Considering how much I like talking animal stories, it’s not surprising that I read the whole of Alex & Me, by Irene Pepperberg, all at once. You may have heard of Alex, a gray parrot who was taught to use English words as labels by Dr. Pepperberg. You may have heard her telling Alex stories, as for example in this interview on Fresh Air. You may have read his obituary when he died suddenly. But what really comes across in this book is why a bird deserved an obituary in the New York Times; he didn’t just repeat words, he conversed.
The book recounts Alex’s life, alternating startling feats and laugh-out-loud funny stories. It’s amazing how much he is like a wilful child.
He gleefully uses “No” and “Wanna go back”. He offers treats to a bored accountant, and when she tries to ignore him bursts out, “Well, what do you want?” During training sessions, he gets ahead of the program and trains the students around him or even Dr. Pepperberg herself. Like other parrots, he likes to dance. And right up until his last night, they would engage goodnights, and he would ask if she were coming in the next day.
In the final chapter, she remarks:
the single greatest lesson Alex taught me, taught all of us, is that animal minds are a great deal more like human minds than the vast majority of behavioral scientists believed.
An intelligence not at all alien.