- Beth Solka
Years ago when researchers were in heated debates about whether or not animals can think, I could have told them that they do. When I was first married I had an incredible dog named Doctor. One day when I was young and stupid, I had a knock on my door. There was a man standing outside my door whom I didn’t recognize, so I locked my screen door to keep my dog in and stepped outside to see what this man wanted. He began to ask me some very bizarre questions about the neighborhood. He kept stepping back to draw me away from my front door. Suddenly I found that I had gone into my front yard to talk to this strange young man. Red flags were going off in my brain at this point. He was about to ask me another odd question when he suddenly stopped and said, “I have to go.” He turned around and walked quickly away. I thought, “What a strange man that was!” When I turned around I discovered that Doctor had jumped up, unhooked the screen door, and was sitting behind me with his lips curled back in a silent growl. Evidently, he thought that the man was odd also.
When my husband bought me Alex & Me, by Irene Pepperberg, last year and gently said, “I think that you would like this," I politely thanked him and stubbornly put it on the shelf. A year later I picked it up and now I grudgingly have to admit that he was correct. I do love this book!
As someone who has been fascinated by the research done on animal cognition in the seventies, I followed the research with the gorilla Koko and chimpanzees such as Nim. Instead of teaching a primate sign language as the previous researchers had done, Dr. Pepperberg decided to conduct her research with an African Grey parrot named Alex, which had the added advantage of speech. What a great idea!
Sadly, the book begins with the Alex’s sudden death and condolences coming to Dr. Pepperberg from around the world. The last conversation that Dr. Pepperberg had with Alex before she left work on the night he died went like this:
“You be good. I love you,” Alex said to me.
“I love you, too.” I replied.
“You’ll be in tomorrow?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’ll be in tomorrow.”
Alex had become famous worldwide and had even done a television documentary with Alan Alda. After the sad beginning of this book, the author goes back in time to recount the amazing accomplishments and funny stories of Alex ruling the research lab and frustrating the young lab assistants with his trickery or berating the younger African Grey parrots when they did not pick up concepts quickly enough.
One of my favorite stories occurs when Alex becomes sick and has to spend a prolonged period of time at the veterinary clinic. The night bookkeeper is there working on the books beside Alex.
“You want a nut?” Alex asked her.
He persisted. “You want corn?”
“No, thank you, Alex, I don’t want corn.”
This went on for a little while, and the accountant did her best to ignore him. Finally, Alex apparently became exasperated and said in a petulant voice, “Well, what do you want?” The accountant cracked up laughing and gave Alex the attention he was demanding.
Alex demonstrated an understanding of such abstract concepts as emotions, colors, numbers, and language syntax. Thanks to the research done through The Alex Foundation, the scientific community has had to rethink several of the preconceived notions of animal cognition. Of course, those of us who love animals have known about their abilities all along.