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On Monteagle Ridge, serenity for ‘the bird guy’

LEWISTON – Niagara University’s purple eagle is still the original high flier on campus. But students here are flocking to a bird of a different feather. A blue and gold macaw named Selina has curious undergraduates whipping out their cellphones for selfies and chatting up the regal bird with the big beak and even bigger personality.

Selina flits in the grass outside St. Vincent’s Hall. She preens for the cameras. She gives high-fives.

Most important, she helps Karl R. Hinterberger keep his anxiety in check.

Selina isn’t just a pet bird. She’s a trained service animal, and she spends most of her days on a metal perch in a third-floor office of the stone academic building where Hinterberger works as assistant veterans coordinator at Niagara.

“I call her my angel on my shoulder,” says Hinterberger, an Army veteran who was diagnosed in 2009 with anxiety disorder. “She lets me know when I’m starting to get stressed-out.”

The bird senses Hinterberger’s growing anxiety through changes in his voice or tension in his shoulders. By squawking out “Karl!” or otherwise calling attention to herself, she distracts him from whatever is causing the anxiety and calms him down so he can refocus on his work.

“I don’t get angry as much anymore,” Hinterberger said. “She just never lets me get there.”

The bird will sometimes nibble gently on his ear, rub her face in his beard or dig her claws into his shoulder to help him relax. She lightens moments by mimicking a dog’s bark or a duck’s quack.

“She can sense his moods. She knows how to cheer him up,” said Angela Hinterberger, Karl’s wife of 20 years.

When his therapist prescribed a service animal for him, Hinterberger first considered training his mixed-breed canine to fulfill the role. But the dog did not respond to the training, and Hinterberger was reluctant to introduce another dog into his household.

He also worried about what would happen after the dog died in 10 or 12 years. Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder have been known to retreat into themselves following the loss of service dogs.

“I didn’t want to go through that,” he said.

Other mammals and birds can provide the same comfort and support.

Hinterberger, 42, began focusing on macaws because of their longevity. With proper care, they can live 80 years and beyond.

“She’ll outlive me,” Hinterberger said. “She’s already willed to my 5-year-old.”

Hinterberger found Selina on Craigslist in 2011. Her previous owner ended up donating the bird to Hinterberger after learning that she would be used as a service animal.

Using birds as service animals isn’t common, said Dr. Laura L. Wade, a local veterinarian who specializes in treating birds. But Wade said she can see how it would be very effective, because birds are highly sensitive animals, adept at picking up visual and auditory cues.

“Birds certainly can have a really great bond with people, especially since they can talk,” Wade said.

Hinterberger, in a purple tie and gray slacks, rises from the desk chair and turns toward the macaw gripping the metal pan beneath its perch.

“Who’s a pretty girl?” he says. The bird cocks her head to the left. Hinterberger reaches over to scratch under her feathers.

After a few seconds, Hinterberger gently tugs at her beak, asking her whether she wants to wrestle. She grabs his finger to reciprocate. Her bite is strong enough to sever a finger, but in this case, she’s just having some fun and does no harm.

At Hinterberger’s prompting, Selina hops onto his shoulder for a walk outside on a mild afternoon in December, and within minutes, four students stop for a closer look.

“Is she here a lot?” asks one of the students.

Every day, Hinterberger responds.

“Do you take her to a regular veterinarian?” another asks.

There’s an avian specialist in Clarence.

“Do you train her yourself or take her somewhere?”

He trains her himself.

At one point, Selina shouts, “Hey!” and “High-five!”

Kara Martin, a junior, holds up a hand. Selina delivers a high-five with her right claw.

“Oh, my God,” Martin said. “I just high-fived a parrot.”

The other students capture the antics on video with their phones.

Hinterberger didn’t bring the bird to the Monteagle Ridge campus when he attended Niagara as a student from 2012 to 2014 for a bachelor’s degree in computer information sciences.

The university was under no legal obligation to allow the bird on campus with Hinterberger for his job, but university officials agreed to it, with stipulations that the macaw not be brought into dining areas.

Hinterberger has since become known across campus as “the bird guy.”

“Ninety percent of the students on campus who know of Selina will know Selina’s name, but they won’t know mine,” he said.

Hinterberger used to dread interactions with people he didn’t know. With the macaw, he welcomes them, because the bird distracts attention away from him.

Angela Hinterberger said her husband used to be so anti-social he rarely went out of their West Seneca home.

“He hadn’t even met our neighbors,” she said. But Selina likes the fresh air, so Hinterberger built a perch on the porch, where man and bird now hang out regularly, and have gotten to know the neighbors quite well.

“She’s brought him out of his shell,” she said.

Hinterberger uses his breaks with Selina on campus to try and educate students and fellow staff members about service animals. He keeps a sign on his door listing what not to do when around a service animal:

• Don’t touch or reach for the animal.

• Don’t try to feed it.

• Don’t call to or mimic the animal.

• And don’t ask why the person needs the animal.

Hinterberger doesn’t mind talking about his disability, but many people who use service animals don’t want to explain, he said.

Robert H. Healy, Niagara’s veteran services coordinator, shares an office with Hinterberger and acknowledges that it took some time to adjust to having a bird around, especially one that can deliver an ear-piercing screech if she’s irritated enough.

But Healy, who was trained in how to handle birds as a volunteer for a hawk rescue organization, was careful about letting Selina get acclimated to him.

“Once you’ve imprinted on a bird – negative or positive – it’s very hard to change that imprint,” said Healy, who ingratiated himself with Selina early and often by handing her treats.

Veterans on campus know Selina particularly well. They sometimes visit with Hinterberger for the opportunity to engage with the outgoing bird.

“A lot of our regular veterans who come here will handle her,” Hinterberger said. “She provides a little support to everybody up here who needs it.”