‘I see Garry in heaven surrounded by parrots’: Ottawa’s ‘parrot whisperer’ was a one-man tourist attraction

You might not have known Garry Allen by name, but you would know him to see him. Six-foot-four, 300 pounds plus and sporting long tufts of white Hulk Hogan-like facial hair, Allen stood out in a crowd.

And, oh yes, there were the birds: a Blue-Headed Pionus or two; a red King Parrot from Australia; Stella and Spinach, a pair of Monk’s Parakeets; and snow-white Daisey, who had a predilection for attacking women’s feet.

A one-man tourist attraction, Allen would hold court in downtown , turning heads, posing for pictures and entertaining children with his exotic menagerie. ’s “parrot whisperer” died Feb. 16 after collapsing in a snowbank outside his apartment on Rue Eddy in Hull. He was 63.

I see Garry in heaven surrounded by a billion parrots

“I see Garry in heaven surrounded by a billion parrots,” said close friend Cheryl Smith. “Garry really didn’t need people. He needed the parrots.”

Allen’s death came just days after another devastating tragedy, a kitchen mishap that claimed the lives of his last four parrots. It was teflon that killed them. When heated, non-stick frying pans give off a toxic gas that is deadly for birds.

“He told me he put the frying pan on the stove then he sat down for a few moments and fell asleep,” Smith said. “He woke up just as the last bird let out a screech and fell dead. The others were already dead in the bottom of their cages.

I think he died of a broken heart. … Those parrots were his children

“I think he died of a broken heart. It was like running over your kid. Those parrots were his children. You never get over that.”

Friends rallied to replace the parrots — his brother, Brian, had even arranged to buy two new birds from a woman in Stittsville, Ont. — but Garry refused. He needed time to grieve.

“He said no, he didn’t want them,” Smith said. “Did the guy know he was leaving this world? I don’t mean to be some psychic guru cuckoo here — but you know what I mean?”

Garry Wayne Allen was born in Ottawa on March 23, 1952, the 10th of 11 children. The family lived on Pretoria Avenue and it was clear early on that Garry had a way with animals, said Brian Allen, a retired Ottawa police officer. He remembers Garry nursing a crow with an injured wing back to health. Even after it could fly, the bird never strayed far. “That bird wouldn’t leave him,” Brian said.

Bruno Schlumberger/Ottawa CitizenBruno Schlumberger/Ottawa CitizenAllen, seen with one of his beloved parrots, died just days after a tragic accident claimed the lives of his last four .

Garry started taking in unwanted parrots and seemed to have a natural gift.

“His birds were his life,” Brian said. “They gave him peace and tranquillity and companionship.”

Allen worked for the city for a time, driving a boiler truck to thaw fire hydrants in winter and painting street lines in the summer, but quit a decade or so ago in an ill-conceived plan to become a health food salesman. Smith introduced Allen to her neighbours in Emerald Park, near Bank and Albion, and he quickly became a fixture, clearing snow in the winter and cutting lawns in the summer. The pocket money supplemented his disability pension, but his life was lived hand-to-mouth.

“Garry would look after his parrots first,” Brian said. “He’d buy them seed, then get a loaf of bread and some baloney for himself.”

“He was absolutely, completely, head over heels in love with his birds,” said Smith, who met Allen 15 years ago on the street outside her office in Place du Portage.

“I saw this man with these beautiful green parrots along his back. He had on a yellow shirt and I remember they had pooped all down his back. It was a bit odd.

“I told him I had a difficult parrot of my own. He said. ‘Let me take your parrot. I’m going to give you and him a vacation.’ ”

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The bird defied training, but Smith and Allen became friends. When Allen found himself out of an apartment because of his noisy pets, Smith took him in as a boarder at her house in Emerald Woods. She asked him to chip in with food costs, “because, you know, he’s huge.”

“It was supposed to be a couple of months and it was like, 3 1/2 years. Finally, I just had to say, ‘Garry, you gotta go’. It wasn’t that he was freeloading. In fact, he wanted to kill you with kindness. But Garry wanted to control everything. It was one of his ‘issues’.”

Allen’s “bodacious” personality could sometimes get him into trouble, Smith said. He often feuded with downtown merchants who didn’t want him and his birds outside their stores. But Allen went to the city and got a permit to be recognized as a legal entertainer.

Kier Gilmour/ The Ottawa CitizenKier Gilmour/ The Ottawa CitizenGarry Allen's brother is hoping the city of Ottawa will plant a tree or contribute to a memorial for the “parrot whisperer.'

“Garry’s personality was so big you either hated him or you liked him. He really was a bigger-than-life person,” she said.

Allen was clearing snow in Emerald Woods the day of the big storm. He was always troubled by poor health, but on that day, he seemed especially ill. A neighbour’s son offered him a lift home and, uncharacteristically, Allen accepted a ride door-to-door rather than be dropped off at the bus stop. That night, the owner of a dépanneur saw Allen walking on Rue Eddy and said hello. A few minutes later, he saw Allen collapsed in the snow, passersby frantically trying to help. There was no autopsy, but the coroner said the death was almost certainly because of a heart attack.

At Garry’s request, there will be no funeral. Brian found the four dead parrots in the fridge and will bury them in the spring. His Emerald Park friends are hoping the city will help plant a tree, and maybe kick in for a memorial plaque for the parrot whisperer.

“He will leave a footprint here,” Smith said. “I think, ‘Thank God you are now at peace. Your life here wasn’t easy, but you made the best of the hand you were dealt.’ ”

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