Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg

Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence–and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process [Paperback]

Most pet owners have a story or two that they tell others in order to convince them that their companion is special or smarter than most. It seems silly to deny the existence of animal intelligence, and sillier to do so if you own a dog that guards your children or a cat that plays tricks on you. It’s even harder to deny non-human intelligence in the face of such notables as Koko, the gorilla who knows sign language. But one of the most unusual ambassadors from the animal kingdom is a true “bird-brain”: Alex the African Grey parrot. In Alex and Me, his owner writes about the exploits of this remarkable bird.

Alex’s owner, Irene Pepperberg, didn’t mean to get into the field of animal communication; in fact, she was a chemistry major. But when she was first introduced to the concept, she fell in love with it and was determined to explore it. To that end, she bought an African Grey parrot that she named Alex. She chose this type of parrot for their relatively clear speech when they chose to learn human words.

Alex, to put it mildly, surpassed all expectations. Over the course of his life, he proved that he could: identify an object’s color, matter (what it’s made of), or number of sides; count as high as six; use such expressions as “I’m sorry” and “Want (insert food item here)” accurately; differentiate between concepts such as “bigger” and “smaller”; and, famously, understand the concept of zero to a certain degree.

Pepperberg faced huge opposition to her studies. She had difficulties finding funding, finding lab space, and finding anyone to take her seriously. Of course, her discoveries were breakthroughs in the world of animal intelligence, but of course, it wasn’t always looked upon with respect. But eventually, Alex’s achievements redefined what we as humans think we know about the creatures who share our world.

Alex passed away suddenly in September 2007. His last words to Pepperberg, his companion of 30 years, were “You be good. See you tomorrow. I love you.”

Although this book obviously tackles an ongoing and complicated scientific experiment, Pepperberg never talks over her audience’s heads. Some scientific information is needed to get the context of some of Alex’s tests, but they’re presented simply and concisely. Readers are likely to learn a lot about the process of testing for results in the sciences. And such information allows readers to more fully appreciate Alex’s accomplishments.

There’s actually a lot going on in this book. It covers Alex’s tests during the ongoing experiment, his owner’s journey into a completely unexpected career and where it took her, the response of the scientific community in general over the course of time, and even touches on a few of the other studies going on (such as Koko the signing gorilla). The stories are so intertwined, though, that no one thread usurps any of the others. Alex is the main binding agent in all of these disparate yarns, and the author never loses sight of that fact. This book is, first and foremost, about Alex, and so Pepperberg never deviates far from him and his charming antics.

It’s a smart bit of editing that allows readers to follow Alex’s triumphs in a linear matter, each one building on the ones before it. There’s nothing scattershot about the author’s approach. Maybe having written so many scientific papers detailing Alex’s progress has paid off in this book. The writing is concise yet personable, straightforward yet humorous. I would be surprised if readers didn’t laugh out loud a time or two at some of the tricks Alex pulled on his hapless human friends.

There’s no telling what Alex would have accomplished, had he lived. His death is not only a great loss to the scientific community, but also a great loss to one wonderfully stubborn and creative researcher who was determined to change the world’s definition of “bird-brain”. Read Alex and Me and prepare to be amazed and touched.

This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on August 2, 2010.

Series: n/a
ISBN: 9780061673986
Publisher: Harpercollins
Page Count: 232
Publication Date: September 1, 2009
Acquired: Borrowed from the Yolo County Public Library, Davis branch
The Alex Foundation Website
Reading Guide