Hayes Valley Resident Turns Heads With Feathered Companion

Hayes Valley Resident Turns Heads With Feathered Companion
Photo/Video: David Andrews/Hoodline
By David Andrews - Published on June 23, 2017.

Dozens of dog owners flock to Patricia’s Green in Hayes Valley daily to let their four-legged canines frolic in the park. But one of the regulars—who stands on two feet and is just one foot tall—draws attention each time he shows up.

Local resident Paul Tortora walks Casper the Cockatoo on a leash throughout Hayes Valley as frequently as any animal owner in the neighborhood—so much so that he and Casper have blurred the line between city oddity and community staple.

Most employees and patrons of the surrounding businesses either know Paul and Casper personally, or know of “that guy who walks his parrot around Hayes Valley on a leash.” Tortora has even heard from friends about tourists asking if they know “where to find the white bird.”

“He’s just my dog, but he seems to delight the neighborhood to no end,” Tortora said of Casper. 

Casper is officially Tortora’s service animal, so he can—and does—go anywhere his human friend goes. Although he enjoys the post office and restaurants in the area, Tortora said that Casper is the happiest when he’s “riding shotgun” atop bartenders’ shoulders, which he frequently does at Brass Tacks and Anina.

Numerous fans are featured on the cockatoo’s own Instagram and Facebook accounts, which Tortora proudly explained that he set up for Casper just as he would have for his human son. 

Currently, Casper has 618 followers on Instagram and 912 friends on Facebook. More than just a gag, Tortora said he likes to communicate with the community through these light-hearted social media platforms.

“It’s just ridiculous. He has more friends than I do,” Tortora said.

Tortora grew up in Mackay, Queensland, a coastal town in Australia where he was surrounded by wild cockatoos. He also had them as pets, along with dogs, cats, various birds, flying foxes and possums, which he considered commonplace. 

After moving to San Francisco in 1980, Tortora wanted a bird of his own from the homeland. Specifically, Casper is an Indonesian Umbrella Cockatoo—a type of parrot—but Tortora clarified that “it’s basically the same as an Australian cockatoo.”

The snow-white bird with pale yellow feathers under its wings has been with Tortora since he was four months old. Cockatoos can live to be 80-plus years old, making ten-year-old Casper a spring chicken.

For his own safety, and to prevent him from flying away, Tortora keeps Casper on a leash. While Casper was never trained to walk with it, the cockatoo instinctively picks the leash up and walks with it.

“A lot of the time I actually follow his lead, what his natural inclination is,” Tortora said. “It just turns naturally into a crowd pleaser.”

The same goes for talking. He’ll unmistakably exclaim “Hi Casper!” which is the only phrase Tortora can prompt him to say. Casper will also say things that he’s learned—including “Hi,” “I love you,” and “ok”—but only because he’s picked them up from other people. 

Once, Casper said “referee” without being prompted. Tortora told us that this was likely something the cockatoo had picked up, since theirs is not a sports-heavy household.

Due to their problem-solving abilities and overall aptitude, some ornithologists have concluded that evidence suggests crows and parrots are intellectually equivalent to dolphins and chimpanzees 

“They’re very smart intelligent creatures," Tortora agreed. However, he also pointed out that their intelligence "can also be a challenge of having them in your life.” 

“They can be messy," he warned. "You just have to do your research [before buying a bird]. You’re not gonna be able to train out certain things.”

However, Casper is potty-trained to avoid creating unfortunate memories for unsuspecting guests, and Tortora can even tell when nature is about to call for Casper.

Together, they are an unforgettable duo that paints a colorful tableau each time they leave their home.

“I’ve had so many people tell me this has been the most amazing experience of their life,” Tortora said, “just by virtue of meeting Casper and having him do a happy dance on their shoulder.”

Occasionally, Tortora and Casper will encounter people who are afraid of birds. However, Tortora does his best to respectfully deescalate the situation. He also said he would never force Casper into a situation where he’s not welcome in the first place.

With Casper at his side, Tortora considers himself lucky to live in San Francisco where the laws for service and support animals are extremely liberal. He hopes that animals become more regularly integrated into society elsewhere.

“I just think animals enhance society," he said. "I think they should be more prevalent everywhere, animals are part of our experience.”

Until then, Paul will continue to embrace the somewhat unsolicited fame that comes with walking his cockatoo on a leash through San Francisco.

“I think he’s definitely hit the stardom barrier,” Tortora said. “Whatever happens next, who knows.”