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An interview with Irene Pepperberg

Greg Ross

In June 1977, Irene Pepperberg visited a pet store near Chicago's O'Hare Airport. She had recently completed a doctorate at Harvard in theoretical chemistry but had been inspired by recent work exploring the intelligence of dolphins and chimps, and she had resolved to pursue research of her own with an avian subject.

She emerged with a one-year-old African gray parrot whom she named Alex, for Avian Learning Experiment. In the ensuing 30 years, thanks to Pepperberg's innovative training techniques, Alex demonstrated the intelligence of a 5-year-old human; he developed a vocabulary of more than 100 words, she estimates, and understood and employed concepts at a kindergarten level.

Click to Enlarge ImagePepperberg's memoir, Alex & Me (Collins), recounts her life with Alex, their work together and his unexpected death in September 2007. American Scientist Online managing editor Greg Ross interviewed Pepperberg by telephone in January 2009.

When you started working with Alex, what was the consensus about animal cognition?

It was an oxymoron (laughs). Basically, people did not believe that animals were particularly smart. A little bit before I began my work, the actual cognitive revolution had begun. There was a book in the early '70s suggesting that animals did have cognitive processing, and comparative work was beginning with humans on that level, but this was still in the early stages of this kind of study.

In the book you mention that when you started working with Alex you had some trouble getting funded and published.

Yes, and that's still the case—not so much with being published but with getting funding. It's still a big struggle.

What are your feelings about that? Do you think the system is too skeptical about this sort of work, or about new ideas?

There is a skepticism about new ideas, and it's not just my own work; I see it with some of my other colleagues as well. There isn't much money right now for scientific research, and the scientific community wants to bet on a sure thing, so it's much easier to give funds to people who will advance knowledge in predictable types of ways, rather than taking a long shot and hoping that something might come of it.

In working with Alex for so long, did you develop a "personal" relationship with him?

I call it a collegial relationship, and again, when you have a close colleague there is this relationship; it's not impersonal, but it's a different type of relationship than you have with your spouse or your children or other individuals in your family. So that's what I tried to maintain, this closeness, this clear relationship with him, but drawing the line at becoming emotionally involved. And of course after he died, and there wasn't going to be any more science, that barrier crumbled and I realized just how much I had been denying and pushing away all those years.

As you learned more about Alex's abilities, did you find that that changed how you viewed other animals?

Well, I had always had a view of animals as intelligent creatures, as creatures that were processing information about their environment. So it didn't necessarily change my views, but it did start changing the views of my colleagues in the scientific community. People began to realize that animals were intelligent, that one had to pay attention to the types of intelligence the animals had, that animals have different types of intelligence based on their ecology and their evolutionary history, and that one had to often tailor the experiments to uncover those particular types of intelligence for the individual animal.

As I understand it, you chose Alex more or less at random. You weren't looking for an unusually gifted animal.

That's correct. The only criterion I made was that the store that I bought him from would have to be one that had domestically bred animals, because at the time illegal imports and poaching were really terrible. Even now, only one in 10 animals that leave the savanna or the rainforest actually make it into someone's living room.

In looking back, do you think Alex was exceptional?

Not as an individual parrot. I think what made Alex exceptional was the way we treated him and the training that he received. For the first 15 years of his life he was an only bird. He had a small army of students working with him, paying attention to everything he said, responding to what he said, treating him like a toddler, essentially. He had a modeling system that demonstrated to him exactly what we wanted him to learn. And none of the other birds in the labs had actually had that type of individualized attention.

With Alex gone, are you going to continue your work with other parrots?

Yes, we have Griffin and Arthur. Griffin's 13, and I've had him since he was seven and a half weeks. Arthur is about 10, and I've had him since he was a year old. So we're continuing the studies. Again, these birds had a different experience than Alex. For Griffin we tested a lot of other training techniques, and he also had to share his environment with Alex and with Arthur, so he only had about a quarter of the training that Alex did at this stage in his life, and he's just about where Alex was at that stage, so I think we're doing pretty well with him.

What are the main unanswered questions for you? What would you like to see in future research?

In the short term we want to look at optical illusions, so as to literally determine how these birds see the world and whether it's different or the same as we do. In the long term I want to do some more work on number competence and on possibly getting us to understand more of how they can use their vocalizations in different ways. There's so much more to do.

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