On September 6, 2007, an African Grey parrot named Alex died prematurely at age thirty-one. His last words to his owner, Irene Pepperberg, were "You be good. I love you."
What would normally be a quiet, very private event was, in Alex's case, headline news. Over the thirty years they had worked together, Alex and Irene had become famous—two pioneers who opened an unprecedented window into the hidden yet vast world of animal minds. Alex's brain was the size of a shelled walnut, and when Irene and Alex first met, birds were not believed to possess any potential for language, consciousness, or anything remotely comparable to human intelligence. Yet, over the years, Alex proved many things. He could add. He could sound out words. He understood concepts like bigger, smaller, more, fewer, and none. He was capable of thought and intention. Together, Alex and Irene uncovered a startling reality: We live in a world populated by thinking, conscious creatures.
The fame that resulted was extraordinary. Yet there was a side to their relationship that never made the papers. They were emotionally connected to one another. They shared a deep bond far beyond science. Alex missed Irene when she was away. He was jealous when she paid attention to other parrots, or even people. He liked to show her who was boss. He loved to dance. He sometimes became bored by the repetition of his tests, and played jokes on her. Sometimes they sniped at each other. Yet nearly every day, they each said, "I love you."
Alex and Irene stayed together through thick and thin—despite sneers from experts, extraordinary financial sacrifices, and a nomadic existence from one university to another. The story of their thirty-year adventure is equally a landmark of scientific achievement and of an unforgettable human-animal bond.
Alex is the African gray parrot whose ability to master a vocabulary of more than 100 words and answer questions about the color, shape and number of objects garnered wide notice during his life as well as obituaries in worldwide media after his death in September 2007. Pepperberg, who teaches animal cognition, has previously documented the results of her 30-year relationship with Alex in The Alex Studies. While this book inevitably covers some of the same ground, it is a moving tribute that beautifully evokes "the struggles, the initial triumphs, the setbacks, the unexpected and often stunning achievements" during a groundbreaking scientific endeavor spent "uncovering cognitive abilities in Alex that no one believed were possible, and challenging science's deepest assumptions about the origin of human cognitive abilities." Pepperberg deftly interweaves her own personal narrative including her struggles to gain recognition for her research with more intimate scenes of life with Alex than she was able to present in her earlier work, creating a story that scientists and laypeople can equally enjoy, if they can all keep from crying over Alex's untimely death.
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What the world needs now...
In a time when people breed dogs and birds for fighting to the death, when nature is slaughtered for a few pieces of ivory or fur, and our climate threatens the inanimate material stuff we've come to place too much value upon, this story speaks volumes about the importance of respect for all living things.
Thank you for sharing the your story so poignantly Ms.Pepperberg... You now owe me a box of Kleenex!