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Alex & Me    by Irene Pepperberg order for
Alex & Me
by Irene Pepperberg
Order:  USA  Can
Collins, 2008 (2008)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Alex & Me is a scientist's memoir about work she is passionate about and her struggles to fund that research and keep going, despite the opposition of the scientific establishment. But it's also the story of a loving interspecies relationship, and of author Irene Pepperberg's grief over the loss of the highly intelligent African Grey parrot, Alex (an acronym for Avian Language Experiment), who became a close companion as well as a highly successful research subject.

Pepperberg begins, 'How much impact could a one-pound ball of feathers have on the world?' and proceeds to tell us of the massive media attention and deluge of personal communications on Alex's September 2007 death at age thirty-one. She then tells the story of their time together from the beginning, highlighted by breakthroughs demonstrating Alex's remarkable verbal, mathematical and cognitive abilities, but also by amusing accounts of his ego, his monologues, and his manipulation of those around him to get his own way. I enjoyed her description of Alan Alda's time with Alex taping an episode for Scientific American Frontiers, which I wish I'd seen.

Pepperberg discusses the scientific community's behaviorist view of animals (that began in the 1920s and continued to dominate through the twentieth century), the view that 'Animals are automatons, responding mindlessly to stimuli', a position increasingly challenged in the 1980s by those working with apes and dolphins. She tells us that Alex taught her that 'a vast world of animal cognition exists out there ... Clearly, animals know more than we think, and think a great deal more than we know.' She emphasizes that he also taught that human beings 'are a part of nature, not apart from nature.'

Black and white photos in the middle of this small and touching volume show the bird brainiac (and his entourage) in intelligent avian action. The Economist's obituary said Alex's death ended 'a life spent learning complex tasks that, it had been originally thought, only primates could master.' Irene Pepperberg's personal tribute quotes from the film Out of Africa: 'He was not ours, he was not mine. Thank you for sharing him with us. He brought us much joy. We loved him well.' Alex & Me is not only a treasure for animal lovers but also for anyone interested in animal cognition - highly recommended!

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