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Seclusion fits Cookie the Cockatoo just fine

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Updated: June 27, 2013 6:45AM

He was a star.

One of Brookfield Zoo’s “biggest stars,” in fact, though a critic 25 years ago dismissed him as “a bit of a ham” after seeing a performance, suggesting that he talks too much.

Yes, like other stars, he liked to say his trademark lines: “Peek-a-boo,” “Quit your screaming,” and “Hi, Cookie.”

That is his name, Cookie the Cockatoo — a Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo, to be precise — and while his onetime co-stars such as Mora the Capuchin monkey and Maya the Yucatan miniature pig are long gone, Cookie endures.

He no longer performs in the Animals-in-Action show at the Children’s Zoo, or appears on television, as he once did. In fact, Cookie is no longer seen in public at all, but enjoys his retirement in seclusion, ruminatively gnawing on a piece of wood in his cage in the office of the Reptiles and Birds House, under a shelf of binders with titles such as “Guinea Fowl Management” and “Home Study Course in Bird Biology.”

His feathers, only a little threadbare, retain their brilliant pink hue, shifting to salmon toward the head. His crest ruffles majestically when angry — and this bird is definitely a curmudgeon.

“He really wants to bite someone,” said Kathryn Pingry, lead keeper in the Bird Department.

Occasionally a zoo visitor will knock on the office door to ask about the 80-year-old bird, the oldest of his breed on record, older than the zoo itself, which is saying something.

The Chicago Zoological Park opened on June 30, 1934, on land that Edith Rockefeller McCormick donated for that purpose. She thought it should be like the modern zoos she had seen in Europe. Thus it was built as the first “barless” zoo in the United States.

On opening day, the zoo had 270 animals including two yaks from the Bronx Zoo, and Cookie, who came from the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia, and was estimated to be a year old. His birthday hatching was set as June 30, same as the zoo’s.

Over the years, other famed bird stars have come and gone. A quintet of penguins Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s second expedition brought back from Antarctica in 1935. Or Sally, another cockatoo, whose deft use of a pie plate reminded keepers of stripper Sally Rand and her bubble, then seen at the Century of Progress fair.

The decades marched on. Cookie remained popular. In a list of the zoos “biggest stars” of 1992, Cookie was listed fifth, after a trio of Kodiak bears, Inka, Dinka and Doo. He appeared on banners.

The cockatoo was on display in a round window of his own at the Perching Bird House. But five years ago keepers noticed his mood had begun to sour. In the winter, when there aren’t many visitors to the zoo, Cookie would get lonely.

“He would just sit in his window and had nothing to do,” said Pingry. “We noticed he just didn’t want to go out there anymore, wanted to stay in his office, where there is always a keeper nearby.”

In 2009 he was permanently taken off display and kept in the office.

“He was just so much more engaged, and happy to have company,” she said.

Well, certain company. Like other old folk, Cookie prefers the familiar.

Approach his cage and you might be greeted by an earsplitting shriek.

“The patience wanes,” explained veterinarian Jennifer Langan. “He’s not quite as tolerant.”

But if Cookie can be hostile toward humans, they nevertheless still love him.

“Because he was such a regular fixture for so many years, after he was taken off exhibit, still he has all kinds of fans,” Pingry said.

“We get calls. He also gets cards, especially around his birthday.”

Some cards are kept in a big scrapbook.

“We love you!” the Morgan family wrote when he turned 75. “We truly love you.”

Still, it’s hard not to worry about him. “People are always wondering how he’s doing,” Pingry said.

So how is Cookie doing? Well, to be honest, he’s old. Birds, like humans, suffer from a variety of indignities as they age. Osteoporosis. Cataracts. His left eye is cloudy, his left claw mangled from a long-ago bite. Cookie has to take daily anti-inflammatories, for his joints, plus a “parrot pellet” containing vitamins. He uses a rope perch instead of wood: easier on the feet. He takes frequent naps, and keepers opening his cage to say hello worry about him pitching forward beak-first onto the floor.

Like many an old bird, there is no more soaring: he doesn’t fly anymore, and hasn’t for a long time.

“I worked with him the past 16 years, and he hasn’t really flown,” said Pingry. “He used to flap a lot in his picture window, but he never actually took off flying.”

Cookie doesn’t speak his trademark lines, either, though he’ll make “cute happy noises” and the occasional wolf whistle. He can see well enough to have favorites — he likes people in glasses — and dismiss those he has taken a dislike to, people he greets with a sort of annoyed scream of disapproval, characteristic of his breed.

“You can really tell when he doesn’t like somebody,” said Pingry.

Up to now, Cookie would be briefly taken out on his birthday, to be greeted by well-wishers — you can see the videos on YouTube. But this year, that’s cancelled.

“I think Cookie would like his birthday, but it could be a little too much for him,” said Sondra Katzen, Brookfield’s media relations manager. “Our top priority is his well-being, and we know he’s most comfortable off exhibit. We clearly want to do what’s best for him, particularly at this stage.”

So don’t worry about Cookie — you may not see him, but he’s there. Nor is he without his pleasures. His cage is filled with toys and distractions. He’s fed chopped-up apples, oranges, carrots, sweet potatoes and — the day’s highlight — two peanuts, unsalted, in the shell, a forbidden treat, like a coveted daily 5 p.m. martini.

“He really likes that peanut, twice a day,” said Pingry.

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