This story might sound like it’s straight out of a TV show, but it’s very real.
Christine Keller’s ex-husband Martin Durham was murdered in his Michigan home last year. After his death, Keller got custody of his parrot, Bud. Ever since, Keller says that the parrot has been reenacting what she believes is the final confrontation that took place before Durham’s killing.
“I’m hearing two people in an intense argument,” she told local television station WOOD-TV. “Two people that I know, voices that I recognize.”
The scene always ends with the bird saying “Don’t fucking shoot” in the voice of her ex-husband, she said.
Police have arrested Durham’s wife Glenna Durham for the murder. They allege that she shot Durham, and then tried and failed to kill herself after an argument about unpaid bills, a foreclosure on their home, and her gambling problem.
Now, prosecutors are trying to figure out how they might be able to use the bird’s reported eyewitness account as evidence. This is obviously pretty unprecedented in the American legal system. But the case is significant for another big reason: if Bud “testifies” and the prosecution is successful, experts say it could prove to be a game changer when it comes to the representation of nonhuman species in the courtroom—and that it could help change the way we think about how animals contribute to society in general.
“It’s an interesting novelty and it’s been a great opportunity for me to learn about African parrots,” Newago County Prosecuting Attorney Robert Springstead told the Detroit Free Press. “It is something we are going to be looking at to determine if it’s reliable to use or if it’s information we need to prosecute this case.”
It’s unlikely that Bud will be able to take the stand as a witness in the conventional sense, since he probably doesn’t meet the state’s legal criteria for a “person,” Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, a nonprofit that focuses on achieving legal rights for animals, said. But that doesn’t mean that the the information he has stored can’t be used in the court in other ways.
“If you put the parrot in the evidence in to say, ‘this is what the parrot heard,’ without putting it in for the truth of what the parrot is saying, then you might be able to get it admitted,” he told me. “If you’re putting it in for the truth of what the parrot is saying, then you might have a hearsay problem. But I think you might be able to bring in experts to testify that the parrot is not making this stuff up, and that what the parrot is saying, the parrot heard.”
African grey parrots like Bud have been found by scientists to have roughly the same intelligence as a five or six-year-old child. So it’s not completely out of line to take what they say seriously, Wise said.
Irene Pepperberg, a researcher at Harvard who is regarded as the leading expert in parrot cognition, cautioned against treating Bud’s “testimony” as reliable right away.
“Basically, the issue is whether a parrot can learn a phrase that it has heard only once,” she wrote in an email. “The general answer is ‘no.’ because the bird needs considerable practice to reproduce the sounds of English speech. A bird might learn a single word quickly, but only if it already has the specific sounds in its repertoire…From what I have seen/heard, the bird in question seems to be reproducing several phrases it likely has heard many times. Thus, one would have to be absolutely sure that the bird had NOT heard the particular phrase in question many other times.”
Previously, stories of parrot murder identification have been mostly confined to fiction. For instance, an almost identical case to Bud’s took place in a 1939 novel about detective Perry Mason. In the story, which was later turned into an episode on the hit TV show, the only alleged witness to a murder is a man’s parrot, who keeps repeating, “Helen, give me that gun don’t shoot!” Police start questioning Helen, the man’s stepdaughter, for the murder.
Or at least, that’s the starting point of the investigation. As the plot thickens, a suspicious second parrot shows up at the home of another Helen. All sorts of questions emerge about which– if any animals– actually witnessed the murder, and who might have influenced the animals into misleading investigators. The title of the book and the episode is, naturally, “The Case of the Perjured Parrot.”
The real world legal history of this stuff is more of a mixed bag. In a 1993 case, a parrot witnessed a murder in San Francisco, and started to make some comments that people thought was a reenactment of the shooting. The judge blocked any testimony about the bird’s comments. In 2010, a parrot in South Carolina helped police nab a daughter who was convicted of elder abuse and neglect against her mother.
“The parrot was mimicking, ‘Help me. Help me.’ Then he would laugh,” St. George Police Lt. Eric Bonnette explained to local media at the time. “We think he was mimicking the mother when he said, ‘Help me. Help me,’ and mimicking the daughter when he laughed.”
The physical evidence in that case matched the account that the bird gave, but police credited the bird with making their job easier.
Abroad, similar cases with similar issues have happened a few times.
In a 2008 French murder case, a dog was likely the first animal in the world to appear as a witness at trial, according to the Telegraph. As the suspect was brought forth when the dog was on the stand, the dog was reported to have “barked furiously,” though the judge decided the display was inconclusive.
In 2014, a family parrot helped nab a murder suspect in India. Whenever the suspect– a nephew of the victim– walked into the room, the bird started squawking uncontrollably. Then, it started to do so at the mention of the nephew’s name.
“This raised my suspicion so I informed police,” a family member told the Times of India. The nephew was taken into custody and confessed to the crime.
But it’s one thing to use animal behavior as the basis of an investigative hunch, and another thing to use that raw evidence in a court of law, as is being explored in Michigan. (The prosecutor’s office in the case did not return multiple attempts for comment on how the parrot evidence might be incorporated.)
“It’s a thorny issue,” Matthew Liebman, the chief legal counsel of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which aims to advance animal rights in the legal system, told me. “On the one hand we certainly want to promote the idea of animals as not just inanimate objects, that they have thoughts. But from the perspective of the legal system there has to be some kind of gatekeeper function to make sure the evidence that’s coming in in legal proceedings is reliable.”
Cases like Bud’s have long been brought up as lofty hypotheticals in classroom and after-hours-at-the-pub settings, Wise and Liebman told me. If Bud’s alleged account somehow makes it to trial–in whichever form it might take– it will mark a victory of sorts, they said.
“We acknowledge that animals are sentient beings, that they have emotions and intelligence, and that things they say should probably be considered statements,” Liebman said. “We’ll definitely be paying attention to this case.”