Friday, October 24, 2008

Alex & Irene; P & I

Yesterday I wrote an Amazon review of the latest free book I'd gotten from their Vine program. The title of the book, by Irene Pepperberg, is Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence--and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process. That about covers it, don't you think?

Actually there are a lot of topics touched on in this quick read: the dominant attitude of humans and scientists toward non-humans, a woman in what had traditionally been a man's academic career, infighting and jealousy among humans and parrots, humans and parrots teaching other parrots, how a bored parrot being repetitively tested causes mischief just like I did in elementary school, grief, laughter, and testing methods. See, I can string a lot of words after a colon also.

I want to give you a funny example of that bored parrot, but first, if you don't know Alex's story, he was a bird who changed the meaning of birdbrain, demonstrating his ability to learn many things it was assumed he couldn't possibly learn. Among them were colors, different objects, and numbers--one of his regular tests involved being presented with a tray of various objects in various colors and quantities and being asked how many of a certain colored object there were on the tray.

Now, in the name of scientific proof, Alex had to do this sort of thing over and over and over again, long after he'd shown he knew the right answers. On one occasion when the correct answer was two, Alex repeatedly replied either one or four. Alex was sent to his room for a time-out for misbehaving, but as soon as the door was closed behind him: "Two ... two ... two ... I'm sorry ... come here ... two."

On another occasion, Pepperberg decided to replicate Bernd Heinrich's experiment in which Heinrich had tied food to a long string hanging below a raven. The raven then pulled the string up bit by bit, stepping on it before pulling up the next section. First tested was a young parrot who duplicated the behavior of the raven. Next came Alex who by this time was a famous star, used to being waiting on by scientists when he demanded food or toys. He took a look at the almond hanging below him, looked over at Pepperberg, paused, and said, "Pick up nut!"

Alex died one night, some twenty years earlier than the usual life expectancy of his species. One chapter consists of excerpts from the condolences which poured in. Anyone who has ever bonded with an animal is likely to get choked up over the stories told here.

Less than twelve hours after I posted that review, I received an email from someone I met about 25 years ago. She'd just had to euthanize her 13-year-old Golden Retriever, a wacky dog I'd had the pleasure of hiking with.

I started to write an email back and thought about that chapter of condolences. I called her and we spoke for the first time in a few years, about animals and pain and sanctuaries, social work and deep ecology, the arts, books, nature, the economy, people we knew and people we were. I'm sorry ... come here ...

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