This relatively short recount of Irene Pepperberg’s experiment with Alex is a very intriguing book. The truth behind it and the idea of a thirty year experiment between man and beast is awe-inspiring. The short 226 page story is written by Irene herself, but recounts the story very well in very few words.
The story of Alex is told starting with his end. After Alex, an African Gray, passed away at an early age for his species of bird at 31, Irene Pepperberg was in a state of grieving. She had worked with Alex for over three decades. Although she maintained a scientific relationship, an objective approach, she still became emotionally attached to Alex without noticing it. Alex left with his final words being “You be good. I love you.” Pepperberg compared losing Alex to be the same as losing her baby several years earlier. People all around the world who were touched by Alex wrote in to Irene sending their condolences.
Irene Pepperberg began her interest in birds when she received a baby parakeet for her 5th birthday. She can’t remember its name and it never talked, but it played with her and flitted around on her shoulder wherever she was in their house. She grew older and kept getting more birds, with her first bird to talk being Charlie Bird number one. The summer before her senior year, she was in an introduction course at MIT for chemistry. A canary flew in the window and the teacher was not happy. Pepperberg told everyone to turn off the Bunsen burners and put a dish of water in a corner. The canary landed for a drink, and Irene trapped it and took it home to find its owner.
Irene Pepperberg went to MIT where she was aiming towards a degree in chemistry. She met her husband there and became engaged while enrolled in MIT and married after transferring to Harvard. She recognized her larger interest in biology and started looking around for a way to further this idea. She thought that since African Grays were good at communication, she could replicate the results with a bird that others had done with chimps. She began her experiment with a one year old African Gray named Alex.
Alex started out very skittish but very quickly became accustomed to being handled and talked to. He quickly learned to identify paper index cards with sounds he eventually honed into “pay-er.” The second object was easier to pronounce, a metal key. Different objects and colors were taught to Alex as well as the understanding that saying “no” meant he didn’t want to cooperate or do something. A breakthrough in proving thought not just mimicry was when Pepperberg showed him clothes pegs, and after a while changed that color to green. He identified it as “green wood peg wood” without learning to connect green and peg wood, what he called the clothes pegs. Showing the connection of two separate phrases displays that he is considering his options, not just reacting to cues. A breakthrough in this experiment came when he began to learn “same” and “different” descriptions.
After several stressful moves and applying for several grants, Pepperberg finally was given a grant for her research. Meanwhile, Alex had spores in his lungs that sent him to the vet, which at the time didn’t know much about treating these spores. A new medical treatment was not effective on healing Alex, so Pepperberg decided to get Alex surgery to scrape out the spores. He came out of the surgery very sedated, but was acting his healthy self again the next day. Even though he acted fine, he was hiding the recovery symptoms at least a full year after the surgery.
Alex was introduced to other Grays which were also part of Irene Pepperbergs experiments. He regarded them as enemies for a while, but eventually started to even help mentor the other birds to speak. After a few years of not getting grants and moving all over, Pepperberg settled in at Brandeis University and was given a job for 5 years. This was to be cut short by the economic recession, leaving Pepperberg with no funding, making her turn to friends to house Alex and the other Grays. Meanwhile, Alex displayed two new concepts he had learned. He partially learned the concept of “none” and addition, a shocking surprise that came when teaching another bird to count to two, Alex added up each set of numbers and yelled out the total.
One morning, in the 31st year of Alex’s life, Pepperberg got three e-Mails. The first was a grant that she had finally received, but the next two were not as happy. The second was a message saying they found one of the Grays dead that morning. The third confirmed it was Alex.
After a long period of grieving, Pepperberg relates all the things she learned from Alex, some she didn’t even realize until he was gone. She talks about her feelings towards him, her need for a sterile, scientific barrier instead of treating Alex like a pet. He taught society the true capabilities of birds, further than ever imagined. He passed away only halfway through his expected life span. Alex did not even reach his full potential.
I believe anyone who has a passion for science or even just has a pet should read this book. This book confirms what pet owners already know about their “babies.” They are very intelligent. The most touching quote is one spoken by Alex himself the night before he passed. When Irene left, Alex chirped, “You be good, I love you.” This explains basically all of what Pepperberg was trying to prove- animals have cognitive abilities. I feel that this novel is a very accurate account of what animals can achieve and the level of hidden intelligence a lot of them already have. The reader who is looking for a quick read is not the right person for this book. On the other hand, this book is very informative and is very heartwarming. Alex and Me is a very well written book, it is worth the slow read.