I think most of the kids who grew up in my generation knew about the amazing talking parrot, Alex, who could not only talk, but discern. I remember my first introduction to Alex. It was in fifth grade during a “Science in our daily lives” sort of lesson (we had them about once a month), and we had broken into groups. We were spending the afternoon on animals and how amazing they were (“animal intelligence” is probably what the lesson would be called now, though then the concept was still under fierce debate). One of my best friends, Toni, told me about a Grey who not only could talk (WOW!), but had told another Grey, who was learning to talk at the time, to, “Speak clearly!”
This week’s book is Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence–and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process. Yes, it’s something of a mouthful of a title. But it’s a wonderful book. Dr. Irene Pepperberg, the author of this book and trainer of the amazing Alex, manages a perfect balance of talking about the science in a way that is understandable to layman without talking down. And she makes sure to talk about the science. To her, there was no other purpose at the beginning of the experiment. Animal, especially bird intelligence was a fact of her existence and she set out to prove it to all the naysayers in academia (who were many). The book is a wonderful insight into the process of science and of a scientist and the emotions that we so often forget are involved.
Fittingly, Pepperberg starts with what brought her to write the book: Alex’s untimely death and huge response that it caused within her, who had spent thirty years remaining objective and detached from her subject, and the public, who had given their hearts to Alex without thought. Her deep sorrow, so out of place in an experiment, allowed her to see her experiments from a new perspective. They were no longer a crusade, they were successes. Alex and Irene had changed lives.
But the first life Alex changed was Irene’s. So, after sharing so many beautiful and sweet excerpts from the flood of letters that came in after his early death (Alex died at 31, most Greys live 50 or so years), she begins to share her story.
There is a chapter of her life before Alex, zooming from four years old to freshly graduated PhD. It gives perspective and is perhaps a bit too long, but not unforgivably so. It certainly sets a personal stage before jumping into a whirlwind of science and the positively medieval community of animal behavior research. We’ve come a long way since the 80’s, thankfully. (Factoid: When Pepperberg began her experiment, it was industry standard to starve animal subjects to eighty percent of their body weight so that they would be more eager to work for food! Pepperberg immediately dismissed this approach.)
It quickly becomes apparent that Pepperberg and Alex weren’t just breaking standards and the current notions, they were well on their way to setting the next generation’s standards and providing the basic assumptions that young scientists would approach animal behavior studies. But the change did not come quickly. It took decades.
The book is a quick read, thankfully. There are no draggingly boring spots where the science feels unobtainable. If you’re interested in more science, she’s written another book called The Alex Studies that more completely covers the science and less the emotion.
However, the emotion is why I liked this book. I’ll likely read The Alex Studies, because the science fascinates me as well. But! Alex meant something to me when I was young, as he did to quite a lot of people. I appreciate that Pepperberg, in her story, never forgot that he wasn’t just hers, but the world’s as well. He impacted so many, and this book gives him the chance to do so once more.
P.S. If there was a fault to this book, it was a careless editor. They let the title of a major book series/franchise slip through spelled incorrectly. Augh! It’s Doctor Dolittle. NOT Doctor Doolittle. Kind of important in a book about talking animals. Some blame rests with the author, but also with a lazy editor who didn’t bother to double check. There were a couple other things, too, but that one was the big, glaring annoyance. Still, could have been a lot worse.