Story last updated at 1/7/2009 - 10:52 am
According to a recent poll, more than two-thirds of us pet owners believe we know what Fido and Fluffy are saying by their woofs and meows. Most people also say their animals understand English and recognize lots of words.
But how intelligent are animals? Pet lovers are adamant that their four-legged friends are smarter than scientists are willing to admit, but everybody knows that pets can't say human words.
Or can they? What if your non-human family member told you to "Chill out!" or said "I love you, be good"? In the new audiobook "Alex & Me" by Irene M. Pepperberg, you'll learn about a bird that was definitely no birdbrain.
When Irene Pepperberg was a small child, her beloved father gave her a pet bird. While she doesn't remember the creature's name, she remembers the impact it had on her: that bird, and all those which came after it, were her constant childhood companions.
Although she later had her sights set on a career in chemistry, Pepperberg says that many life-events pointed in a direction that she should've heeded long before she did. She had always loved animals - birds in particular - and they seemed to trust her completely. When the then-new science of human-animal communication began to catch the fancy of researchers and animal lovers, Pepperberg immediately wanted in on it.
In June, 1977, she adopted an African Grey parrot she named "Alex", which, she says, was an acronym for Avian Language (later, Labeling) EXperiment. Pepperberg set about teaching the bird to "label" items. Because scientists often hate anthropomorphization, Pepperberg says she was reluctant to call Alex's abilities "language."
Either way, the bird was a willing pupil.
Although Pepperberg says that Alex's brain was approximately the size of a walnut, he learned to distinguish colors, shapes, sizes, and differences. He was able to use phrases in correct context. He made jokes and knew how to annoy Pepperberg and her assistants. Alex had attitude, smugly correcting other birds in the lab when they were wrong and demanding treats when he wanted them.
As Alex's abilities increased, so did his fame: when he died, his obituary was seen around the world.
"Alex & Me" in audio starts out clunky. Much of the first disc is a confusing maelstrom recounting the days after Alex's death, including several notes to Pepperberg of grief and support from parrot lovers. It sets the stage for what's to come, but it could have been shortened by half.
Get past that, though, and you won't mind the clunkiness because you'll be too busy being charmed.
Author Irene M. Pepperberg's story is one of perseverance, determination, steadfastness in a scientific world that said she couldn't do what she did, and - most of all - a love story to a lab partner with a wicked sense of humor and very definite opinions.
Animal lovers, open-minded scientists, and anyone who refuses to accept the words "dumb animal" will love this audiobook. Pick up your own copy of "Alex & Me". It's a story you'll squawk over.
Terri Schlichenmeyer's book reviews are published in more than 200 newspapers and magazines throughout the U.S. and Canada. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.