Monday, December 7, 2009

Rethinking Bird Brains

Irene Pepperberg wrote a book about her life and work with an African grey parrot named Alex. The book is called "Alex & Me." Pepperberg trained and studied Alex for 30 years, looking into communication, language acquisition, and learning. (For more information, see Pepperberg's website, The Alex Foundation.)

She makes a compelling case for the complete rethinking, as she puts it, of the insult "bird brain." Alex had a wide-ranging vocabulary, could make new sentences out of the words at his command, and even showed evidence of being able to add numbers. He asked for what he wanted, and threw a lot of personality into the mix, breaking up boring repetition of exercises by innovative change-ups.

As an example, he was being asked to identify different colored wooden blocks, by yellow, red, green, and by three corner - triangle, or four corner - square. Irene was saying things like "How many yellow three corner?" And Alex would answer correctly, "Three." Etc. But he grew tired of the routine, and suddenly began answering, "Five." Five was not the correct answer to any of the questions. Finally, in exasperation, Irene said, "Okay, smarty pants. What is five?" To which Alex replied, "None." Irene was dumbfounded.

This remarkable demonstration of the concept of zero shatters many previously held assumptions about animal and bird intelligence. In this, as in so many other ways, Alex proved to have the intelligence of a three-year-old human, instead of a "bird brain."

The book is fascinating - but none of the results surprised me. Sabrina and I have an African grey named Barney (pictured here), and we are both well aware of the depth of intelligence and emotional awareness that he has. Dealing with him is like dealing with a willful toddler. He knows what he wants, and he'll let you know about it in no uncertain terms. He is a master at mimicry, but he does not just "parrot" words. He uses them at appropriate times - like when he scolds the dogs with a resounding "No!" because they have just knocked something over in the living room. He is interactive and inquisitive, and he even has a sense of humor.

Reading the works of scientists who study animals coming from this place of respect and willingness to learn (instead of those who use animals as lab specimens) always leaves me more devoutly a believer in the thin line that exists between humans and the other animals who inhabit this planet.

Atrocities are committed against human beings, generally, under the guise of belief systems which claim that the victims are somehow less than human. That is the basis of all war propaganda - reducing the enemy to a caricature, or to a demon. Just think of the ways we depicted the Japanese during World War II, or the ways the Germans were represented. And of course, similar propaganda measures were being used abroad at the same time. The slave-owning history of the United States was founded on a widespread belief that blacks were more like beasts than humans, that they did not feel pain, that they could not think or reason.

We commit atrocities against animals using the same fallacious mind set, establishing a hierarchy with humans on top as thinking, feeling creatures, and animals on the bottom as thoughtless, brutish beings incapable of feelings such as devotion or love or fear.

Work like Irene Pepperberg's blurs that distinction between "us" and "them." After reading "Alex & Me," it is impossible to imagine eating a parrot. However, most of us don't eat parrots. But what about other birds? What about chickens? How much can they think and feel?

Many of us have dogs or cats in our lives, and feel horrified when we hear of people in other cultures mistreating such animals, even using them as a food source. But again, why do we draw the line there? Are not bears and deer and raccons equally intelligent? And how far removed are they from pigs and cows and sheep?

For me, vegetarianism is one small thing I can do to honor my belief that animals are, after all, not that much different from humans. I know that there are people in the world who do not have the luxury of adopting a vegetarian lifestyle, people who still hunt or raise animals for necessary food. But I can easily live without meat in my life in the Western world. It has been nearly 20 years since I gave it up, and not once have I regretted it. It makes me feel synchronized with my basic belief system, one in which animals are family, not other.

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