By Alejandro Maroño Porto
Saturday’s mid-30s temperatures and overcast, gloomy weather didn’t stop Danna Mesh from saying goodbye to Jim and Phil, her beloved neighbors. “They’re elderly and need to be taken care of,” said Mesh, an Upper West Side resident since 2017. “It’s time for them to go upstate and retire.”
Unlike other New Yorkers, however, Jim and Phil won’t spend their golden days strutting through Beacon’s Main Street or fishing in the Catskills. Their new home will be Animal Nation, a nonprofit sanctuary in South Salem, NY that has agreed to take the two elderly peacocks and their companion, Harry. The three birds have been a main attraction at Saint John the Divine Cathedral since the early 2000s, and on Saturday, the church held a celebration to honor their lasting impact in the community.
The event, which drew dozens of people, went on without Harry, who was already at the Animal Nation sanctuary after he injured a tendon recently. “He’s living the good life,” said Angela Robinson, the peacocks’ caregiver for the last two-and-a-half years.
Despite the enthusiastic visitors, Phil and Jim didn’t leave their heated, feather-like hutch, especially designed for them in 2017, because of the chilly weather. “It’s too cold for them,” Robinson explained to the gathered peacock fans – and to “Amigo,” a king cavalier and poodle mix that couldn’t stop barking at the feathery duo.
Robinson said she was sad to see them go, though she believes the busy cathedral grounds are no longer a good environment for their well being. “A bottle might break and they might get hurt,” she said. And in their old age, the peacocks are struggling with arthritis, for which they will receive special care at Animal Nation, which currently hosts five other peacocks. “They are my feather babies,” said Robinson, shortly before bursting into tears. “It was a hard decision but we decided to send them. Phil will be the one that will suffer the most because he’s the entertainer.”
Visitors who came to say goodby agreed with the decision to send the birds away. “They should be free,” said Rebecca, a former nurse at Mount Sinai Morningside. “It’d be nice for them to have natural space,” added Annie, a former Columbia University student. Wrapped in puffer jackets and winter hats, almost every neighbor wanted to know if the cathedral was planning to replace Jim, Phil and Harry with a new set of peachicks, thus continuing a tradition that started in 1972 with a donation from the Bronx Zoo.
“Some members of the Cathedral community — staff, congregants, friends and neighbors — want to see a new generation of peacocks because there has been a long, beautiful tradition, but other members are circumspect because there is so much more information today related to animal cognition and animal rights,” said Lisa Schubert, the cathedral’s vice president for programming and external relations, at the celebration. “When peacocks first arrived in the 1970s, the grounds of the cathedral were more of a pastoral oasis; today there are cars, trucks, many active children and equipment. While the peacocks are loved by all, they require complex care [and the] cathedral leadership is weighing how best to move forward.”
Peacocks, or peafowl, are native to the Indian subcontinent. They usually live between 15 to 20 years, said Patrick Moore, Animal Nation’s president, but the cathedral trio are already into their 20s. “They’re doing well here, they’re well loved,” he said. Although their diet mainly consists of specially formulated bird food developed by an exotic-birds company, they always save room for a particular pleasure. “They give them nuts and kale as a treat,” said Moore.
The peacock’s farewell celebration also featured a family festival organized by Advancing the Community of Tomorrow, ACT, a program developed in 1971 under the cathedral umbrella to support the needs of the community’s children and youth through nursery programs, after school projects, and summer camps. A yearly event, they decided to have a peacock-themed festival in their first post-Covid celebration to honor the iconic birds. “The cathedral holds a special part in their hearts, their land and their community for the animals,” said Marie Del Tejo, ACT executive director and an Upper West Side resident for over 60 years.
Shortly before 4 p.m., Patrick Malloy, the cathedral’s dean since last summer, offered a farewell speech in front of the crowd. “The ethical thing for us to do would be to send them to a place where they can be truly cared for by people who know how to care for them,” Malloy said through a microphone. “We’re doing our best to be the best for these birds who have been our pets for all these years.”
After a short prayer, Animal Nation workers climbed up the two wooden stools leading to the hutch’s transparent doors and put Phil in a white Volkswagen Tiguan and Jim in a red Ford F150.
“Happy retirement!” shouted Isadora Wilkenfeld, the cathedral’s director of programming and communications, as the birds left their home of two decades for the last time, to join their elder brother upstate.