I’m writing today with a heavy, heavy heart, friends. Alex, the African Grey Parrot who, with his human mentor Dr. Irene Pepperberg, revolutionized scientific thinking about avian intelligence and communication, has died suddenly at the age of 31. Any bird lover should mourn Alex’s passing, but this tragedy hits particularly close to home for me because, though I never met him, I know his best friend Irene, and my own family includes an African Grey, 21-year-old Jesse, who is very dear to me. Had I harbored any scientific skepticism about Irene’s conclusions from her work with Alex, living with Jesse would have vanquished it.
Until Irene began her studies with Alex in the late 1970s, scientists and laypeople alike vastly underestimated the capacity of parrots and other birds to think and feel (we wouldn’t want to be anthropomorphic now, would we?). Neuroanatomists went so far as to dismiss the avian brain as too anatomically simple to perform the higher functions once ascribed exclusively to humans but grudgingly extended to our fellow primates and cetaceans. Predictably, reports of Alex’s accomplishments were pooh-poohed by insecure scientists and philosophers who rush to their ivory battlements any time another species appears to be encroaching on exclusively human turf (language, tool use, culture, music, etc.). The same crowd has denied the significance of the accomplishments of Washoe the chimpanzee and Koko the lowland gorilla, who learned to communicate in American Sign Language. Wearing down such substantial opposition took unconventional thinking, rigorous methodology, meticulous documentation, and selfless dedication to uncovering the long-ignored truths about the minds of birds.
By scientifically documenting Alex’s ability to communicate using human language and to grasp abstract concepts, Irene fostered a broader awareness that parrots are not merely amusing mimics but sensitive creatures with complex emotional and intellectual needs. These revelations have helped to change our traditionally exploitive and abusive relationships with parrots. Alex may have lived his entire life in human company, but he was a charismatic ambassador for all his kin, wild as well as captive. Today it’s unacceptable to treat captive parrots as home decor or amusing novelties, and wild parrots have been promoted from colorful tropical icons to sentient beings. Not that we don’t still have a long way to go, but more parrots are living better lives now thanks to Irene and Alex.
Not surprisingly, given Alex’s worldwide fame, there has been a huge outpouring of sympathy from around the world. Sadly, amidst the public sharing of grief in various online communities some puerile bottom-feeders masquerading as animal rights activists have posted vile, defamatory, and completely ignorant remarks about Alex and Irene. Know this, friends: Alex was never a “lab animal” in the traditional sense, he lived a far better life than the vast majority of pet parrots, and he significantly raised the standards for care of captive parrots.
Irene was interviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered, and she was amazingly self-composed considering the pain I know she’s in. Thinking back to what an emotional wreck I’ve been for weeks after losing a dear creature, I’m in awe.
Be strong, Irene – Alex may be gone, but his life’s work and our love and respect for him and you live on.