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For anyone fascinated with human-animal communication, chimps and gorillas named Washoe, Koko, and Michael and an African Grey Parrot named Alex need no introduction. Nor do their human compatriots Roger Fouts, Francine "Penny" Patterson, and Irene Pepperberg.
I still own a Time magazine from the early 90's with a cover on it spotlighting Alex. The headline poses the question "Do Animals Think?"
I bought the magazine because I wanted to see if science had caught up with my own rock solid belief--based on forty years of observation and experience by that time--that the answer was "Oh, hell, yes!"
But you know scientists. They have to weigh and measure things. So do reporters who write about such things.
So of course the Time article writer hedged his bets: (paraphrasing here, obviously) "Looks like animals think...no absolute proof...pretty freaking amazing, nevertheless!"
Animal people know better. And because we aren't scientists or Time writers, we don't have to hedge our bets.
Alex and Me is a seriously engaging book. It begins with Pepperberg's stunned, near-catatonic reaction to Alex's unexpected death twenty years sooner than his expected lifespan, and some thirty years after her journey with him began.
The public reaction to Alex's death was immediate, worldwide, and eye-opening to Pepperberg. She had been working non-stop toward world-wide acceptance of the bread crumbs that were leading scientists to proclaim, "Yes, animals think." But she was bucking an entrenched system that seemed intent on believing that humans alone possess specific attributes when it comes to language, discernment, humor, attitude, fabrication/falsification, and putting two and two together. (Yes, actual math concepts, including zero.)
Then along came Penny Patterson and Koko to prove much of what scientists believed was impossible or extremely unlikely. Apes use tools, can learn to sign and communicate with humans, and will lie when they think their handlers will think less well of them if they tell the truth. Koko fibbed to Penny, indicating to her that Michael had done something naughty, until Penny proved her deception by showing her a video. Then Koko responded appropriately when Penny called her out.
And when Koko's kitten died, Koko signed to Penny, "My heart hurts..." to share what her broken heart was feeling.
Birds are birdbrains!
Surely birds can't...don't...
until Alex proved they could...and did!
Alex could talk, react, respond. Alex had an attitude, a sense of humor, a sense of superiority, and he could count and call an absence of something "none". (He did the latter all on his own, since Pepperberg thought him incapable of the concept of zero.)
And Alex made up terms ("banberry" was one of them) to express to humans his concept of some of the things that were a part of his environment (in this case a food item).
He corrected the younger Greys who were being taught human terms and concepts when, apparently, he thought they weren't "catching on" quickly enough. He even scolded them, telling them to "say better" when they mumbled.
And when he got bored, he would let his human handlers know by asking (or demanding) to be put back into his cage. Or he'd improvise and develop a new way to play the game to make the lessons more compelling and less yawn-some for himself.
Alex was not a mere "subject" or "avian student"; he was an actor, a reactor, a genuine responder. He let Pepperberg know, in no uncertain terms, when he was feeling groovy or feeling grumpy.
The book is a real keeper. I will read it again one of these days...
For the uninitiated human-animal communication inquirer, after reading Alex and Me, the term 'bird brain' will carry a whole new meaning.
I highly recommend Alex and Me!!!