booher said.
Picking up the pieces and moving forward after Dr. Stonebreaker passed away has made for a tough year, but the group is slowly learning to “become self-sufficient,” Booher said. She and the other four staffers have been working hard to boost volunteer efforts and donations, the main lifelines for Free Flight.
“Community support means so much now, and we’re so thankful for the support we have received this past year,” she said.
Booher has also been pouring her energies into the sanctuary’s outreach programs, which involve her bringing the birds to schools, nursing homes, or anywhere else requested.
“I’ve brought these birds around children and senior citizens — it doesn’t matter the age, people just light up around these birds,” she said.
That human interaction is key for the birds, too, because parrots are social creatures. For that reason, the public is encouraged to visit the sanctuary and interact with the birds. For anyone who is thinking about getting an exotic bird, spending time in the sanctuary can also be somewhat of a test drive. And because
Free Flight also does adoptions, visitors could potentially find a pet bird here.
“A lot of people don’t realize that a parrot can live up to 80 years, or how much attention they require. A lot of the birds in this sanctuary ended up here because their owners did not realize what they were getting into. Exotic birds make great pets, but you have to make an educated decision when you get one — and. unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.”