“Alex & Me”December 2, 2008 at 5:19 pm | Posted in Nonfiction | 2 Comments
Probably you’ve heard of Alex the parrot. His untimely death last year brought a great deal of media focus to his accomplishments and those of his colleague, Dr. Irene Pepperberg. Several years ago, she published a book, The Alex Studies, discussing the famed African Grey from a scientific perspective. Pepperberg brought out Alex & Me as a more personal remembrance aimed at a popular audience.
Alex began his career as a test subject in the field of animal cognition. He didn’t even really have a name, per se, as ALEX is an acronym for “Avian Learning EXperiment.” During the course of three decades of research, Pepperberg developed a forbidden affection for the bird – in the world of science, a love that dared not speak its name. He wasn’t a pet, or “her bird” – he was a subject or, at most, a “colleague.” This was important, because anthropomorphizing animals is anathema in the sciences. The dogma holds that animals are not capable of possessing human traits. Pepperberg’s work thus subjected her to ridicule and a very rocky career path.
Alex & Me tells the story of what attracted Pepperberg to her groundbreaking work, and her trajectory to international renown with Alex. His journey from trembling pet shop denizen to feathered superstar includes Pepperberg’s training techniques, of great interest to bird people. More than that, though, this book is a profoundly moving story. RS and I took turns reading it aloud to each other on a road trip, and I read the penultimate chapter, surprising both of us by sobbing repeatedly. “Goodbye *snif* little… friend!” *choke*
I have a Grey myself, Noelie, who enjoyed checking out the photo section with Alex and his two avian cohorts. She also did something unprecedented, climbing off her basket up onto the edge of the book, where she perched as if to say, “Um, real parrot, right here! Not in book! On book!” While she is quite bright, personal experience made clear to me just how staggering were Alex’s achievements.
Anyone interested in animal/human communication should enjoy this book. Just make sure to have a box of tissues nearby.