When I was an undergraduate (over thirty years ago), I spent a year working with Alex, the African gray parrot who was part of Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s research project on animal cognition. My experience with Alex included some unforgettable lessons. One of the greatest I learned from Beatrix Gardner, one of the researchers who taught the chimpanzee Washoe sign language.
I knew who the Gardners were, so when I heard that they were coming to see Alex, I was excited. When I was asked to meet them at the L station and escort them to the lab, I was nervous. Beatrix and Allen Gardner were legends to me. Fortunately, they were down-to-earth and easy to talk to.
As we walked the few blocks from the station to campus, Beatrix Gardner told me that she had wanted to bring Alex a gift, but hadn’t known what would be appropriate. Could I suggest something she could give him?
Alex had had visitors in the past, but this had never happened before. I assumed from her question that Washoe’s visitors brought her presents and that this was what made bringing a gift seem completely natural to the Gardners.
I babbled a bit, describing the toys and foods Alex enjoyed, while I tried to think of something we could pick up without making a major detour.
She stopped and picked a dandelion. “How about this?” she asked.
It was perfectly shreddable, a quality Alex liked in his toys. Since dandelions are edible, I didn’t think it would harm him. “Sure,” I said, and we kept walking.
At the lab, Dr. Pepperberg greeted our guests and we went in to meet Alex. He sat on his large perch, and looked at the newcomers curiously.
Beatrix Gardner held out the dandelion, and after examining it, Alex took it in his beak.
Then he dropped it to the floor and asked for a nut.
I was embarrassed. It was like an ungrateful kid tossing aside their grandparent’s present, but this was normal behavior for Alex. For our experiments, the object we asked him about was the initial reward, but if he didn’t want it, he was allowed to ask for something else.
Fortunately, Beatrix Gardner wasn’t bothered at all.
As I sat on the fringes, listening to the researchers talk and interact with Alex, the gift of the flower really came home to me.
Beatrix Gardner hadn’t brought Alex a gift because people brought Washoe gifts. She brought him a dandelion because she was going to be meeting a new individual and she wanted some way to connect with him.
Her thoughtfulness still strikes me all these years later as being unusual and admirable. She didn’t think of Alex as a research subject or even a parrot. She treated him respectfully. She knew he was very different from herself in his abilities and interests, but she didn’t judge him for it. She tried to think about what mattered to him and to meet him on his own ground.
Knowing how to think about about and interact with Alex was always challenging. As scientists, we were supposed to be objective. But we were also all living beings. Our interactions with Alex were more than just experiments. We each had our own unique relationship with him.
Dr. Pepperberg has talked about her relationship with Alex, how she was told to think of him, and what she realized after his death in this week’s episode of The Moth (her story starts at 36:30). She also gives great examples of what Alex was like. He was both clever and funny.
Working with Alex opened my eyes to the hidden abilities of the animals around us. They are aware of and capable of so much more than we realize. But it was Beatrix Gardner who taught me to think of all the creatures around us as living beings whose different way of experiencing the world is just as valid as our own.
While Irene’s segment in Birds of a Feather doesn’t start until 36:30, I recommend listening to the entire episode. The stories about the ravens in the Tower of London and raising chickens in Detroit were both wonderful, too.