NC woman rescues, rehabilitates all types of birds

Jan. 23, 2013 @ 07:35 PM

GREENVILLE — The thump was a familiar sound to Cherry Oaks resident Billie Lennon. A bird had struck the large window in her den and was lying stunned on the ground.

It appeared the bird was injured, Lennon said, and she was unsure who could help. A dog or cat could be turned over to the Humane Society of Eastern Carolina, she thought, but who took care of injured birds.

After a few telephone calls, Lennon was on the phone with Pepper Assafi.

"What was phenomenal was I told her where I was and she said, 'I'll be there shortly,'" Lennon said. "Twenty minutes later, she was here."

Assafi has earned the title "Bird Queen" for her work in rescuing and rehabilitating all types of domestic and wild birds.

She has had up to 70 birds in her care at one time. Most are being watched by friends and family because she needed an exterminator and decided to use the time to renovate her bird room.

"Birds make wonderful companions," she said. "A bird is so intelligent; it's a family member."

The mistake people make is not recognizing birds need the love and attention a person would give a child or a spouse, she said.

"A lot of people get large birds because they want a talking bird, but a talking bird is very intelligent," she said. "It's like having a 2-year-old who'll never grow up."

Birds are flock animals and need to be part of a group, Assafi said. If a bird owner doesn't let the animal out of its cage, doesn't talk to or interact with the bird daily, it will become agitated and aggressive.

One of her birds, Morocco, a Senegal parrot that comes from west Africa, was attacked and plucked by a female his owner tried to introduce as his mate. He is partially covered in down and occasionally has a scruffy look.

"I call him pretty bird because people will look at him and say 'what's wrong with him, why does he look like that?'" Assafi once asked a friend to leave her home because the woman was continuously disparaging Morocco's looks and she didn't want him to feel bad.

The 48-year-old former nurse always loved animals.

"I don't know if it's genetic. My grandfather always had dogs. My mother always loved animals," she said. "My father would always watch 'Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom' (a wildlife television program). The first magazine I remember seeing was National Geographic."

Her father was in the military and the family lived throughout the United States and overseas.

"I was like Elly May (the animal-loving member of 'The Beverly Hillbillies')," Assafi said. "If I found a baby bird that fell out of a nest, I would bring it home. My parents were very sweet."

Along with the birds, she also brought home lizards, turtles and an occasional squirrel.

Her mother tried putting her foot down when the first squirrel made its appearance, fearing it would bite Assafi. Her father's attitude was, if the squirrel did bite, they' would take Assafi to the doctor.

Assafi's love of birds never abated, and she became a breeder. She also bred snakes and some larger reptiles, always keeping them separate from the birds.

Assafi and her then-5-year-old son, Aaron, moved to Greenville in 1999 because she loved North Carolina's family-centered culture. She had graduated from J.H. Rose High School and remembered the city was a good place for families.

Eventually, friends introduced her to Rachid Assafi. He was a nice man who loved animals, especially cats. But he gave up the cats when they married.

Assafi devoted herself to full-time bird care after 2005 when she was diagnosed with systemic lupus, an autoimmune disease that causes the immune system to attack the body's cells and tissue, causing inflammation and tissue damage.

"I said, 'You know what, I'm going to do what I love,'" she said.

"I have my husband, he gives me meaning, my child," Assafi said. "But caring for these birds, it makes me think I have a purpose."

Assafi had become friends with the staff at several local pet stores and veterinarian offices.

Sampson, a rescued cockatoo, helped with the introductions. Assafi will put Sampson on a leash and they will walk through a pet store. He will walk down an aisle and call out "momma" or he will stop in front of a group, bow and say a few words.

The pet store staff started referring people having problems with their pet birds to Assafi. From that, people who found injured birds would call or bring the animals to her. She also volunteers with the Eastern Wildlife Center, which cares for and rehabilitates wild animals.

Assafi said she learned how to care for injured animals by watching animals experts like Jack Hanna and the late Marlin Perkins and taking classes in animal rehabilitation. The Internet also is an invaluable resource, she said.

When her illness flairs up Assafi makes adjustments that allow her to continue caring for the birds. She will set up low tables around her bed to care for baby birds, and her cousin and mother will help feed the other birds.

When Assafi arrived at the Lennon house, the little wren had been on the ground for about an hour. When she approached the bird he pecked her then hopped into nearby bushes. Assafi assured the Lennons that if he was moving, he would be all right.

"She was so delightful, and the fact that at the drop of a hat she came over ... that someone is willing to take care of all God's creatures is sort of a blessing and is what defines a very good human being," Lennon said.

Assafi said anyone who finds an injured bird in need of assistance can call or text her at 252-341-8248. Anyone with questions about caring for their bird or who wants more information before purchasing or adopting a bird can either call or send an email to bird-queen(at)