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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Alex (1976 – 2007)

Air Date: Week of September 21, 2007

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(Photo: Arlene Levin-Rowe, the Alex Foundation)

When Alex the Grey parrot died this month, author Sy Montgomery says the world lost a bird who broke down the barrier between animals and humans. She offers this tribute.

Transcript

CURWOOD: At the time of his death earlier this month at the age of 31, he was working with researchers at Harvard and Brandeis universities. As a fan who followed his career for more than two decades, Sy Montgomery offers this tribute to Alex the parrot.

MONTGOMERY: When he died, I felt like some folks did when Elvis Presley or Lady Diana passed away. Alex the African Grey Parrot was one of my heroes.

Ever since he left the pet store for the lab, Alex had worked with researcher Irene Pepperberg on a monumental project. For most of his life, he studied the English language—and in doing so, changed the way humans look at our place as a species in the great order of life.


(Arlene Levin-Rowe, the Alex Foundation)

Language was thought to be the sole province of humanity. That we use language, and animals don’t, supported an idea that we were vastly superior—and therefore fundamentally different—from the rest of animate creation. Of course, once it was supposed that tool use made humans uniquely important—until Jane Goodall discovered wild chimps using rocks as hammers, sticks as probes and leaves as sponges. So with great interest, I’ve followed the experiments to see if animals could use language after all. I’ve been rooting for the animals.

First Washoe the chimp—later Koko the gorilla—learned American Sign Language. Then dolphins and sea lions learned to touch word-like symbols in syntactical order. There were others. But some linguist or other was always shooting them down. They complained the animals weren’t using language as we do.


(Photo: Arlene Levin-Rowe, the Alex Foundation)

But Alex did. In a voice that any English speaker could understand, he correctly used hundreds of words. He made meaningful requests. He answered abstract questions. He even told researchers to go away when he was tired—and asked them to entertain him when he was bored. One time, during an experiment that bored him, he repeatedly asked for a nut—but the researcher ignored him again and again. He figured he had to spell it out for her. So he said, “Want a nut! Enn-Uuu-Tee!”

Alex revealed a mind remarkably like ours. His last words, spoken to Pepperberg the night before he died, were these: “You be good. See you tomorrow. I love you.” Some still claim Alex wasn’t really using language. But I mean, come on! Here he is, telling us, in plain English, that he wants a nut! What could be clearer than that?

When Alex spoke, a member of a species more closely related to dinosaurs than to humans was talking with us. And that answered the question, for me anyway, beyond any doubt: Language is not the uncrossable barrier between people and animals. Which suggests this ‘great divide’ between our kind and other species is just something we made up.

In speaking his mind so clearly, Alex has done us a great service. He has helped to reunite humanity with the rest of the living world.

[WOMAN SPEAKING WITH PARROT]

 

Links

The Alex Foundation

"The Good, Good Pig" by Sy Montgomery

 

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