Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg

iconiconOne of the tricky things about library ebooks is that when my time is up, the file simply doesn't open anymore — I don't have the option of paying a fine for a couple of days in order to finish reading the book.  So when I saw this was about to expire, I made a concerted effort to finish it in the day or so that I had left.

Luckily, it was a pretty quick read, so I was able to finish it in about a day.  It's a wonderful memoir that shows how far we've come in the study of animals, as well as memorializing the relationship between Alex and his handler, Dr. Pepperberg.

I like reading books about how smart animals are.  Animal lovers, of course, already know how much of our language they understand, so while reading something like this is a delight, it's not a surprise.

When I was reading, however, I couldn't help but notice an interesting similarity between Dr. Pepperberg's research and the information in another book I read a while back, Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz.  Horowitz described a study that was trying to determine whether dogs would use tools, as many other animals do in the wild.  But in every case, rather than using a tool in order to perform the desired task, the dogs would go to the person in the room and try to get them to do it for them.  Horowitz accounted for this by noting that dogs are hardwired to interact with and depend on their humans, rather than figuring things out independently.

But Dr. Pepperberg described something remarkably similar.  In the lab, they tried to copy a study using the parrots that had been done using crows in the wild.  The parrots that hadn't been with them for very long did the same thing the crows had done: They made use of the tool at hand.  The parrots who had been working with people for very long, however — such as Alex — demanded that the people perform the task for them, rather than trying to figure out how to do it themselves.  In other words, they did the same exact thing the dogs did in the other studies.

I think this is particularly interesting for the implications on animal intelligence and problem-solving, as well as the impact that domestication has on them.  Obviously, animals that have lived with people for a long time recognize that humans are their best way of getting anything they might want: food, water, attention, whatever.  That's not to say that they couldn't figure out how to perform the tasks in these studies.  On the contrary, it shows that they are smart enough to realize they have a better tool at hand: us.

Alex's achievements, as described in Dr. Pepperberg's memoir, are truly wonderful.  He learned not only a vocabulary, but what the words mean, and demonstrated his understanding by sorting, answering challenging questions, and so on.  His antics are more than just funny anecdotes, too — they demonstrate his personality as well as his intelligence, such as when he got bored and started giving every answer except the right one... until she made him go back in his cage, when he started yelling "I'm sorry!" and the correct answer over and over.

I'm not a bird person (primarily because I've never had one, not because I dislike them by any means), but I loved this book.  In fact, of all the animal memoirs I have read (not many, because I hate always knowing that I'll cry at the end), this was by far my favorite.  I think any animal lover will be interested and delighted to read about Alex's amazing achievements!

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