Book Review: 'Alex & Me': A Bird Gives Voice To A Hidden World Of Nature
About the time that Tam came into our lives I happened upon Irene Pepperberg's recently published Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered the Hidden World of Animal Intelligence -- and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process. This sweet little book, slightly longer than the title, is the story of how a researcher and an African grey parrot uncovered a hidden world of animal intelligence over a three-decade relationship.
Tam is a semi-feral grey tabby cat with beautiful markings who showed up at the DF&C's mountain retreat in the depths of the harshest winter in many years. About a year old and somewhat emaciated, he would look forlornly through the basement sliders at Kimba, himself a feral kitten when the DF&C rescued him, who would look back.
Kimba began yowling whenever Tam came around to notify the DF&C that he was in the 'hood, and she began leaving food and water that he would devour on his nightly visits. After several weeks, she was able to lure him into a Haveaheart trap, took him off to the vet's to be neutered and ensconced him in a downstairs bathroom in an effort to assimilate him into household life.
That process is ongoing because as the DF&C astutely notes, Tam lost the ability to trust humans -- or perhaps never did -- and trusting is going to take a while. Or might never happen.
As I look into Tam's baleful eyes and coo sweet nothings his way I try hard to not project my human values on him. This is because as fond as I am of animals in general and cats in particular and they usually of me, I have come to know that there is an innate intelligence locked in those little brains that it is difficult if not impossible to comprehend in human terms.
That is the big takeaway from Alex & Me: That even though this bird's brain was about the size of a shelled walnut it was capable of something more or less comparable to human intelligence.
I am not suggesting that Tam and other domesticated felines might be able to add, sound out words, identify shapes and understand complex concepts as Pepperberg laboriously, rigorously and conclusively found with Alex. They cannot, but to deny that cats can comprehend in terms we understand -- let alone lack the ability to form emotional bonds despite their famous independence -- is unsustainable based on Pepperberg's research, and my own experience, as well.* * * * *Alex & Me is as much a story about Pepperberg's battle with a scientific establishment dominated by behaviorists who were certain that "animals are automatons, responding mindlessly to stimuli."
While she still has detractors, Pepperberg was able to show with statistical confidence that not just apes have cognitive abilities and "know more than we think, and think a great deal more than we know," and that Alex (pardon the pun) was not merely parroting things that he heard from her and his other handlers but understood concepts like "same," different" and "none."
Alex, like an intelligent child, was easily bored and so Pepperberg and her assistants had to be increasingly ingenious in how they tested him. He also was bossy, obstinate and mischievous -- and invariably contrite.
Pepperberg writes that when she returned from a lunch to find that Alex had heavily chewed most of the edges of a 20-page grant proposal that she had to submit to a scientific panel in a few hours' time to keep her funding:
"I responded irrationally, as humans often do in such circumstances: I shrieked at Alex, yelling stupidly, 'How could you do such a thing, Alex?' Easy -- he's a parrot.
"Alex then employed something he'd learned recently in similar circumstances. He cowered a little, looked at me, and said, 'I'm sorry . . . I'm sorry.' "When Alex died in 2007 at the relatively young age of 31 of an apparent arrhythmia, heart attack or stroke, he was widely mourned, and The Economist, which had noted the passing of Lucianno Pavarotti and Ingmar Bergman in previous weeks, devoted its obituary page to him.
"Alex left us as a magician might exit the stage: a blinding flash, a cloud of smoke, and the weaver of wizardry is gone, leaving us awestruck at what we'd seen, and wondering what other secrets remain hidden," wrote Pepperberg. "Alex's sudden, unexpected departure left me in awe at his achievements and wondering what else he would have done had he stayed. He left at the height of his powers. To some what he did seemed magical, or at least otherwordly. Indeed, he had given us a glimpse of another world, one that had always existed but remained beyond our view: the world of animal minds. I barely had a voice when I was a child. Yet this powerful little feathered presence gave voice to a hidden world of nature. He was a great teacher to me and all of us."
Pepperberg determined that Alex had the development of a 5-year-old child, but I would say that in a way that really puts her work in perspective: That a 5-year-old child has the development of an African grey parrot.
Alex's last words to Pepperberg were: "You be good. I love you."WHILE WE'RE ON THE SUBJECTWhile I have known a couple of parrots in my time, including one that only spoke Spanish when there were Anglo visitors and another with clipped wings who would scream "Help, help, help" at the top of his lungs when he wanted to be carried from the second floor of my uncle's house, ravens have always held a special fascination for me.
I made the acquaintance of Edgar (as in Allan Poe) on visits to a friend's ranch in Colorado and was able to witness first hand his extraordinary communication skills and use of tools.
Which leads me to also recommend Bernd Heinrich's Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventure with Wolf Birds, a tome as dense as Alex & Me is light, but a terrific read nevertheless. Or should I say "nevermore"?