Alex & Me: A Human-Animal Bond of true wonder

Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence–and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process, written by Irene Pepperberg, is an incredible book.

On September 6, 2007, an African Grey parrot named Alex died prematurely at age thirty-one. His last words to his owner, Irene Pepperberg, were “You be good. I love you.” What would normally be a quiet, very private event was, in Alex’s case, headline news. Over the thirty years they had worked together, Alex and Irene had become famous—two pioneers who opened an unprecedented window into the hidden yet vast world of animal minds. Alex’s brain was the size of a shelled walnut, and when Irene and Alex first met, birds were not believed to possess any potential for language, consciousness, or anything remotely comparable to human intelligence. Yet, over the years, Alex proved many things. He could add. He could sound out words. He understood concepts like bigger, smaller, more, fewer, and none. He was capable of thought and intention. Together, Alex and Irene uncovered a startling reality: We live in a world populated by thinking, conscious creatures.

The fame that resulted was extraordinary. Yet there was a side to their relationship that never made the papers. They were emotionally connected to one another. They shared a deep bond far beyond science. Alex missed Irene when she was away. He was jealous when she paid attention to other parrots, or even people. He liked to show her who was boss. He loved to dance. He sometimes became bored by the repetition of his tests, and played jokes on her. Sometimes they sniped at each other. Yet nearly every day, they each said, “I love you.”

Alex and Irene stayed together through thick and thin—despite sneers from experts, extraordinary financial sacrifices, and a nomadic existence from one univer­sity to another. The story of their thirty-year adventure is equally a landmark of scientific achievement and of an unforgettable human-animal bond.

Barbara J. King is a biological anthropologist and Professor of Anthropology at The College of William and Mary. Her writings are amazing and her blogging should not be missed. Here is part of her must-read article: A Tale of Alex, Bird with a Walnut-Sized Brain (And What a Brain it Was)

For 23 years, Alex the African Grey Parrot had been surprising scientist Irene Pepperberg with his skills, skills no birdbrain was supposed to have. One day in 2000, working at MIT’s Media Lab, Pepperberg soared beyond surprise to sky-high astonishment. She was engaging Alex (so named in honor of the “Avian Language Experiment”) in sounding out phonemes, the individual sounds that make up words.

Alex had already made progress on this task. If shown a tray of plastic letters, the kind parents affix to a refrigerator door to stimulate their kids’ alphabet learning, he responded correctly to questions. Shown an array of letters that included, say, a red “Ch,” a green “N” and a blue “S,” and so on, when asked, “What sound is blue?,” Alex answered “Ssss….”

That day, some of MIT’s corporate sponsors had flocked to watch Alex do a demo. Alex answered a phoneme question correctly, but then piped up with “Want a nut.” Like students everywhere, Alex liked a good snack now and again, and to push his luck with his teachers.

Wanting to keep him on task, Irene pressed Alex with another question, and got the correct answer and immediately, another “Want a nut.” A third Q&A round followed, but this time Alex underscored the seriousness of his craving with the avian equivalent of italics: “Want a nut.”

At this point, Pepperberg writes, Alex “became very slitty-eyed, always a sign he was up to something.” He looked at her and slowly said, “Want a nut. Nnn…uh….tuh.” No birdbrain there! Alex had just leaped from sounding out phonemes to spelling out the letters of a whole word.

This vignette is one of my favorites in Alex and Me. It conveys Alex’s smarts but also his sass. Alex was an independent bird with a haughty streak and an entitlement complex. Star of The Alex Project and darling of the media, Alex commanded English to convey one thing most clearly: Boredom was his enemy. Irene and her team of students asked him question after question in a quest to satisfy skeptics with statistically significant results. The whole process just wore on his nerves. And sometimes, as with his pointed n-u-t response, he’d just fly beyond the tests, and leave the testers behind.

Go do yourself a favor and read the rest. It is such a special piece.