WILMONT — Peter D’Amico named Mac after Capt. Daniel G. McCollum.
After D’Amico, a former military pilot, broke his neck — he was broadsided by a van as he drove out of a Marine air base in San Diego right after Sept. 11, 2001 — McCollum stopped by the hospital room with an embroidered blanket from the base. D’Amico would never fly again. He was asleep and never got to thank McCollum, who died serving in Operation Enduring Freedom a few months later.
D’Amico bought Mac for $1,800 in 2007. Earlier that year he’d lived through a heart attack, a shingles outbreak, and the death of his mother. He needed a companion.
He went to a store to pick out a pet but Mac, a white goffin cockatoo with salmon cheeks, picked him. His landlord said no dogs. The turtles and geckos weren’t right. The cockatiels were too small. But Mac jumped right up on his shoulder.
Her price tag was hefty so D’Amico returned to the store for five straight days — not an easy task for the disabled veteran — to make sure she was right for him. Mac would cry every time he left. He was sold.
They became fast friends. D’Amico potty trained Mac and put a diaper on her whenever they went out. She slept on his shoulder and woke him up whenever someone came within 20 feet of them. He refused to clip her wings.
D’Amico has a photograph of Mac staring back at his camera lens at Pismo Beach. Mac seems to be smiling with her head turned and the ocean at her back. There’s no one else around. It was a favorite spot of D’Amico’s mother. He doesn’t have any photographs of himself with Mac — just a bunch he’s taken of her smiling back at his lens on beautiful, sunny days with the world spread out behind her.
“If I were married, I would spend less time with my wife than I do with Mac,” D’Amico said. “I’m with her all day long and everyone knows her.”
The original plan was to train Mac to yell “help” when D’Amico fell over, but that wasn’t enough to get her registered as a service animal. It wasn’t until she started biting his ear that they realized her true power.
D’Amico wears a Fentanyl patch for pain relief. When he’s not getting enough water or food to flush the medication, he gets violently ill. For someone with a neck injury, this can be life-threatening. Before Mac, he would realize that the medication was too strong once it was too late; the nausea had set in. But Mac started biting his ear, D’Amico said, when the medication was too strong, six hours before he’d get sick. Mac could taste the bitterness in his sweat and would give him a heads-up with a peck on the ear.
It was Dr. Debbie Oliver, D’Amico’s veterinarian, who made the connection and helped him get Mac registered as a service animal.
“Birds are so intelligent,” she said. “I think people just in general don’t realize how sensitive animals are. They can sense how you’re feeling. There are dogs that can identify people who have cancer and birds that can tell when a seizure is coming. I worked with tigers in the circus for many years. They knew if you were scared and they would follow that person in a little pack.”
On the afternoon of Valentine’s Day, D’Amico and Mac were together, as usual. She flew to her spot on his shoulder. It was a marriage made in heaven, he said. He opened his French door just a bit and Mac did something new: she flew away.
D’Amico tried to catch up to her but she was out of sight. He posted signs all over the neighborhood with Mac’s photo. A neighbor on 19th Street spotted Mac in her tree and spent an hour tracking D’Amico down. Mac had been scared off by some crows but it gives D’Amico hope. He sits out near the tree at 5 a.m. every morning hoping she’ll come back.
On the way to the doctors office, he got a call from Code Compliance officers with City Hall. They wanted the signs down. They told D’Amico that they would fine and arrest him if he put them up again, he said.
D’Amico was incensed. Why, he asked, can’t he get a permit to hang signs about his lost companion? Santa Monica’s Municipal Code prohibits, “miscellaneous signs and posters tacked, painted, posted or otherwise affixed on the walls of a building, or on a tree, pole, fence or other structure, and visible from a public way.”
Repeated calls and e-mails to city and Code Compliance officials about the matter went unreturned.
Some of his neighbors let him put signs on their properties. He’s replicated the temporary “no parking” signs that city officials attach to trees with the hopes that this will get him off the hook. It’s unclear if it will.
“If they can do it, why can’t I?” he asked.
D’Amico has been worried about hawks but the rain in the forecast is even more foreboding.
“I’m concerned that it might be her demise,” he said.
He asks anyone who has seen the bird to reach out to him at (310) 828-4758.
In the meantime, D’Amico can’t sleep. He looks over the Pismo Beach photo, remembering the day.
“I liked to take her out into nature,” he said. “It took a couple shots of calling her name to get her to look at the camera like that. She was watching the seagulls.”