The famous African Grey Parrot named Alex died late last week at Brandeis University outside of Boston. Alex knew English well enough to identify over 50 different objects, seven colors and numerous shapes by name. He could also count and was able to express desires, including, get this, his frustration with the repetitive research.
It’s being said that Alex’s advanced language and recognition skills revolutionized the understanding of the avian brain. Alex taught many people that yes, even birds have thoughts and feelings and preferences, and the ability to express them. And while that’s all well and good, the important thing to me is what we, as a society, do with that knowledge. We can’t acknowledge it when it’s convenient by ooohing and ahhhing because a bird can say “I love you,” without also accepting the responsibility that comes along with knowing that these animals each have a very real cognitive presence.
There are millions of birds suffering and dying for KFC and dying in Petsmart’s back rooms, all of whom are thinking and feeling and experiencing the world just like Alex did. They just don’t know how to express themselves in a way that we can understand. And if there’s one thing that we should have learned from Alex, it’s that we need to be open and “listen” to animals, even when they’re not speaking our language, because there’s a whole lot more going on inside their heads than we give them credit for.
Check out this great New York Times column from Verlyn Klinkenborg for his take on Alex.