Ambassador of Books ~ Book Club Madam ~ Blogger Gal

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Alex & Me

Alex & Me:
How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered
a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence -
and Formed A Deep Bond in the Process
by Irene Pepperberg
226 pages

*** About the Book ***

This is the true story of Dr. Pepperberg's 31-year research project based on Alex, an African Grey Parrot. Her research showed that this particular bird (and likely many others) can communicate verbally in much the same way that chimps do through sign language. The book is the story of how her research began, stumbling blocks along the way, and the untimely death of Alex at age 31.

*** Why I Read It ***

I first heard about this book from At Home With Books (I recently blamed her for much of my TBR problem ...) and I immediately added it to my TBR list based on my own experience with parrots. I'll tell you more about that below. So when this book went on tour with TLC Book Tours I immediately asked to be included. My copy of the book came shortly thereafter.

*** My Thoughts on the Book ***

I really enjoyed reading this book. It was written in an engaging and personal way that I found very appealing. For much of the book the author writes about her own life and, surprisingly, this is integral to the story of Alex; Dr. Pepperberg's childhood experiences and the obstacles to her career make her work with Alex that much more remarkable.

As you know, I really enjoy finding literary connections in the books I read. This book had two great ones!
  • Did you know that Margaret Atwood put Alex in her novel Oryx and Crake? In that book, a character named Jimmie watches a recording of a grey parrot identifying colors and shapes - that was based on video Atwood had seen of Alex.
  • Near the end of the book Dr. Pepperberg mentions the movie Out of Africa (and the book it was based on) and uses it to make some comparisons to her relationship with Alex. I love that movie and the book was already on my TBR list.
On Twitter @niteswimming asked if I thought this would make a good book club selection. I immediately said that it would. There are questions in the back that aren't so great on their own, but they would be a good place to start a discussion; those questions ask mostly about the reader's own experiences with animals. What I think a book club would really get from this is the chance to discuss the idea of animal-human communication. Is is possible? Why or why not? Once you really dig into this topic it could lead to a discussion of environmentalism and even
religion. Now THAT would make for some great discussion!

*** My Parrot Experiences ***

When I was in high school an acquaintance of my mom's gave her a parrot that he could no longer take care of. In reality, this guy had never really "taken care" of the parrot. It came to us lonely and traumatized from neglect. It was a Conure and should have looked like the image at the right. Unfortunately, due most likely to neglect, the bird had developed a habit of plucking out all the feathers he could reach. He looked more like the bird pictured below, except that THAT bird actually has a tail.

Anyway, this bird obviously had issues. We named it Skipper, but friends often referred to is as Satan. Skipper LOVED my mom. He'd sit on her shoulder, preen her hair, eat seeds from her mouth, (try) to clean her teeth, nuzzle the side of her head, and lay across her chest with his wings spread out. However, if anyone else tried to come near her Skipper (aka Satan) would lunge off her should to bite them as they walked past. And if mom started talking on the phone Skipper would begin to chew the cord and bite at her cheek until she either got off the phone or put him in his cage, at which point he would scream like mad.

Neither my sister nor I liked this bird very much, but we could see that it COULD be a very kind and lovable creature. Ever since then I've known that although I don't want a parrot (or any bird) as a pet, these guys are very smart critters and they deserve the proper care from the start. Reading about Alex only made me realize how much was wrong with poor Skipper.

(In case you're curious, here's the rest of the story. My mom was later given 3 parakeets by another friend. Around that time I found two African Grey parrots in our backyard - in Maryland, where they definitely do not appear naturally. At this point there were 6 birds in a house that never wanted even one to begin with. Things were rapidly getting out of hand. After several years my mom eventually found a reputable bird rescue group and took all our birds there. The woman who took them in had a house full of birds in various states of "plucked". Skipper immediately bonded with another bird and snuggled up next to it on a perch. It made mom cry to see how obviously happy he was. From what I've heard, all the birds adjusted well to their new home.)

*** Your Thoughts ***

Are you a bird person? Why or why not? Are you intrigued by the concept of human-animal communication?

For more opinions on this book check out the following reviews. If you've reviewed it as well please let me know.


Anna van Gelderen said...

What a coincidence: I finished this book last week and like you thoroughly enjoyed it. My interest in the book comes from a linguistic background. I am interested in how we (and other species!) learn language and how this this connects with other cognitive skills. I also read Kanzi by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh recently and thought that was really excellent. While Alex & Me is in the first place a personal memoir, Kanzi, about the eponymous bonobo, has much more science and linguistics. I found the book absolutely fascinating and quite accessible. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh faced much the same difficulties as Irene Pepperberg initially, but like her she persevered and was successful eventually.

Alyce said...

I'm glad that Skipper's story ended happily. I haven't had any personal experiences with birds because we have never had one as a pet. From reading the book I was really impressed with how much work taking care of an African Grey could be.

As far as this being a book club book, I agree that it could raise some excellent discussion points. I remember discussing Alex with my sister after I finished the book and we had a heated discussion. She has very conservative religious views and believes that animals couldn't possibly communicate, and if they did it was just mimicry. The idea of a bird communicating feelings horrified her, and she got really angry at me and we decided to drop the topic of discussion. I personally don't see any reason why animals can't communicate, or why that should have anything to do with proving or disproving the existence of God. (I know that others would disagree with me though.)

J.T. Oldfield said...

I've heard there's actually people who specialize in rehabilitating birds because they go crazy. I guess that plucking and also bobbing its head up and down are sides that a bird has gone insane.

bermudaonion said...

I loved the story about Skipper!

I've wanted to read this book ever since I saw that video of Alex - he was an amazing bird.

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

Anna - It sounds like Kanzi and this book are quite complementary. Personally I was glad that there wasn't too much focus on the linguistics aspect of Dr. P's work, as that wouldn't have been as interesting to me. But I'm glad that you found something to like in both books.

Alyce - That is EXACTLY the discussion that I figured this book could generate. Depending on the group, that could be a good thing or a bad thing. :)

JT Oldfield - Yes, those are DEFINITELY signs ... and Skipper did them both constantly. I'm so glad that my mom found the rehab place - he's doing SO MUCH BETTER there.

bermudaonion - So glad you enjoyed hearing about Skipper! I've seen some of Alex's videos, and you're right, they are amazing.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

LOVED the audio version of this book; great review.

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

Diane - Ooh, glad to know the audio was good as well.

trish said...

I'm so glad you liked it! I didn't realize you had such a history with birds. :)

I love the literary references that you caught. No one else has mentioned them, and I intend to read Oryx & Crake some day.

Thanks for being on this tour and writing such a great review!

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

trish - Thanks for including me - this was a great book!

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