Alex & Me is a touching memoir of a special relationship between a scientist and a bird that will forever change the way we think about animal intelligence. Dr. Irene Pepperberg spent 30 years conducting research on Alex, an African grey parrot. The research with Alex ended abruptly due his unexpected death in September of 2007.
I was taken on a fascinating and at times emotional journey through the years that these two “colleagues” worked together. The author touches on the scientific research just enough to give readers an understanding of how she taught Alex and to offer proof of his intelligence.
Dr. Pepperberg chose an African grey for her research because of the clarity of their speech and the prior work on their number competence performed in Germany in the 1940s and 1950s . Her relationship with Alex started with a trip to an ordinary pet store back in 1977, where she asked the salesman to select an African grey at random.
Funding for Dr. Pepperberg's research wasn't easily obtained. She survived on small grants and later from donations to The Alex Foundation. Pepperberg's work wasn't initially given a lot respect from other scientists, especially when she opted for a form of training called “the model/rival program,” a system very different from the standard psychological procedure used at that time.
Alex competed with a student for the reward of playing with an object when he correctly identified it. During this time, a deprivation type of program was more popular: the scientist starved the animal to a predetermined low weight and then would require the animal to give correct actions for food. Deciding on a unconventional and more humane type of program was just the start of problems for Pepperberg within the scientific community.
During the early part of the 20th century other people had gotten attention for their so-called ability to communicate with animals. One example was a horse that appeared to count. Scientists were later able to show that the handler gave subtle cues that the animal noticed and reacted to accordingly. In order to prove that Alex wasn't responding to any cues, Pepperberg made sure that people training Alex never tested him. She tested him on many different topics at once, so that he couldn't expect an answer to come from a small subset of possibilities. She made sure she didn't know what object he was being given during a test, so that she couldn't expect a particular answer. Because she repeated tests several times to be sure of her results, Alex often became bored with the repetitiveness of it all.
Even with all the extra controls in her research design, other scientists still sometimes refused to give much merit to her work. I personally think the difficulty with other scientists stem from their jealousy of Dr. Pepperberg's success and the world-wide attention she receives.
At the end of his life, Alex could identify colors, shapes and knew over 100 labels, even occasionally making up his own words like “banerry” for apples (banana + cherry). Another example is “cork nut”. The first time Alex saw a almond in a shell, he called it a “cork”. Dr. Pepperberg told him it was also a nut. So he refered to them as “cork nuts”. He expressed emotion when he had to stay at the vet for the first time. As Pepperberg was leaving he said, “I'm sorry, come here, wanna go back”. She was able to reassure him that everything would be fine and that she would be back the next day.
Just before he died, Alex and Dr. Pepperberg were working on a project on optical illusions, to see if he saw the world as we do. During the few tests she was able to conduct before his death, it seemed that he did. Though we will never know Alex's full potential, he has definitely left an extraordinary legacy.
“You be good, I love you” were the final words Alex would ever say to Dr. Pepperberg. The news of Alex's death spread across the world. Obituaries appearing in all forms of the media, such as: The Economist, The New York Times, Good Morning America (see Alex at work on this video). Though the first few days after Alex died is still a blur for the author, she now has begun to see the impact that she and Alex had on the world.
I want to offer a personal thank you to Dr. Pepperberg and Alex. I've been involved in animal rescue for several years; parrots are among my menagerie. I believe the work Dr. Pepperberg did with Alex, and continues to do with her other African greys, will lead to more respect for our feathered friends and fewer will be in need of rescue.
Alex & Me is a very personal account of a brave woman's journey into the scientific unknown. Accomplishments and losses are mixed with some genuinely touching exchanges between a devoted scientist and her feathered “colleague”. The story is unlike anything you will ever read, and one so remarkable that it will remain with you.
Those interested in a more in-depth information about Dr. Pepperberg's research methods can do so in her first book, The Alex Studies.