The Moth: Alex & Me - Irene Pepperberg

The Moth: Alex & Me – Irene Pepperberg

how's that I like this you can all hear me yes okay when in the 1970s when most people started studying the intelligence of animals and the communication skills of animals they used creatures with genetic relationships to humans such as the great apes or they used dolphins with large brains so when I proposed to do this kind of work with a parrot the scientific response of my colleagues was was rather underwhelming my first grand proposal came back essentially asking me what I was smoking they were they were horrified I was going to do this with a creature with the brain of a shell size of a shelled walnuts I was going to do this with a creature that's a pet I mean how was I going to maintain my scientific objectivity working with a pet well I persevered I sent in a grant proposal again at this point I had purchased the bird to be known as Alex and we had a little bit of preliminary data and somebody on the panel actually was studying bird song and understood the striking parallels between the antigen II of vocal learning in humans and birds so we got this grant for one year typical grant more than that but I was ecstatic because we had done preliminary studies I knew we had enough stuff that I could easily turn the ground around resubmit it and get going for several more years I felt that we were on our way well Alex and I worked to a certain extent on our way but our lives were more like The Perils of Pauline than anything else every time something wonderful like that happened there was a downside but over the course of these years Alex had learned to identify about 50 different objects he learned to identify was it seven colors five shapes he called them one two three four five six cornered objects he could identify the materials of these items he combined these labels so he could identify requests refuse categorized more than 100 different things he understood numbers up to 8 he was learning concepts things like bigger and smaller and same and different and absent so I could show him two things and say what same and he'd say color shape matter or none if nothing were same or different and this was very exciting work but it was still not getting a lot of respect from my colleagues in fact even my then-husband you know felt if you didn't couldn't stick an electrode in the brain and get a p300 it didn't count and for those of you who don't know what a p300 is don't worry because I didn't either at the time so you know again it was it was this wonderful stuff Alex would do these great things and then there was always the downside and one of the things happened about Alex was about 10 years old and we had just finished the same different study and I was invited to the International primer to logical congress I was the only person studying a non primate to talk for comparative psychology and I give this talk and the audiences rather amazed and one of the silverback males gets up you know sort of yeah and he sort of got well very interesting type type of talk here but but but you mean to tell me that your bird has done everything that pre max chimps has done and I wanted to say yeah and backwards and in heels but when I smiled my said yes sir and he sat down and I'm thinking I should be dancing in the streets I mean this was an amazing justification of our work but a couple of weeks before I had gotten a little letter from NSF National Science Foundation saying gee you know we ran out of money so your grant was approved but not funded and so here I am at this wonderful APEC scientifically going back home thinking how am I going to keep the lab going how am I going to support this work it was a very difficult time of balancing these kinds of things and all through this again there was also the tension of keeping Alex not as a pet but as a colleague and I have to say that that you know eventually when my husband and I did divorce his attitude was you know will you take the you know I'll take the dog and you take the bird and and I was furious at this because it was it was again it was saying that Alex was nothing but a pat but he wasn't he was my you know he's my scientific colleague he was my research subject but he was my colleague and I cared about him the way you would care about a colleague the way you know I treated my students you care about them but you have a barrier you keep a barrier to keep your scientific objectivity it's you treat them differently than you treat your child or your spouse but you care about them now this was not to say that Alex treated me like a colleague okay it was a very had a very different relationship with me in that he basically knew exactly what buttons to press so he was about remember he was about 15 years old and we all this time we've been doing a lot of press work we were trying to get people interested in the work understand the science and I had done Discovery Channel and National Geographic television shows and Scientific American frontiers and all these kinds of things and we get an invitation to do a radio thing for the BBC and I'm thinking radio I can show this bird anything he could say anything you know who would know what's going on here or they alright you know that's what they want we'll do a taping so I start the show by saying okay I've got this orange square piece of wood and I'm going to ask out like some questions about it and then you hear my heels click click click click click and I go into the room with Alex and I say okay Alex I'm gonna ask you some questions and I go Alex what color and this little birdie verse voice goes no you tell me what shape so I go okay Alex it's four corner and can you tell me what color what matter um Alex it's wood can you tell me what what color how many well there there's one toy here and part of my brain is going this is cool because he's not responding like a little automaton he's interacting with me but the other part of me is going you know we gotta show him that he really can answer the questions I'm asking him so I go Alex come on now you know tell me what collar and he says know what shake I said okay I've had it I'm going to go away and gonna give him a little timeout and you hear my Kiehl's again click click clicking on the floor and then from the room you get this little birdie voice I'm sorry come here orange and Alex you know he kept doing these things about five years later I was at the Media Lab at MIT it's a wonderful exciting scientific place it's basically supported by sponsors who don't give a lot of money each year and then twice a year they come back to see what we've done with all this money and I was working on animal human-computer interfaces a lot of really cool stuff for them but they wanted to just see Alex and hear these I mean the CEO cos of all the top companies coming in they come in waves five minutes at a time and this particular group wanted to see our phone name work which was basically headed towards but not yet there of seeing if Alex could sound out words and things like that but at this stage it was just refrigerator letters what you have you little your you know little child okay all the different colored plastic letters and you'd point to and go what sound you know what sound we did it slightly differently for Alex so he had a tray and we had all these different colored letters scattered around and we'd say what color or what sound is blue okay and we'd ask him to answer so we set this up and you know we got Alex what sound it's blue and he goes and they go good birdie and he says what a nut because he could ask for anything he wants as a reward and I'm going none in and we can't have these standing around while you eat nuts you know let's do a couple more trials so I asked me know what sound is green Shh good birdie my nut what weight and we do this several times and each time he's more and more agitated going you know war nut you know really I mean if I could've showing this and finally after about the sixth or seventh one of these he looks at me and his puffs up his little bird eNOS and he goes what nut hmm uh so so this is his though you know he's telling hey stupid do I have to spell it for you but but the cool thing about it is okay he was he was literally lightyears ahead of us because mmm and to the end and the team were on the train trained the you was not so he had figured out how to parse this word and put that in it by himself and this was the kind of thing that he was really really good at doing to get us you know completely off the wall in terms of what his capabilities were but again at the time that he was doing this wonder wonderful stuff other things were falling apart the media gig lab gig fell apart I ended up on unemployment I had no way of figuring out how to keep the lab going I started spending every other weekend at bird clubs around the country flying wherever you know they would put on a fundraiser for me literally hat in hand passing the hat around you know groups like this thing hey you know give us money we need to raise a hundred thousand dollars a year to keep the lab going it was not a good time in my life and finally my colleagues and friends at Harvard said hey you know why don't we put in a grant proposal to see about their vision how parrots see the world literally let's do optical illusions I said cool you know whatever it sounds like fun so he put in a grant of course it was rejected the first time we we counted the problems we resubmitted it in September 1st 2007 we're told that we are going to get money for a year we get one year but just you know I'm thinking history yay we did this last time you know we we had already done a bunch of preliminary studies we knew we had enough to turn the grant around again put it in January get the funding I was ecstatic things were turning around you know it was going to come together and a little bit later that week I'm sitting at my desk in the morning I have breakfast at my desk because I have to do email that's coming in from Europe and from Japan various times and there's a email I talked and it meant that a huge European consortium millions of euros to use animals and young children as models for intelligent learning systems so again this was incredible justification because they were using our work as a model I would be consultant I wouldn't get paid but I get a free trip to Europe every year and again it was a justification that our work was meaningful that the scientific community was finally getting it okay that that this was good science I was absolutely thrilled I get it for a second cup of coffee as this reward for myself I sit back down at the computer and there's another one that's come up another email that's come up in the interim with a little tag saying sad news from the vet at Brandeis where the birds were at this time I had three birds Alex Griffin and Arthur and I didn't think much about it um you know it could have been one of the technicians there was a problem in the family sickness and we were going to collect some money for flowers or something things like that happen all the time so then I open up the email and it wasn't exactly about a technician except that a technician had found a dead parrot in the back left hand corner of the room and my first reaction was okay it's a horrible mistake this can't be and then oh no there's only one parent plant and I do go into a sort of a shock I call up I'm thinking as much as I love Griffon and Arthur it can't be Alex but it is and I can't remember how I got dressed I don't remember how I drove the thirty miles of you know freeway traffic to get into lab all I remembers that I did beat my lab manager so that Arlene wouldn't have to walk into this herself the veterinarian had wrapped Alex's body for us so he could take it to our private vet for an autopsy I remember sitting in the grieving room saying our final goodbyes but I was in shock we this was happened on a Friday we had only I had only called a couple of close friends to tell them this a couple of people came in to to be with me that weekend they made sure I was fed they took care of me and I was still in complete shock and over the weekend my board of directors put up an obituary because I couldn't even do that Monday morning I called Brandeis and I say you know we've got an obituary for their PR people to let out and my friend Laura the office there says well I'll run it but I don't think it's going to have much traction I mean you know it's a bird as I say whatever in the 40 minutes it took me to get into the lab my cell phone starts running off the hook my lab manager cell phone is running off the hook of lab Matic the lab phone's ringing off the hook I interviews all over people are calling it's crazy for everything call we answered there's there's two more call waiting and I snap into interview mode I've done this for years every time Alex did anything exciting was interviews so I just yep you know you close your eyes you hold on to the phone you answer the questions and you just do it and I did that for several days and the emails were pouring in and the letters were pouring in and I wasn't processing anything yet I was in total shock and then somewhere towards the end of the week we get this big box of letters from a grade school and one of the letters was from a young boy and he says I know how you feel my grandma died this summer your heart will heal and all of a sudden it hit me what had happened and that that barrier that I had put between myself and Alex for my scientific objectivity it wasn't going to be any more science and that just completely crumbled and I realized I had lost the most important being in my life for the last 30 years

11 thoughts on “The Moth: Alex & Me – Irene Pepperberg


  2. The book Irene wrote, "Alex and Me," was fascinating, and what Alex was able to accomplish was amazing. I love science, but its a VERY SLOW moving, ginormous machine. The objectivity required to avoid "anthropomorphizing," is as much a hindrance to discovery as it is a facilitator of discovery. I wish Alex and Irene were able to work further and wish animal emotionality was as obvious to scientists as it is to me. FWIW, I have offered a proof of animal emotionality, which can be found at the "TaoistSkater" YouTube channel.

  3. This was painful to hear, about the end. I remember where i was, what i was doing, all of that, for few deaths in my life, when i learned of them: the queens sister, Princess Diana, And Alex, for me, was one of them. He wasnt born a celebrity or a royal, Dr Pepperberg got him to that point instead, with a burning dedication. Hearing of his death however, THAT rocked my world. Ive grown up training and re educating parrots, the good Dr is a real hero of mine, but i can tell you now that she will never have the bond with Griffin, even if she works with him for another 30 years, that she shared with Alex. I hope the American government gives her life funding, for the work she does. With the level of personal, mental trauma and greif that you accept will happen when living by and working with higher intelligence animals, she should never ever have to beg again.

  4. This is not to try to be cruel, or inspire an 'oh my god' moment.  But birds are very social. Then need love just like any other being. But the more I watch, the more I read, doesn't anyone consider that Alex died of a broken heart? He was a 31 year old, a mature personality, who's only constant partner was Irene. And as far as I can see, she always did her best to maintain a professional distance from him. I would have died, too.

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