Photographing Tristan Plot, pioneer of ornithotherapy, and his birds

With her first book, the photographer Francesca Todde enters (and makes us enter) the discreet and mysterious world of those who train birds to cure human beings.

Among all the animals that come to mind when speaking about zootherapy, birds are most likely the last on the list: horses, dogs and even dolphins are the best suited species to act as mediators between the persons in distress and the others, between a complex inner world and an often complicate outside one.

There’s someone who doesn’t quite see it that way, though: his name, that sounds like a character from a meta–literary novel, is Tristan Plot, and he works as a bird educator. But if coaching winged animals for documentary films, theater performances or ballets — which represent his main activity — is not that unusual, get them involved into therapy for inmates or, for instance, people on the spectrum, is completely different. It's indeed a discipline of its own, called “ornithotherapy”, which Tristan is a pioneering figure of.

It’s not mindfulness birdwatching, nor it implies to listen to bird chirping as a relaxing tool, but, exactly like every pet therapy session, it requires a relationship between men and animals. A relationship that Tristan has been successfully pursuing since his childhood, and that, after his graduate studyies in ecology, ethology and biology, has evolved in a codified system that embodies imprinting, traditional training and “positive training”. His educational technique is the result of a meticulous observation of behaviors and expression hardly comparable with those of mammals, is founded on deep empathy, and basically considers birds as both individuals of their own and expressions of a whole species. And in doing so, it is curiously similar to the approach that all therapists should apply to their patients.

In Francesca Todde’s new book A Sensitive Education (published by the independent and interesting Départ Pour l’Image), Tristan Plot is then just one of the main characters, presented in the final pages as Homo Sapiens among all the other species that show up “in order of appearance”, and that form a cast of unusual and often funny actors, each one with its own personality: Mildred the white stork, who considers Tristan as her own partner and is therefore jealous of every other female, no matter their species; Bayo the crow, who over his fifteen years with Tristan has developed a sort of telepathy; UB the jackdaw, who has been rescued and then set free, and whose picture with a cigarette in his beak is all he left behind; Elypse the black kite with whom Tristan, as a paramotor pilot, has engaged a “shared flight” project; or Boubo the bern owl, who shines in his elegant and spooky beauty on every stage he has performs on. And again: pigeons, swans, a parakeet and a starling.

Leafing through the book one is tempted to not only guess that in the end ornithoterapy has turned to be useful to Plot himself, who after a professional and personal crisis that followed the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015 had to reinvent himself, but to also feel that in her slow and elliptic narrative Todde, who’s been always interested in the relationship between men and animals, adopted a method very much similar to the one Tristan applies to his birds. Her approach is a silent one, that starts from attentively observing and listening and grows in involvement and understanding: in the time that subject and object of this narrative granted to each other lies the successful attempt to communicate through codes that have been lost in favor of a rationalizing evolution, but that the relationship between individuals — not necessarily of the same species — can still teach us to regain.


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