Was Pepperburg's Parrot Alex Bad For Birds?

There’s no real answer I guess, my main question is, Pepperburg helped people to see the intelligence in parrots. But in the end did it do more harm than good to parrots as a species?I studied Pepperburg’s experiment years ago in psychology wherein Pepperburg conducted an over 30 year long experiment to prove that parrots (or at least african greys), were capable of abilities such as recognising, counting, and labelling objects.Whilst this is interesting in the world of psychology, as it helps prove that there are other animals besides humans, apes, e.t.c, capable of advanced cognitive thought, I have wondered did the experiment really have any benifit to parrots as a species?I remember seeing a pbs series called ‘parrot confidential’ that said after pepperburg’s experiment sales of africans skyrocketed because ‘everyone wanted to buy an alex’. I’ve seen photos of a small piles of dead African greys that have been captured and died during the stress of trafficking. I’ve read articles where it has said there are shrinking numbers of them in the wild due to trafficking. If someone has a parrot, it is usually an african grey.One of the most popular, well known and most discarded pet parrots is now the African Grey. I just wonder whether Pepperburg’s experiment had any positive effects to parrots or whether it was in some ways a pointless experiment that did more harm than good to parrots overall.

That’s a very interesting question and one I have pondered for many years now… My conclusion is that Dr. Pepperberg’s study was good and bad both.It was good because the fact that she proved that parrots are highly intelligent helps animal right activists’ cause in bettering animals lives. Leaving aside religious beliefs in terms of souls for humans but not for animals, heaven and hell for humans but not for animals, etc., humans believe that intelligence is what sets us apart from the animals which, pretty much, makes the whole argument for the ‘humans deserve rights while ‘dumb’ animals don’t’ so the fact that she proved that parrots can understand concepts that were obscure to pre-civilizations, and they can communicate in human cognitive language sets a precedent not considered before.But, on the other hand, we have the ‘Alex phenomenon’ where everybody and his grandmother wanted an Alex at home which harmed parrots in general and grays in particular as people lost their novelty enthusiasm after some years and we ended up with a huge overpopulation resulting in homeless parrots as well as neglected, traumatized, sick and even dead animals because of it. The same phenomenon happens whenever a movie about a particular breed of dog is showcased, people go and buy on impulse. This also contributes to the deterioration of the species because opportunistic breeders will be looking to produce large numbers utilizing birds that were defective/inferior to begin with…Then you have poor Alex himself, who had an incredibly sad life plagued with chronic anxiety due to the terrible environment he lived in [a lab!], having no companion of its own [bird or human, mind you, because even the people who cared for him and tested him had to be changed every few months] and having to work for everything he needed [notice that I did not say ‘wanted’]. He plucked and had a chronic case of aspergillosis because the stress he was under would not allow the medicine to eradicate the problem - stress that ended up killing him while still very young. This made me dislike Dr. P intensely and the fact that I met her in person and she proved to be a mercenary a**hole did not help, either

You met her? What was she like, why didn’t you like her?I find it difficult to believe that what she did had much effect on animal activists for parrots just because of the amount of bird shows, pet shops, small cages that still go on. I can’t say I’ve found mcuh evidence that there’s still any more rights for parrots even now.I was never too sure how happy Alex himself was, I could never find anything that said exactly what he died of (30 sure does seem young though), the closest I got was it said something about a genetic illness that would have killed him suddenly like a stroke. Since she didn’t take him home at night I always wondered whether a janitor or something might have accidentally killed him and tried to cover it up. Was alex depressed? As far as I understood he was left at the lab at night and then she’d be there with him all day everyday, that was the impression I got. I’ve only really had access to the scientif results, it’s kinda difficult to find much on the more personal side of it.Why did they keep switching the people who cared and tested him- I don’t know enough about pesonal side of it but believed it was mainly pepperburg herself who was with Alex.

OK, several questions - let’s see… Yes, I met her and she was arrogant, mercenary and -well, some people would be nice and call her ‘impolite’ but I don’t like her so I will use the same word I always use to describe: plain nasty. Years ago, I was a member [and one of the two VPs] of a Manhattan bird club and we had contacted her to give a chat about her study and book for our members. The venue was one of NYC public libraries because they allow the use of their facilities for seminars, meetings, workshops, etc. free of charge to non-profit organizations but, because this is for non-profits and free of charge, you can’t have any form of commerce in them. We sent her the paperwork indicating this among other things and she signed it BUT when she showed up [late and did not apologize or even acknowledge the fact], she had this entourage that brought tables and displays to sell her books. We tried to tell her that this was forbidden to us AND her as our guest but she did not even stop to talk or explain, just kept on walking toward the dais. We also tried telling her employees that they were not allowed to sell her books inside the library but they only answered to her. In consequence, we received a letter revoking our privilege so we could never use any public library for anything for the club. We wrote to her asking her to clarify to them that we had sent her the terms and that she had agreed to them so we could appeal this but she never even answered. Alex’s ‘official’ cause of death was a fatal cardio-vascular episode. They said that it could have been a stroke, could have been a heart attack, could have been caused by atherosclerosis, could have been arrhythmia, could have been genetic - lots of ‘could have been’ which did not make much sense because a massive heart attack is easily discernible from the heart tissue in a necropsy or an autopsy and, if he had suffered from arrhythmia or atherosclerosis, they would have known from before. I am not arguing that he died of a cardio-vascular something, what I argue is that they never even mentioned stress as a possible cause when, most likely, it was! Years after this, there was a study done with African grays that showed that birds that are under the chronic stress of living alone have shorter telomeres than birds that live with other birds.Do we know if he was stressed out and depressed? Well, we know the super unnatural conditions he lived under [in a lab, working all day long, with nobody of his own, human or bird and, most likely, a bad light schedule and diet] and we know that he plucked and suffered from chronic aspergillosis - two things that don’t happen to well-adjusted birds that live stress-free all their lives. I always remember something I read in a book called ‘Of Parrots and People: The Sometimes Funny, Always Fascinating, and Often Catastrophic Collision of Two Intelligent Species’ about him. The author had asked to interview Dr. P and Alex for the book and, when she got there, Alex was not cooperating so he ‘negotiated’ terms: one hour of shoulder time and sitting on a window sill so he could look outside to a tree. I cannot even begin to tell how much this impacted me… it truly broke my heart! Poor, poor Alex! Living in a steel and glass environment, all alone, working every single day and having to do it for things that should have been his by right! A bit of companionship and being able to look out to something natural… Why did they have to change Dr. P’s assistants all the time? Because, if they hadn’t, they would have been accused of the person conducting the experiment somehow indicating to the parrot how to respond and the study would not have survived scrutiny or peer review. Dr. P was absent more than she was present at the lab, it was her assistants that worked with Alex. She spent almost all her time working toward getting grants and funding for it - she would travel for two and three weeks at a time. But, aside from the fact that the only person who was a constant in his life was not really there for him all the time, disappearing constantly for weeks at a time, she did not regard him as a companion or even a pet. She actually said in an interview that he was nothing more than the subject of her study so, in reality, poor Alex did not have anybody who actually loved him. Dr. P wrote another book after he died claiming that she loved him and missed him but, if you ask me, she was just catering to the huge outpouring of public grief over his death and trying to make money out of it.

She took 30 years to work out if parrots were intelligent? What a waste of time. Yes of course they are extremely intelligent, its just the arrogance of humans yet again ‘need’ to know the extent of that intelligence.Alex was just a job for pepperberg, kept in a lab is no life for a bird. As it was a place of work can you imagine the weekends for this lonely bird? I bet he was all alone from friday to monday and even worse bank holidays.Pepperberg claims she took alex home once but that lasted one day as alex ‘wanted to go back’, yeah whatever, more like she couldnt deal with the mess and noise.

Yes, we all could have told her parrots ARE intelligent, right? All you have to do is live with one for a number of years and you realize how smart they are! But, in all fairness, science needs studies that can stand rigorous scrutiny and your word or mine would not ‘do it’ for science, Steve, so I do understand the need for studies. I am ALL for science - only I don’t like animals suffering for it… especially highly intelligent animals because it’s worse for them.

Whoa, that’s really interesting info about Pepperberg… can’t say I’m surprised. Many scientists in labs are detached from lab animals. There’s exceptions, like Jane Goodall, who loves her chimps, but detachment was valued back in the day and still exists where lab animals don’t have a name but are just a number. That said, I do think Pepperberg cared for Alex, he seems to have eaten well enough based on the NOVA episodes, yet he certainly seemed stressed. He had to work a lot while living in a lab; did he even have a window? He was still an experiment, his name says it all as an acronym. I think Pepperberg could and should have done a lot more for him. Alex deserved much more and much better treatment.Do I think Pepperberg’s research harmed African Greys? It’s a difficult question. For the most part, I would say no. The reputation of Greys as excellent talkers precede Pepperberg’s work, as they’re prized pets worldwide and have been since antiquity, such as ancient Rome. Pepperberg’s research proving the intelligence of Greys is good, but her approach is what I don’t agree with.My two cents is: human beings are disastrous and make disastrous decisions. From an old neighbor who moved and abandoned their dog to die in the house (he was rescued) to the heartbreaking destruction of Rhinos and Elephants over absolute stupidity, the problem is people. I don’t blame Pepperberg’s research, I blame the stupidity of people and the overall lack of knowledge of parrots: e.g., the story I learned about parrot owners dumping their bird because the bird vomited on them (they had no idea their bird was in love with them).I agree that Pepperberg’s work was both good and bad for parrots, but mostly good, because educated people will watch NOVA, usually, and not dumbasses, but again, people are the problem, people will buy a bird with unrealistic expectations and complete lack of knowledge and want a talking toy, not a sentient being to be loved.I think there needs to be more people to make further awareness about the intelligence of parrots and how precious they are, in the wild, and in homes.

I hear you, Greenwing, and I think I understand where you are coming from but I have thought about this issue for many years now and I don’t agree completely with what you state. Because, as I see it, the problem with more people making further awareness of parrots intelligence implies more studies like Dr. P’s - and I don’t agree with making animals suffer such unnatural and stressful lives just so we can learn more about them. It all goes to the ‘preciousness’ you mention, you see? Because, to me, almost all animals are precious and all of them are deserving of respect and a natural life, regardless of their intelligence.