The new documentary, For the Birds, directed by Richard Miron begins with a seemingly harmless scene between married couple, Kathy and Gary Murphy. In it, they take in a baby duck they found in their yard and name it Innis Peep. Flash forward two and a half decades later and their Ulster County, New York trailer home is overrun with over a hundred chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys and Gary is fed up with his wife’s bird obsession. Though Kathy brushes off any deeper analysis of her mental state, it quickly becomes clear that the easy way she connects to animals over people is about a deeper emotional or mental issue and much of Miron’s film is about the years-long series of steps both she and others take to save her birds and Kathy herself.
When the film starts sometime in 2012, Kathy is largely resistant to change. “With her, you don’t seem to get anywhere,” Gary confesses to Miron, who filmed the footage. Indeed, based on the vicious fights the couple have throughout, it’s clear that Kathy needs more help than Gary can provide and he’s fed up trying. “He knows I’m attached,” Kathy tells Miron, “but not how really much I’m attached to them. I would die for them.” Given that, it’s no wonder Gary enlists the help of the local SPCA, who refers the “hoarding” case to the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary.
In her early interactions with the Sanctuary’s manager, Sheila Hyslop, Kathy just seems glad to talk to someone who shares her deep love of animals. To her credit, the Scotland-born Hyslop does her best to maintain that amicable relationship. Watching her politely but firmly convince Kathy give some of the sickest birds to the sanctuary makes it seem that despite how much Kathy loves her “feather children,” she’s simply unable to take care of so many in her current set-up. The coop and sections of her own trailer where she keeps them are overcrowded, poorly-maintained and not ideal for the types of birds she owns. With the exception of Kathy herself, nobody disputes that the birds are better off with her. Where things get queasy is when the people involved begin to ignore Kathy’s issues in favor of the birds.
Kathy’s relationship begins to sour with the Sanctuary thanks to two turkeys, which Sheila and others explain to her need to be removed from the habitat immediately to avoid contracting a possibly fatal disease from the other birds. Nicole, one of the Sanctuary’s volunteers essentially tricks Kathy into giving away the turkeys under the pretense of taking them away for medical purposes with the (false) promise of returning them. “I don’t think she fully knew what she was signing,” Nicole says later, clearly uncomfortable with her part in the affair.
Less repentant is a volunteer named Ted who, in front of the cameras but away from Kathy, essentially says that the only concern should be the birds. Watching him subtly manipulate Kathy in subsequent scenes or dismiss her humanity completely to deal with Gary instead, it’s hard to ignore how subtly sexist it all feels. From the way Gary complains about the state of his home by saying, “She had one job to do from the day I married her: to be a housewife,” to the way so many of the men who deal with Kathy default to a tone of condescending authority, everyone is too willing to dismiss her mental illness as pure female hysteria and it leaves them and the film itself feeling a little exploitative.
And if Miron ended For the Birds with the media attention the case received and the legal repercussions Kathy faced, that feeling of exploitation wouldn’t make it worth watching. Thankfully, it keeps going, morphing from a dark picture of untreated mental illness and a crumbling marriage to something more meaningful: a picture of one woman slowly taking her life back. Miron spent years filming Kathy and the fact that he could deliver a focused, thought-provoking and emotionally satisfying film out of such a sad and complex story is not just a feat of editing, but of empathy.
For the Birds is admittedly not the most pleasant watch. It involves a pretty serious case of large-scale animal cruelty, a marriage seemingly beyond repair and a case of hoarding so severe that it seems impossible that anything can be done to fix it. However, sitting through all that difficulty is what makes the film’s ending so cathartic. Mental illness is not an easy subject, but it has to be talked about if there’s any hope of making sure people get the help they need.