It took me ages to finally read “Alex and Me.” Last month I finally bought it, read it and lost it in five days.
Honestly, all of this book touring business I’ve got going is dangerous…WAY too much time in bookstores. I’m suddenly constantly surrounded by books I’ve either forgotten I wanted to read or didn’t know I wanted to read. As if I haven’t enough to read and write.
I was doing pretty well with abstaining, then I saw the paperback of Irene Pepperberg’s memoir was out and it was more than I could take. I bought it. I figured I would alternately like it and pick it apart. After all, I’ve been battling the aftermath of Pepperberg’s famous statement, that was something to the effect of African greys have the intelligence of a four year old child and the emotional level of a two year old, for as long as I’ve been helping people with parrot behavior problems. (It’s not that she’s wrong so much as that people seem to interpret it as a license to treat your birds like children. But that is for another post. )
What I didn’t expect was how much I would love this book. A young clever girl grows up an only child with meager social skills and budgies as her dearest friends. I know this girl. I am this girl and suddenly I realized there are probably a lot of us girls.
Then as I read, entranced, I also realized a piece of all of Irene’s work that I had been missing. I’m not quite 40 and I was schooled in training animals from a place where everyone believed animals were intelligent, that birds were not by any stretch of the imagination just “stimulus response” machines. I was trained to use operant conditioning and positive reinforcement not because parrots were automatons, but because it was a clear way to communicate. Pepperberg went through hell, even in recent years struggling for funding, so that I could live in a world where it was a given that an African grey parrot understands zero. I would much rather train people how to manage behaviors because they have forgotten their birds weren’t human, than to have to try to convince blind people to believe that they are exceedingly intelligent and worthy of engaging in a complicated relationship.
And then, despite the fact I knew how the story had to end, I made the foolish decision to finish it in a restaurant before I had a reading in Sonoma. I cried for Irene and for Alex and for myself because my African grey may not be forever either. Then when the waitress approached me with a question in her eyes, I patted the cover of the book. “Oh! I’ve had an African grey for 8 years. We love him,” she said.
“Do you know about Alex?” I asked her and when said answered that she didn’t I said, “Then you must read this book,” and handed it to her. I guess I’ll have to buy another copy.