A Case of Fowl Play

The story that follows is truly heart-rending. As a person who is very attached to her animal companions it seems beyond belief that people could be so cruel to their fellow man that they would deprive them of a beloved pet.

David lived on the 8th floor of a condominium tower in Arlington, Virginia. They had gotten Lulu, a Congo African Gray Parrot, even before she was weaned and had raised her from a chick. They were gentle and loving owners and treated Lulu, as they called her, as if she was their child. They taught her many words and tricks; her party trick was an accurate rendition of the theme from “The Andy Griffith Show”.

Lulu had been their sole pet for 10 years when the couple had a party at their apartment. It was a warm spring day and the glass door onto the balcony was open but the sliding screen door was closed. With the bright light outside, a guest didn’t see the screen door in place and ran into it, knocking it out of the frame and onto the balcony with a large bang. Surprised, her scream startled Lulu whose perch was nearby. Lulu flew out the opening and down to the trees below.

David immediately ran outside to search for her but couldn’t find her. They posted flyers offering a reward all over the Arlington area and called every veterinary hospital and animal shelter to alert them. Weeks went by and there was no sign of her. Both men were heartbroken. David decided to call all the veterinary hospitals and animal shelters again. A clerk at a local shelter told him that they had just adopted out an African Gray parrot. The shelter claimed they had never received his first alerting phone call and would not give him the contact information for the person who had adopted the parrot.

It required a petition under the Freedom of Information Act to force the shelter to give him the name and address of Nina. When she refused to talk to him on the phone, David went to her house and asked to see the bird. He offered to buy her whatever bird she wanted if it turned out to be Lulu. She refused to let him see the bird and threatened legal action if he contacted her again.

Zoogen Gets Involved

David then contacted his veterinarian, a long-time client of Zoogen. She suggested that DNA testing might be able to prove Lulu’s identity. David called me and asked if it was possible.  The easiest way would be to compare a known sample from Lulu with a sample from the bird in Weaver’s possession. I looked in our sample database and found that we had DNA sexed Lulu (as a boy!) many years ago. David and I laughed about the fact that he and Bill never changed the name; he said they were used to thinking of her as “their little girl” and never worried about it. Unfortunately, the sample was old enough that it had been discarded. Zoogen has sexed over 400,000 birds and simply didn’t have the space to save every sample. I asked him if he had anything else from Lulu and he had; for years he had saved her molted feathers.

That news took me back a few steps. I knew that the feathers were unlikely to contain nuclear DNA. Backing up a bit, I should explain that animals, including us, have two classes of DNA in our cells. Our chromosomes contain “nuclear DNA” (called that because the chromosomes live in the cell nucleus). It is nuclear DNA that is highly individual. But our cells also contain little energy-generating machines called “mitochondria” and each mitochondria has different DNA, called “mitochondrial DNA”. Mitochondrial DNA is passed from mother to offspring and is not as individual as nuclear DNA.

But, it has a special feature that makes it very valuable. When structures like hair, or fur, or feathers mature their nuclear DNA is lost but the mitochondrial DNA is often preserved. For that reason scientists use hair to DNA test mummies or to identify disaster victims. I explained to David that Lulu’s feathers were unlikely to produce nuclear DNA for testing but, just like hair, they might yield mitochondrial DNA. He was desperate and willing to try.

What he hoped was to get a court order requiring that Nina bring the bird to a neutral veterinarian for a witnessed sample collection. At a minimum it would put his mind at rest whether Nina Weaver’s bird was, indeed, Lulu. I explained to him as well that this was going to be a little research project. When he asked what it would cost I said, ”let’s wait and see”. Ultimately it cost David nothing; I did the work for my own interest and in solidarity with his plight.

The first thing to figure out was whether the mitochondrial DNA of African Gray parrots had enough diversity that it could be used as an identifying feature. If all or most African Grays have the same mitochondrial DNA profile, then all the testing in the world would not be convincing. Luckily, I found a scientific study from a PhD thesis in South Africa that provided the basic information I needed. As I hoped, it had the lab protocol I needed to perform the testing. It also showed that African Grays in South Africa had a lot of mitochondrial DNA diversity.

I then needed to see if pet African Grays in the United States had similar diversity levels. There was always a chance that the original Grays imported into the US had all come from some region with low diversity. Here Zoogen’s collection of thousands of samples from African Grays sent for sexing recently provided the database for comparison. When the US African Grays showed as much diversity as the African ones had, I asked David to send the feathers from Lulu. I told him to send 5-10 feathers.

When a large box arrived, my assistant opened it not knowing what to expect. I heard an “Oh my God” coming from the next room. She called me in and this is what we found! David had glued Lulu’s molted feathers to a wooden seagull. He’d made an amazingly accurate model (except the head!) of his Lulu. But fortunately the feathers had been kept cool and dry, the right way to store DNA. I extracted the mitochondrial DNA from the feathers, determined its DNA profile, and reported to David that he could proceed with his plan for a witnessed collection from the disputed bird.

That turned out to be the hard part. David’s next problem was to get a judge that would take the matter seriously. A year dragged on with no court order. I would get periodic updates from David about his lack of success. He hired an attorney who had no better luck. Then something mysterious happened. I received a sample from Nina taken from an African Grey Parrot named “Toby”. I called David and he confirmed he had not been contacted to witness the sampling. He requested that I wait for the witnessed collection and set Weaver’s sample aside. As David was my client in this case I complied with his request.

A few months later, I was contacted by Weaver’s lawyer with the odd request that the sample from Toby be sent back. During this time, the Zoogen laboratory had moved and because the sample was an oddity, it hadn’t been stored in the usual archive. I couldn’t find it and told the attorney that it had probably been discarded.

Months later, two years after Lulu’s disappearance, David received the court order for the witnessed collection. By this time David was severely ill with kidney failure but the collection was attended by Bill. Bill told me later that the bird was nervous and flighty in the strange environment of the veterinarian’s office; it was impossible to know whether it was Lulu. But the sample was sent to Zoogen.

I refreshed my memory of the case by looking thru my files. I found 2 case files in my cabinet and was surprised to find the sample sent by Weaver that I thought had been lost. Her request to return it was so intriguing that I couldn’t resist; I tested that sample (we’ll call it Toby #1) and the witnessed sample (Toby #2) and the DNA extracted from Lulu’s feathers. The results were illuminating.

The DNA profiles from Toby #1 and Lulu’s feathers were a perfect match, but the DNA from Toby #2 had come from a different bird. Nina had taken a ringer to the witnessed collection! Perhaps she believed that the bird was actually Lulu and that David might recognize her or that she would recognize them. But why did she send the first sample? Perhaps she thought David and Bill were bluffing and only wanted to see the bird; by sending in the sample voluntarily she could deflect them. The fact that she wanted it back suggests she realized the DNA testing was a real possibility. These are all conjectures on my part but they seem to fit.

The results  should have led to the happy ending of a three year saga. But when I called David  I was stunned to hear that he had died a few weeks before. His beloved Lulu could not be with him in his final days. At the news of my results, Bill seemed determined to pursue Nina Weaver and get Lulu back. I spoke to him occasionally about the case and used part of the sample from Toby #1 to make a ruby Life Jewel pendant for him.

After several years of trying to advance the case to a court hearing, he gave up. Lulu’s loss, tragic as it was for these two men, was never taken seriously. I can only hope that Nina gave Lulu as good a home as David had. But it is hard to imagine that she had much love in her heart. Hopefully she got tired of hearing the theme from The Andy Griffith Show.