Friday, May 8, 2015

Talking Animals: Review of ALEX & ME

In Chaser we learned about a border collie who has mastered the names of over 1000 toys, and who also shows an understanding of syntax and semantics, as well as definitions. Chaser is able, in a sense, to communicate with her human. But it is a one-way communication, because of course, Chaser cannot speak. That is, she cannot speak our language.

Alex, an African Grey parrot, on the other hand, could participate in dialogue with his humans. He could also add and understand concepts of equivalency, and even came to understand zero up to a point. In many cases, he taught himself words and ideas; for example, calling an apple a “banerry,” possibly combining banana and cherry.

In Irene Pepperberg’s fascinating memoir about her work and life with Alex (Alex & Me), she is determined to discover if a parrot can do more than just parrot. Is there more than mimicry involved when the bird speaks? The answer is a resounding yes, of course, as Alex demonstrates repeatedly. He not only uses language for his demands (“Want nut!”) but to emote (“I’m sorry!” “Calm down!” and “I love you”). And as he demonstrates, a creature with a brain the size of a shelled walnut can develop and learn at about a five-year-old human’s level. 

But Alex may have been an exceptionally bright parrot— a bird brainiac. His parrot colleagues who joined him in some of the testing and training were noticeably insecure around their brilliant labmate. Alex often interjected his own criticisms during their training sessions, telling one bird to “say better,” when he felt he was mumbling his answers.

Alex also had an advanced sense of humor, and obviously enjoyed messing with his humans. When he was bored or simply out of sorts, he made it clear he wanted no part of the curriculum and would simply turn his back on his trainers. When he was feeling particularly puckish, he’d purposely misspeak, or would insist his humans obey his many commands. The students who worked with him called themselves “Alex’s Slaves.”

There are many questions surrounding the study of animal communication and cognition. Are we barking up the right tree? Should we be studying how animals speak, rather than teaching them to learn our language?

And we are also still fighting against the Great Chain of Being concept, perpetuated by the belief that man is God’s creation and inherently superior to all other life forms. So long as we believe humans are the center of the universe, animals will take a back seat, and studies of animal intelligence will also be met with some resistance. The thirty-year-long relationship Dr. Pepperberg had with Alex ended too soon, but spanned a change in the scientific community towards acceptance of language and communication in animals. 

Alex’s accomplishments are truly breathtaking. Dr. Pepperberg’s memoir was published in 2008, but it is timeless in presenting seemingly irrefutable evidence not just of avian intelligence but emotion as well. Her plea, and much of her work, has been devoted to protecting pet parrots from the devastating effects of isolation and boredom resulting from ignorant and incompetent owners. A child placed in a closet during his formative years would be considered abused, and rightly so. A bird placed in the same circumstances is also abused. It’s best for them to be left in the wild, but since there are so many sold as pets these days, at least they should be given every opportunity to thrive intellectually.

Thanks to the so-called Clever Hans case, there are still critics of Dr. Pepperberg’s work, as well as the work of other scientists studying animal intelligence. It’s an uncomfortable concept for some folks to accept that the animal they are eating, caging, capturing, or manipulating may be as intelligent as their pre-schooler. Books such as Alex & Me point out in no uncertain terms that there is much to be learned and discovered about our fellow creatures. Ignorance and egoism seem to be uniquely human traits; intelligence, however, is not.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Uphill Climb: review of THE MOUNTAINTOP SCHOOL FOR DOGS (a novel)

This is a story about hope. Not the trite, Hallmark-style of hope, but the sense of pushing up from loss or failure or trauma with eyes forward and tail held high. Although the subtitle mentions second chances, the characters here—human and non—are actually dealing with third or fourth chances.
The novel concerns Evie, a young woman wearing L. L. Bean clothe, and carrying a load of psychic baggage. Although she knows nothing about dogs, she applies for the position of dog trainer at the Sanctuary—the school for rescued and often unadoptable dogs—and is accepted. She’s an avid reader and eccentric student, memorizing the dog books she carries in her backpack, and organizing her own thoughts alphabetically. She soon discovers, however, that the dog books are useless when dealing with the reality of rescued dogs, and unceremoniously burns them all.
She arrives mid-winter at the inn at the base of the mountain, where Mrs. Auberchon, the innkeeper and also the Warden of the Sanctuary, greets her with open disdain. She distrusts this girl who seems to be the product of East Coast elitists, and questions the sanity of the Sanctuary staff for taking her on. But then she watches Evie work magic on a dog suffering from compulsive pacing. Something in this young woman is able to connect with these damaged creatures.
Evie finds herself dealing with a pack of neurotic animals and humans who all seem to have reasons to forget their pasts, but who, like her, find it tough to move forward.  The pacing dog was one; the greyhound who refused to run—or even move—was another. She is given a “class” of students whose quirks and issues she chronicles, working to find the trick that will free them from the prisons of their difficult pasts. And in so doing, she finds her own salvation, or at least a glimpse of it.
Under her category of Learning, she writes: “A new male, a greyhound called Alfie, feels that coming to class means curling up in a corner and being still. When I explained that this wasn’t allowed, he bristled and showed me his teeth. I don’t have notes on him yet, but I know he was a racer. He thought he had the right to never move again. Also, he was not interested in learning this thing called housebreaking. Did I know where he used to live? He used to live in a stable. I hated it there, he was telling me, but that’s who I am.”
The author calls this a “novel with dogs,” but the dogs are not simply accessories. Their stories are as vital and riveting as their human counterparts’ are, and completely believable. The prose is exquisite: at times hilarious, and other times poignant. Like so many of the orphans in the story, this book is a keeper.
This title is now available in paperback.