September 14, 2007
In this space I have often written about the death of leaders and other momentous events that have unfolded in our world and community. Now, for some reason, I feel compelled to write about Alex, an African Grey parrot, who died prematurely and unexpectedly last week at the age of 31.
Alex was no ordinary bird. With the help of Irene Pepperberg, a comparative psychologist at Brandeis and Harvard Universities who studied and worked with him for many years, Alex was able to learn more than 100 words, count small numbers, distinguish colors and shapes and memorize enough one-liners to gain him fame on various television shows. His death made news around the world. I read about it in several national newspapers, including the New York Times.
Alex's ability was viewed by some as more impressive than the achievements of Koko and other non-human primates that have been taught sign language. His skills played a pivotal role in long-running debates about whether other species can develop the ability to learn and think in human-like ways.
What struck me the most about Alex, however, were his last words as reported by several news sources. As Dr. Pepperberg put him into his cage the night of his death last Thursday, Alex looked at her and said: "You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you."
Alex's story has moved me more deeply than I expected. I suppose his affection, loyalty and intelligence are part of what draws all of us to our own pets. Our dog Gibson can't talk or perform any of Alex's other feats, but she communicates with us nonetheless, and she will never know what a great comfort she has been to Margie and me all these years. She exhibits all the wonderful traits we often adore in others, both humans and non-humans alike: devotion, trust, innocence and unconditional love. No wonder we love and mourn the Alexes of the world.
Have a great weekend,
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