At Sparky's Bird Store, a parrot's death and a SWAT standoff stir up claims of animal abuse and sexual harassment

Amanda Brown, pictured here with Tobias and the ashes of Rio the cockatoo, says she's still grieving over Rio's death at Sparky's Bird Store. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Amanda Brown, pictured here with Tobias and the ashes of Rio the cockatoo, says she's still grieving over Rio's death at Sparky's Bird Store.

As a regular customer, Amanda Brown felt safe bringing her parrots Rio and Tobias into Sparky's Bird Store last month. She never expected that, minutes after arriving, she'd be rushing out of the store covered in blood, clutching her bird who had just been killed by the store's owner.

That morning, July 6, started like any other for Brown and her birds. She made them a breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast and fresh fruit. They hopped around on their porch. And like Brown did once a week, she brought them to Sparky's to socialize with other birds.

Store owner Mark Settle, or Sparky, as he's affectionately known to bird lovers, came to greet her and the parrots. But then Settle, 61, took Tobias and began to manhandle him, telling Brown that he was demonstrating "dominance" over the bird by flipping the macaw upside down onto the floor, according to a lawsuit Brown recently filed against Settle.

The bird bit back, drawing blood and forcing Settle to release it. As Brown began tending to the distressed parrot, her other bird Rio, a 14-year-old umbrella cockatoo, got scared and jumped off the counter.

Then began a flurry of flapping wings, frantic screeches and desperate cries for help.

Settle chased Rio around the store with bloody, outstretched hands. Rio, who never learned to fly, ran to the window.

"Oh my God!" Brown screamed, trying to get it to stop, according to the lawsuit. "These are my babies!"

Settle scooped up Rio, who struggled to escape. Settle gripped harder. He lifted the bird over his head, but Rio bit, and Settle dropped the 14-year-old bird to the ground.

Rio began hyperventilating, then moments later went limp and died.

Brown cried uncontrollably.

A necropsy later found that the bird died from liver fracture and hemorrhaging of the bird's air sacs and lungs.

Now, Brown is suing Settle for the wrongful death of Rio. But the allegations of erratic, dangerous behavior by Settle don't end there. Several former employees at Sparky's Bird Store tell the Inlander that Rio was far from the first bird that Settle had killed or severely harmed through recklessness or retaliation. They also say he sexually harassed members of the staff and threatened to kill one of them, a teenage girl.

Settle, when reached by phone this week, declined to comment.

"This was not an unexpected break with reality by Mr. Settle," says Adam Karp, an animal rights lawyer representing Brown in the lawsuit. "It was part of a history of abuse and lack of temperament."

The death of Rio the cockatoo, as it turns out, didn't just prompt a wrongful death lawsuit. It sparked a worker uprising against the shop's allegedly abusive owner, an investigation into animal cruelty, and a sequence of events that ended with a SWAT team standoff and the man they call Sparky in handcuffs.

'SOMETHING CATASTROPHIC'

Six days after Rio's death, Spokane police have surrounded Sparky's Bird Store.

Armored vehicles block the street. A SWAT team, hostage negotiators and mental health professionals stand by, just south of the NorthTown Mall in Spokane. Settle lives where he works at Sparky's Bird Store, employees say, and he has locked himself in his bedroom in the back.

Meanwhile, employees from Sparky's Bird Store tell police what happened: Settle had told one of them, Samantha Kopelson, that he wanted to kill Paige, then a 17-year-old worker at Sparky's.

And as Kopelson told police, he didn't just want to kill Paige, but "wring her neck, watch her squirm on the ground, and watch the blood come out of her face."

Settle's three employees — Kopelson, Paige and Alex Colbert — had rebelled in the days following Rio's death. Before the SWAT team came July 12, they'd all planned to resign in protest, considering Settle to be dangerous.

As former Sparky's employees tell it, Settle's dangerous behavior started years earlier, gradually becoming more violent and more troubling until it reached a breaking point. Until now, they say, the worst of it was kept out of the public eye.

Customers saw Settle as a warm, friendly bird lover.

At least, that's how Jade Ellsworth thought of him when she first started working at Sparky's in 2018.

"I was a longtime customer of Sparky's before I got the position. It was always somewhere I had wanted to work," Ellsworth says.

Soon after starting, she grew concerned. He was too aggressive with the birds and at times would get frustrated with them and throw them against the cage, Ellsworth says.

Ellsworth brought her own bird to work with her, but one day it bit Settle, and he threw the bird onto the ground, she says. The bird went into shock and nearly died.

"It was a disturbing overreaction to being bitten by a parrot," Ellsworth says.

Sarah Balandis, an employee there from 2016 to 2018, saw the same kind of thing: Settle would spray birds with water when he got mad at them, or he'd hold them too tight during feather trimmings.

"The more the bird struggled, the more upset he would get," Balandis says.

Once, in 2018, Balandis says Settle squeezed a baby bird to death while she was trimming it because he wasn't paying attention. In the two years she worked there, she says about a half dozen birds were killed in a similar manner, either by Settle or other employees — though she says most of them had underlying conditions as well.

"He sort of played it off like it just happened sometimes and you can't control it," Balandis says.

As new employees, they were expected to cut off toe nails, remove feathers and cut away bands on the birds if needed. The employees were often uncomfortable doing so, but if they defied Settle, he would lash out.

At one point, Balandis says she was asked to amputate a bird's toe with dog nail clippers. But with nothing to cauterize the wound, the bird bled for an hour.

Settle also told employees he used ether, a potent chemical once used as an anesthetic, in the store to euthanize injured birds if customers needed to put a bird down. They say that although they never personally witnessed it, he would put ether on a towel and stuff it in a plastic bag with the bird. He did so to Balandis's injured bird, she says.

The American Veterinary Medical Association does not consider ether as an acceptable chemical for euthanasia.

Marcie Logsdon, a veterinarian at Washington State University working with small companion birds, says she would recommend seeing a veterinarian to amputate toes or to euthanize a bird. Beyond that, while she says birds are extremely fragile and generally need to be handled with caution, it should be "extremely uncommon" that a bird dies during a restraint.

If a bird is biting, then generally it's "biting for a reason," she says. It may be scared or conditioned to think that biting will make humans leave it alone.

The idea that humans need to show dominance over a bird is outdated, she says.

"A dominant display is going to be perceived as aggression, and that's going to cycle and make a bad situation worse," she says.

But Settle, according to several employees, continued his aggressive behavior both to birds and his own employees. And things got scarier: Workers say Settle more frequently made remarks about taking his own life — and possibly taking the store, and everyone in it, with him.

"I had been thinking for a while that something catastrophic would happen if he didn't get help for himself," Ellsworth says.

"A dominant display is going to be perceived as aggression, and that's going to cycle and make a bad situation worse."

tweet this

DEADLY THREAT

Paige, whose last name is being withheld from this article, has known Settle since she was 10. But since working there starting last year, she says she had to endure constant sexual harassment from her boss.

Most frequently, Settle would tell the then-17-year-old that she was attractive and looked like his ex-wife — all in front of customers.

"It's not like, 'Oh, you look like my wife.' It's like, 'You look like my wife and I want to touch you,'" she says.

Kopelson and Colbert both tell the Inlander they witnessed Settle saying that to Paige and they could see it made her uncomfortable. Whenever they told Settle it was inappropriate, he'd cast it off as a joke, they say. But nobody was laughing, and the harassment continued toward both Kopelson and Paige, they allege.

He'd look down their shirts during bird trimmings, or make suggestive comments about their bodies, they say.

In private, Paige says Settle would turn every conversation into something sexual and ask when she was turning 18. He'd act like he wanted to "wrestle" with her, forcing Paige to fight him off, she says. Kopelson says she witnessed at least one instance of Settle grabbing Paige against her will.

When one of Settle's birds died in April, his behavior became more concerning, the employees say. He'd snap at them and cuss them out.

"He was so aggressive and mean, and he would yell at me and say he wants to strangle me or punch me," Paige says. "He'd do the motion of it and punch a wall behind me or next to me."

Days before Amanda Brown came into the store with Rio, the employees say Settle severely hurt a baby quaker parrot that bit him when he was feeding it. He told the workers he threw the bird against the cage, but based on the injuries to the bird's face, the employees suspected Settle struck the bird with his hand.

"We were very upset about it," Paige says.

So by the time Rio was killed on July 6, they'd had enough. Kopelson witnessed the entire incident, and she fully backs up Brown's account of what happened.

Kopelson didn't work the day after Rio's death, and Settle demanded that Paige tell him where Kopelson was. Paige refused. Settle allegedly told her he was going to "burn the whole place down with everybody inside."

On July 12, Kopelson came to the store to formally quit along with the two others. Settle took Kopelson downstairs, where he told her repeatedly he'd been considering taking his own life. Then, she says, he told her several times that he "really wanted to kill" Paige for not telling him where Kopelson was the other day.

Kopelson says he got in her face and vividly described exactly how he wanted to hurt Paige.

"He was acting out what he wanted to do. And he kept saying it and kept saying it," Kopelson says.

They reported the threat. Police rushed to the store. Settle went to his bedroom in the back of the store and locked himself there. The standoff lasted more than an hour before Settle was arrested and charged with felony harassment. He's been released from Spokane County Jail on bail.

Settle later claimed that he fell asleep when police were there and came out when he heard "weird noises" outside.

The Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service (SCRAPS) is investigating Sparky's for animal cruelty following Rio's death. - WILSON CRISCIONE PHOTO
Wilson Criscione photo
The Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service (SCRAPS) is investigating Sparky's for animal cruelty following Rio's death.

WHAT THEY DON'T SEE

Settle didn't respond to several Inlander text, Facebook and phone messages seeking comment for this article before he declined to comment when reached on his cell phone. But in a since-deleted post on the Sparky's Bird Store Facebook July 14, Settle admits that "my actions caused" the death of Rio.

He says he's been exhausted and couldn't understand why his employees didn't want to work after Rio died. He lists his physical health problems, and then says he's been taking depression and chronic pain medication for 30 years.

"I try not to burden people too much, but I'm a quickly degrading mess, and I'm gonna die one of these days," he says in the post.

But the post skips over what he allegedly said to threaten Paige. He says that when police confronted him about the threat, he told officers, "Yeah, I probably threaten to kill my birds every day, it's just a saying out of frustration."

In the more than 600 comments on the post, a majority of commenters defend Settle, or as he's known to them, Sparky. Many refuse to believe he'd hurt any bird, and they cast doubt on the "Gen Z brats," as one commenter put it, who they think are just trying to ruin his life and don't want to work.

Though the Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service is investigating the business for animal abuse, Settle is back to running Sparky's.

Brown, still mourning the death of Rio, says she hopes Settle won't hurt another bird.

"Supposedly I'm not the only one. If I can save another bird from dying a horrible death like this, this lawsuit is worth it," Brown says.

Sparky's now-former employees, meanwhile, want Settle to be held accountable, even if part of them still thinks he's a good guy who just needs some help.

If there's one thing they're sure of, however, it's that Settle shouldn't be running the business.

"He's not himself. Nobody sees how he would treat the birds when customers aren't there, how he would treat us, what he would say to us," Kopelson says. "They don't know what happens behind the scenes." ♦

National Voter Registration Day (Volunteers Needed)

Tue., Sept. 21, 11 a.m.-12 p.m. and Tue., Sept. 28
  • or

About The Author

Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione, born and raised in Spokane, is an Inlander staff writer covering education and social services in the Inland Northwest.