Wednesday, December 03, 2008

African Parrot drawing by me

Alex & Me by Irene Pepperberg

I just finished reading a book titled Alex & Me published in 2008 by Harper/Collins. The subheading on the cover says "How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of animal Intelligence--and formed a Deep Bond in the Process." That  subheading was the hook and I purchased the book thinking it would be good reading. I tend to like books, documentaries, programs that focus on what people discover about animal life and also have a curiosity about human-animal communication. I have a therapist friend who wrote a book about her relationship with her cat. I ended up doing an in depth book review about her book. In this book, Irene, starts out as a shy young girl with only a parakeet for a friend and ends up using her knack with caring for birds as a means to establishing a brilliant career questioned though it is by established authorities who tend to poo poo the thought of animals being anywhere near the equals of humans in the brain/thought category. .

Alex is an African Grey, type of parrot which or should I say who tends to project words they learn to speak more clearly than most other parrots. Irene, the main human character, who has a PhD. is a scientist in search of a research project. Although her degree is an advanced very specialized area in chemistry, she decides to spend her life delving into processes and various aspects of bird communication and learning coming from the premise that some species i.e. the African Grey, which by the way have brilliant red tail feathers have the ability to understand what they are saying. In the process Irene and Alex, the first parrot she adopts to be her student, companion, science experiment become extremely bonded with each other. The bottom line is after over 30 years of working with Alex using meticulous methods and creative procedures the scientific community begins to accept both Irene as an equal and Alex as sort of an equal in the realm of having the ability to think. As Irene explained, Alex has the emotional development of a 2 year old and the intellectual development of a 5 year old. This conclusion as a result of the fact that Alex can count up to 7, understands colors and size and shapes, knows what nothing is, can communicate a couple hundred words in the right context and at the right time, can make up words of his own i.e. banberry for apple (cherry plus a banana) and can solve problems in his own unique way usually by making humans do things for him they don't necessarily want to do.

Alex is raised and lived most of his life in various labs that Irene manages to run. At one point Irene attempts to take Alex home with her as much as she can do it,  but that period is ruined because Alex becomes frightened by a small owl he sees outside Irene's window and asks to be taken back to the Lab "Wanna go home" he kept repeating intently. (paraphrasing). Irene closes the drapes so he can't see the owl but that doesn't work, of course, as Alex knows objects still exist even when not seen or heard, a notion that scientists tend to reserve only for human minds. As Irene put it the owl, a feared predator, was in Alex's DNA and she never brought Alex home again. His life at various labs was not too bad given he had the run of the places, even a tree out in an open area with birds up there to look at which is what he preferred to do rather than go in the tree. The downside was the repetitious tests he was given which often became boring for him to do. In that case, he would make up wrong answers and generally be disruptive. As time passed, Alex also had two other parrots as buddies though Alex was always the one in charge and his number one companion and preferred friend was Irene. They used to call that imprinting. Wonder what Irene would say about that.

I enjoyed the book. There are funny parts such as the time Irene takes Alex on a plane trip and the the woman giving out the tickets gives both of them a hard time when she finds out that one of the passengers with Irene is a bird with his own ticket with his own baggage and all. Alex himself is funny, has a sense of humor and is always a step ahead of the humans.

I did come away with a thought though. I disagree with the need to compare animals with humans. When Irene states compared with the average human, Alex is like a 5 year old mentally, turn it around. How would we compare if we were thrown in with a world of birds and no other humans?  How well would we learn to fly, care for our "feathers", communicate with other birds? We know, we wouldn't be able to survive at all though we might learn to sound like birds would we ever know what they are saying to each other. As Irene admits, she could never know Alex's "consciousness" , what the intent of his actions were. One time he tore up a grant she was writing. Why did he do it? She will never know for sure but she can always surmise. It was just fun, Alex liked to eat paper, he was bored and on and on. Was he jealous of the grant? Did he suspect the grant itself would mean boring tests? Well that is a bit far out. (on my part) 

The book is more about Irene than Alex in some ways as it shows how Irene develops into her own person, after experiencing a deprived kind of childhood, a divorce, and the misfortune of being looked down upon within the scientific world because of her research interest in proving that animals can think and in this case that parrots are not just "birdbrains". Some of us always knew not only that animals can think but they can also feel. It was clear that Alex loved Irene in that special ways animals have of communicating their affection for humans. I wonder why scientists have never latched on to that concept that individual animals can feel just as deeply as the individuals within the human species can feel. Thank goodness they are not trying to prove that notion too. Irene Pepperberg's book opens up a world in which the reader can learn how progress was made in the quest for knowledge about how not only birds think and communicate but also how humans change themselves as a result of their conscious connectedness with the animal kingdom which in this case means a human sharing intimate moments with an African Gray named Alex.