Sunday, August 23, 2009

Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence--and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process by Irene M. Pepperberg

"You be good. I love you," these were the last words Alex, the brainy, famous, and beloved African Grey parrot spoke to his owner and trainer, Irene Pepperberg, when she bid him goodnight. The next morning, September 6, 2007, Alex was found dead in his cage. His unexpected, premature demise at age 31 (African Grey parrots have an average lifespan of 50 years) made headlines all over the world.

This was a book I read with either tears in my eyes or a smile on my lips, sometimes both. I remember seeing Alex on television and being charmed and captivated by this clever little fellow. This one pound ball of grey, white, and scarlet feathers, endowed with a brain no bigger than a shelled walnut, had the intelligence of a five-year-old child, and had yet to achieve his full potential when he died.

Alex was an ambassador for the often controversial science of animal behavior. He proved the falsity of such condescending expressions as "bird brain" and "dumb animals," and overturned the traditionally held belief that parrots' speech is only mimicry; mere repetition of words they hear, devoid of actual thought or comprehension. Alex knew over 100 words, he could say, and make it undoubtedly clear that he meant, "No!", "Come here!", and "Pay attention!". He learned to say "I'm sorry!" when faced with tense or angry situations. He would, like a little avian prince, imperiously command "You tickle!" when he wanted to be tickled, and majestically demand the treats he desired: "Want nut!," "Want grape!", "Want corn!" etc. When he asked for a grape and was given a banana instead he made it absolutely clear that he knew the difference and that was not what he had asked for. When he was bored or frightened he would say, "Wanna go back!" to indicate he wished to return to his cage. And almost everyday he said "I love you," to Irene Pepperberg. He could correctly identify objects, shapes, and colors (he learned the color grey after asking "What color?" when he saw his reflection in a bathroom mirror), count up to seven, and understood the concepts of bigger, smaller, same, different, and none. He sometimes put words together comprehensively without being taught to, for instance, he knew the words "yummy" and "bread" individually, but when presented with a birthday cake he put them together entirely on his own as "yummy bread!" after having a taste.

Dr. Pepperberg's book is a fast and fascinating read--I read it in a single night--that often touches and tugs at the heart. I was surprised to find out how much her lonely and socially isolated childhood resembled my own, excluding her aptitude for science and the magical changes wrought by the gift of a green budgie (parakeet)--the first of many parakeets--for her fourth birthday. And I was deeply moved by the outpouring of sympathy offered in response to Alex's demise expressed in emails and letters from all over the world, including sympathy cards from schoolchildren. I was particularly struck by one message from a woman who was diagnosed with a serious and, at the time, barely manageable heart condition that ended her formerly full, active, and happy life, she lost all hope, and was consumed by loneliness and despair. She was often alone as her husband traveled a great deal because of his work, and she had no children, and her condition put an end to her hopes of having them. Often she would stare at the bottles of pills that kept her alive and contemplate not taking them. Then one day she happened to read an article about Alex. It changed her life. Now, over twenty years later, after experimental surgery, she is still here, still an ardent supporter of The Alex Foundation, with parrots of her own to keep her company, including an African Grey. Such stories show that animals really can and do make a difference in human lives. I recommend this book to all animal lovers as well as anyone interested in the study of animal behavior, intelligence, and cognitive abilities, and the training and care of parrots.

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