*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Veterinarian Translates Barks And Meows
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross.
Itâs Animal Week on FRESH AIR, and weâll be talking about animals in the wild,
in backyards and homes, in prisons and on Broadway. If you have a pet, chances
are at some point, youâre going to have to make medical decisions far more
difficult than the ones people had to make in the past because there are more
high-tech interventions for animal cancer, kidney disease, brain tumors,
etcetera, and the diagnostic procedures and treatments are expensive.
My guest, Dr.Â Nancy Kay, is a veterinarian who co-founded a 24-hour emergency
specialty care center in Northern California, where she treats cats and dogs.
Her book, âSpeaking for Spot,â offers advice on how to make medical decisions
on behalf of your dog, including decisions about chemotherapy, pain management
Dr.Â Nancy Kay, welcome to FRESH AIR. Here is something thatâs a really
difficult dilemma. If your dog is already fairly old and has developed, say,
Dr.Â Nancy Kay (Veterinarian; Author, âSpeaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your
Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Longer Lifeâ): Yes.
GROSS: And you as the vet decide that, you know, there should be tests, and
then, you know, chemotherapy would likely help the dog, but itâs going to be
very expensive. So then the person whose dog it is has to decide, well, if the
dog is only going to live for, say, two or three more years under the best of
circumstances because theyâre already kind of old, is it worth the investment?
And then you hear yourself saying is my dog worth the investment, and you donât
want to be thinking that way, but you kind of have to if you donât have the
money to spend. How much money are you going to spend on a dog whoâs not going
to live many more years?
How do you help people figure through really complicated questions like that?
Dr.Â KAY: Yes, well one of the things that I work really hard on myself, and
when I lecture to other veterinarians, I avoid saying you should do
chemotherapy, you should take these X-rays, you should do surgery to remove the
What I view my job to be is to present every single option that I think is a
feasible option for the dog, that I think could make sense for the dog; spell
out all the different benefits and potential risks; educate the people as to
how much itâs going to cost and let them decide, based on what they know about
their financial capabilities, and most importantly what they know to be true
about their dog, to make the best decision.
The whole goal of this medical advocacy is to make informed decisions. And with
having a lot of information and making an informed decision, the goal is to
come up with the very best choice thatâs hopefully going to provide the best
outcome for the dog or the cat. And secondly and almost as important is to make
a choice thatâs going to provide the most peace of mind for the human at the
other end of the leash or the person lugging the cat-carrier around.
When you mention age, many people often say, aw, heâs 12 years old. Iâm not
sure that I should do that. And one of the points that I always emphasize is
rather than focusing on chronological age, I think itâs important to focus on
the functional age of the animal.
For example, Terry, you and I could both be 80-year-old women and both in need
of a knee replacement. You might be a great candidate for that surgery, where I
might be a horrible candidate for that surgery. In other words, thereâs no cut-
off to say that any woman over 80 years of age will not have a knee
So for example, a 12-year-old golden retriever, who up until a week ago was
going to the dog park and playing like a banshee and having a great old time,
might be a great candidate to go in and remove a tumor in the spleen. Whereas a
10-year-old dog thatâs really been struggling and having a hard time getting
around might be a poor candidate.
GROSS: Whatâs chemo like for a cat or a dog? Do cats get chemo, too?
Dr.Â KAY: Yes, they do. I really like the ability to talk about this because
whenever I introduce the notion of chemotherapy to a client, the very next
sentence out of my mouth is: Chemotherapy is a whole lot different in dogs and
cats than it is in people.
Even though weâre using the exact same drugs, dogs and cats, itâs exceedingly
rare that thereâs hair loss, and the likelihood of getting sick from
chemotherapy is very low.
As frequently as people get sick from chemotherapy, thatâs as infrequent as
dogs and cats get sick from chemotherapy. The truth be told, Terry, if treating
â if the outcome of treating dogs and cats with chemotherapy was like it is in
people, all the vomiting, all the hair loss, all the misery - I think youâd
find very few veterinarians willing to do it.
GROSS: So what do you do to try to make the dogs youâre giving chemo to
Dr.Â KAY: Well, for my patients, thereâs a 10-cookie minimum per visit. So
thereâs lots of cookies.
GROSS: What kind of cookies?
Dr.Â KAY: Dog cookies, dog biscuits. So they get fed a lot of treats while
theyâre with us. The people who work in veterinary hospitals, the nurses, the
receptionists, theyâre not doing that work to get rich.
Nobodyâs getting rich doing that. They love dogs and cats. They just love them,
and so an animal comes in, theyâre going to be pet by all kinds of people.
Theyâre going to get all kinds of treats, all kinds of baby talk and attention.
So theyâre treated very well. That being said, not all animals are suitable
candidates for chemotherapy, and whenever I counsel people about chemotherapy
protocols, we really take the animalâs personality into account.
For example, if a cat comes in and receives chemotherapy and then goes home and
hides under the bed for two days, thatâs not reasonable.
GROSS: Now I could see what you said with dogs - that youâre petting the dogs,
youâre talking to the dogs, youâre giving the dogs the cookies. The dogs are
kind of happy to be there.
Dr.Â KAY: Yeah.
GROSS: Cats Iâm not so sure. I mean, cats hate going â my cat, anyway - hates
going to the vet, hates being put in the carrier, knows thereâs something wrong
just when the carrier gets taken out.
Dr.Â KAY: Right. You have to sneak the carrier out, right? Otherwise, your catâs
going to disappear.
GROSS: And cats donât respond to treats the way dogs do, and they donât respond
to petting from strangers the way dogs do.
Dr.Â KAY: Right.
GROSS: So what can you do to make a catâs experience a positive experience?
Dr.Â KAY: Right. Occasionally, we have cats that are really outgoing in a
veterinary-hospital situation. In fact, one of the services we offer is an
underwater treadmill for rehabilitation therapy, where you fill up a â
basically, it looks like an aquarium fish tank and fill it with water to let
the animal paddle in there to develop muscle strength, non-weight-bearing
We even have a couple of cats that do that. But youâre right. Most cats are
stressed out by hospital visits. So for most cats, what we do is we give them
places away from barking dogs, and we give them things to hide in.
We have little cubbies they can hide in in their cage, and cats that are food-
motivated, they like to eat almost no matter where they are. So thereâs plenty
of food for them, as well.
GROSS: So what are your little cat hiding places like?
Dr.Â KAY: Theyâre kind of like big hats. Theyâre pouches, and theyâre made of
fleece and fluffy material, and they can crawl inside those.
GROSS: The one thing you point out in your book that I think is important to
mention is that, you know, dogs and cats donât know they have cancer. So
theyâre not living with the anxiety that the humans are.
Dr.Â KAY: Right. They have perfected the art of living in the moment.
GROSS: So they might be in discomfort, but theyâre not, like, worrying and
saying is this Stage 1 or Stage 2 of cancer.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr.Â KAY: Exactly.
GROSS: Itâs just a different experience for an animal.
Dr.Â KAY: In fact, if I am treating an animal with chemotherapy, and I know the
cancerâs gone, and the client is telling me that the dog still seems kind of
droopy, I always ask: Is the dog sensing what youâre feeling?
When we treat â letâs say that we have a dog or a cat with lymphoma. Thatâs a
very treatable type of cancer, but we canât cure it. But what we can often
achieve is a year of really good quality time. Sometimes we get two years.
Sometimes we get three years.
So in screening whether or not this patient is suitable for chemotherapy, we
talk about the animalâs personality. We talk about the personâs philosophy
about treating cancer.
If theyâve just experienced the ravages of chemotherapy with a loved one, I can
reassure them about chemotherapy until Iâm blue in the face, but how can we
expect them to face the notion of chemotherapy again for any of their loved
We talk about the financial implications. We talk about will your work schedule
allow you to come back and forth as frequently as you need to? And then the
last thing that I address is, will you enjoy the honeymoon?
Because weâre doing this to provide really good quality time for you to share
with your dog and cat, and if every waking hour is spent thinking about the
fact that your animal has cancer and at some point will succumb to that
disease, then should we really move forward?
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is veterinarian Dr.Â Nancy Kay, and
she has a new book called âSpeaking for Spot,â which is about how to be an
effective advocate for your dog when it comes to your dogâs health.
Now, pain management is a growing part of veterinary medicine, just as it is in
Dr.Â KAY: Yes.
GROSS: And I know, like, when you have a problem thatâs pain-related, and you
go to the doctor, you know, as a human being, the doctor asks you to rate your
pain scale on a one to 10, and I always think thatâs hard to do, but you do
You canât ask a dog or a cat to rate their pain. How do you evaluate how much
pain a dog or a cat is in, and do you find that animals express their pain
differently than humans do?
Dr.Â KAY: Yeah, thatâs â itâs so challenging, but we work really hard on it, and
Iâm really proud of our profession. Weâve come such a long way in terms of pain
Iâm kind of embarrassed to tell you, you know, I graduated veterinary school in
1982, and when we were doing, say, spay and neuter procedures, we werenât
providing any pain medication routinely for those patients, which is appalling
for me to think about now.
What we do is, in our hospital setting, we actually have pain assessment every
two to four hours, depending on the patient.
The indicators that are the best indicators for dogs and cats as to how theyâre
experiencing pain or whether theyâre experiencing pain have to do with heart
rate, respiratory rate and blood-pressure measurements.
So those are some - three very tangible things we can be measuring to assess
whether or not a patient is in pain. Sometimes we have to rely on giving pain
medication and then seeing if the patient behaves differently.
One of the things I always take into consideration is how does an animal show
that they have a headache? Letâs say that an animal has a tumor growing inside
its brain, well, it may have an awful headache, and that doesnât mean that the
patientâs vomiting or pointing to its head. Usually, thatâs an animal thatâs
becoming reclusive, not nearly as social as he used to be, going off into a
So Terry, this is one of the biggest challenges we face is to feel confident
that we are giving appropriate pain medications, but the field of pain
management has really expanded exponentially.
Acupuncture is used a lot for pain management, all different types of
medications that can be given at home or in a hospital setting. Weâve come a
GROSS: Is whimpering for a dog or meowing for a cat a sign of pain? Do you use
that when youâre assessing an animalâs pain?
Dr.Â KAY: If an animal has a broken leg or a slipped disk in the back, you may
be able to get them to vocalize when you press on that area. But especially for
internal types of pain, thereâs not going to be much whimpering or crying, and
people are often waiting to hear that. Dog owners, cat owners are often waiting
to hear that before they bring their animal into the veterinarian or especially
before they consider euthanasia.
But dogs and cats donât necessarily manifest their pain by whimpering and
crying. This raises another point thatâs near and dear to my heart.
One of the most common questions that Iâm asked when people are trying to make
their end-of-life decisions for their pets, which is always so difficult, they
often ask: Do you think that my dog or my cat is in pain? Because thatâs the
main criteria theyâre using to determine when itâs time to put their pet to
And animals donât necessarily have to be in pain to be suffering. What I
encourage people to think about is consider the case of the flu, if youâre in
bed with the flu, how miserable you feel.
If you were to feel like that day after day after day, youâre suffering. Youâre
not in pain, but certainly thereâs a huge element of suffering there.
GROSS: What are the medications that you use when treating pain in an animal?
Is it the same as the human medication?
Dr.Â KAY: Yes, it is. Thereâs the narcotic classification of drugs, and then
thereâs a whole host of non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory medications - the
equivalent of Ibuprofen for people.
That being said, the human non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory medications can be
very dangerous for dogs and cats. So you need to stick with the ones that are
formulated specifically for them.
GROSS: My guest is veterinarian Nancy Kay, author of the book âSpeaking for
Spot.â More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Letâs get back to our interview with Dr.Â Nancy Kay. She co-founded a 24-
hour emergency specialty care center in California, where she treats cats and
dogs. Her book âSpeaking for Spotâ offers advice on how to make difficult
medical decisions on behalf of your dog.
I'm sure one of the most difficult questions you're asked has to do with one of
the most difficult decisions any person with a pet has to make, which is: How
do I know when it's time, if it's time, to put my pet to sleep? What are some
of the things you say to help one of your clients think through that really
Dr. KAY: There's a few things I encourage them to think about. One of the
things that I recommend is: Does your dog or cat still respond enthusiastically
to the things that would normally excite him, such as, if we're talking about a
dog, the jingle of the car keys; if we're talking about a cat, the can opener
opening the can of cat food? Is he excited by the sight of a tennis ball or
dinnertime or the mention of his favorite words, the ones that you normally
would have to spell out in order to avoid getting him excited? Do the good days
still seem to outnumber the bad days?
That's real important. And then something that sounds a little bit corny, and
it's probably okay because I'm in California is to really go nose to nose and
eyeball to eyeball with your cat or dog and have a look in your cat's or dog's
eyes and see: Is that same spark that you're used to still there? Sometimes
that light flickers a little bit, and if their eyes are looking dull over a
period of days, then I think that, too, is a really good indicator.
The key here is everybody wants to make the decision at just the right time.
They don't want to act prematurely, they don't want to do it too soon, but what
I tell my clients is is that the people - some of the people who have the
hardest time, who come to my support group, are people who feel like they
waited too long. So I encourage people to avoid getting into that situation
where they're going to have guilt and regret that they really waited too long.
GROSS: Do they allow their pet to endure suffering that they didn't need to
Dr. KAY: Exactly.
GROSS: You have something in your book that I found so interesting, you say for
animals who hate going to the vet, taking them to the vet to be euthanized is
going to be just a horrible experience for them because they're going to die
with the anxiety that they haveâ¦
Dr. KAY: Yeah.
GROSS: â¦for any vet visit, and you recommend asking the vet to euthanize the
animal in the car, if the car is a place they like. Like, a lot of dogs love
the car because it means they're going places. Have you done that, euthanized
animals in the car?
Dr. KAY: Oh, yes. Absolutely. I think people don't realize that there's a lot
of choices that they have in terms of the euthanasia process and how they want
to handle that. And one of the choices has to do with location. You don't want
the last minute of the animal's life to be in a place where they're really
miserable. Now, if the animal is really weak and quite out of it, they may not
even recognize they're in a veterinary hospital setting, but many dogs feel
like their cars or their trucks are their second home.
So I'm very happy to go out, enter the vehicle and perform the euthanasia there
if that's where the - my clients and their pets are most comfortable, and at-
home euthanasias are also an option, and many veterinarians will do that for
their clients, and if they're not available to do that, there's house-call
practitioners that'll go do that, as well.
GROSS: What are some of the things you've seen people do to reassure their
animals as they're being euthanized?
Dr. KAY: Well, if they're still eating, there's a lot of food involved. There's
a lot of stroking, a lot of loving, a lot ofâ¦
GROSS: I'm surprised about the food because I would think that it would be
difficult, that it would make the process more difficult if an animal was
digesting in the process. That's not a problem?
Dr. KAY: Well, have you ever been with an animal when it's been euthanized?
GROSS: I haven't.
Dr. KAY: Okay, do you mind if I tell you what happens?
GROSS: No, please.
Dr. KAY: So, many people are surprised about really what a quick, pain-free
simple process it appears to be, and it's kind of shocking sometimes how quick
and simple it seems. What we do is we administer in the vein an injection
that's in essence an overdose of an anesthetic agent, and for all practical
purposes, it looks like the dog or cat is just going to sleep or going under
anesthesia, and typically, it all occurs within about 15 to 20 seconds after
administering the euthanasia solution.
So what we typically do, what I like to do is place a catheter in the vein. We
have a nice room with a couch, where people can hang out, and spend time, and
feed cookies, and talk with their animals and spend as much time as they want
before the euthanasia, and then, typically, when I'm administering the
euthanasia solution, they're stroking, they're patting, they're crying. They're
saying all the things that they really want to say to their dog or cat.
I'm sorry, I get a little teary-eyed talking about it sometimes. And if it's a
dog that loves its food, then they're feeding dog biscuits. So it all happens
very quickly. People are often surprised by how quickly it occurs.
GROSS: Is it hard for you to do it?
Dr. KAY: It is. It is difficult, but it's just part of my job, and I know that
by being there, by being present and handling things in a very smooth, gentle
fashion, that I'm making a very difficult situation for someone else a little
Some patients get to me a whole lot more than others, patients that I have
known for years or patients where I really know in my heart of hearts what that
bond is between them and their human.
So, sometimes it's, sometimes it feels like a relief, you know, when an animal
is really suffering. Let's say they're breathing or struggling to breathe, and
they can't get enough oxygen, and you administer the euthanasia solution, and
all that struggling goes away. And that feels like a huge relief, it really
does, as though I've been unburdened somehow and the people there have been
And I always tell people to stay as long as they like after the fact because
quite honestly, it just looks like their dog or cat are peacefully sleeping,
and especially if an animal has been struggling, it can be a very peaceful time
GROSS: Weâll hear more from veterinarian Nancy Kay in the second half of the
show. Her book and blog are called âSpeaking for Spot.â Iâm Terry Gross, and
this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with veterinarian Nancy Kay. She co-
founded a 24-hour emergency specialty care center in California where she
treats cats and dogs. Her book, "Speaking for Spot" offers advice on how to
make medical decisions on behalf of your dog, including decisions about
chemotherapy, pain management and euthanasia.
Weâve been talking about how you help people make tough decisions, medical
decisions, about their animals. Youâve had a lot of animals yourself.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. KAY: Yeah.
GROSS: And I know youâve had to make tough decisions about whether to do an
invasive procedure or just keep the dog as comfortable as possible, decisions
about whether it was time to put an animal to sleep or not. Tell us the story
of one of your pets who, one of your dogs who youâve had to make a tough
decision about, about whether to do, to move forward with an invasive procedure
Dr. KAY: What I would probably do is tell you about Vinnie who is, he was one
of our dogs. He passed away just over a year ago - a silly, goofy, lovable,
wonderful Golden Retriever. And when he was eight years of age, my husband,
who's also a veterinarian, felt a lump on the top of his head and it turned out
to be a tumor that involved his skull bone. And the decision needed to be made
- do we go ahead and try to remove that tumor? And he had no symptoms
whatsoever. And if we remove the tumor then there was a chance that we would be
able to cure the disease or at least prevent it from progressing as rapidly as
it would otherwise. Because as this skull tumor would grow, it would compress
on his brain and weâd end up with some neurological symptoms. Well, we decided
to proceed with the surgery. To us, that was - no pun intended - a no-brainer
and the surgery was wonderfully successful.
They removed what they thought probably was 95 percent of the tumor and they
had to remove a small portion of his brain, and for a Golden Retriever, that
might not be all that much of an issue, but...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. KAY: ...and he went on and did great and was doing his usual Tigger
routine, jumping up and flying through the air one day and tore his cruciate
ligament. That's a ligament in the knee that large breed dogs are very
predisposed to tearing. Well then we had to decide do we do this knew surgery
on him. We donât know if the skull tumor's going to grow back, but he's going
to be a very lame dog if we donât do the surgery. That was a little bit of a
tough decision and we did - we took our chances. We did the surgery and he did
great for another year before yet a different type of cancer caught up with
GROSS: And that cancer, were you able to do anything about that?
Dr. KAY: No. That was the life ending cancer. He had a tumor on the base of his
heart that we werenât able to fix. But the knee surgery, in particular, was
challenging because we really didn't know if another major surgical procedure
was worthwhile if, indeed, within a few months the tumor affecting the brain
would grow back.
GROSS: So when you found out that your dog Vinnie had a fatal form of cancer...
Dr. KAY: Yeah.
GROSS: ...did you immediately put him sleep?
Dr. KAY: His situation, believe it not, made our decision-making a little bit
easier because his cancer caused bleeding into the pericardial sac around his
heart, which is a situation that a dog really can't live with. And so, he went
from being a dog that was normal and active to being a dog that couldnât walk,
couldnât get up, was struggling to breathe.
It was one of those situations where we really knew that we had no choice. And
as we typically do, my husband and I trade off, who's going to be the one
holding? Who's going to be the one administering the injection? I will say that
I keep expecting it to get easier but in seems to, in fact, get a little bit
harder each and every time.
GROSS: Which is the harder part for you, holding or injecting or are they both
Dr. KAY: They're both equally hard. The holding is hard because youâre so
connected with what's happening with your animal. The injecting is hard because
you can't participate in the emotional aspect of it quite as much.
GROSS: When you lost your dog, when you put your dog to sleep, how long did it
take before you wanted to adopt a new dog?
Dr. KAY: I really like this question because people often feel uncomfortable
trying to figure out when to get their next dog and it's troubling.
GROSS: It's so true. I know.
Dr. KAY: Because one family member might say let's go get a dog tomorrow and
another person, it might take a whole year before they're ready. My husband and
I, we had two dogs and they both died within six months of each other and we
were dogless for the first time in 30 years and neither of us were really ready
to get another dog. And then it just so happened that a little stray came into
my hospital one day. She was dirty, smelly, skinny. She had horrible skin
disease. She was in heat. The receptionist brought her back to our treatment
room holding her well away from her body because she looked so gnarly and
grungy. And there was just something about her eyes, and I took her home. And,
in fact, she's the dog that's on the back cover of my book. Her name is
GROSS: Oh, I have to look.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. KAY: ... and she's been a wonderful fit with our family.
GROSS: Oh, she's adorable.
Dr. KAY: She is. She's a little doll.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Okay. So, you must be...
Dr. KAY: So we ended up getting a dog within about a month of losing our two
GROSS: Okay, and Vinnie, the dog you were describing losing was a Golden
Retriever. He was a big dog and this is a little dog. Have you had little dogs
Dr. KAY: Yeah, weâve - no, we've gone little. Both of our current dogs are
little dogs and itâs really rather fun.
GROSS: What are some of the differences for you between a big and a small dog?
Dr. KAY: Bending down a lot more.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. KAY: You know, Golden Retrievers are often pretty simple-minded dogs. The
dogs I've had in the past have always been very, whatever you want mom, I'll be
the perfect dog. And little dogs, you know they, I think they in general can be
a little bit more intelligent about things and manipulating their moms and
dads. And so, these two have been a little bit more of a challenge to train.
GROSS: Now, I want to end by asking you about the cover photo on your book
"Speaking for Spot," the cover dog.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Because there's a nice story behind that.
Dr. KAY: Sandy.
GROSS: So tell us the story of this dog.
Dr. KAY: Sure. Sandy was brought in as a stray to the Marin Humane Society.
Marin County is just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. And Sandy was one of the
first dogs in the Pen Pal program. What the Pen Pal program is it's a
relationship between the Marin Humane Society and San Quentin State
Penitentiary. When the Marin Humane Society has dogs come in that need training
and socialization - this sounds a little ironic, I know - or they're recovering
from some sort of disease, they'll send these dogs over to San Quentin State
Prison to work with prisoners. And the prisoners, it's a real privilege for
them to be able to work with these dogs. They work on training them and
In Sandy's case, she was recovering from heartworm disease, so she had to be
kept quite quiet, and she was just a crazy girl. She was wild with no manners,
so she joined up with an inmate who taught her, I believe, 14 different
commands. One of the commands was stay and the release from the stay command
was the word parole.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. KAY: And...
GROSS: I like that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. KAY: And Sandy and her inmate managed to be released from San Quentin at
the same time, and they actually lived together for about a year. And then that
fellow had to move back East because of a death in the family and wasn't able
to take Sandy with him. So Sandy went back to the Marin Humane Society and was
adopted by a wonderful family who live in Marin County. And Iâve - Sandy's come
to a number of my local book signings. The only quibble I have with her is
she's about 10 pounds overweight and I keep talking to her mom and dad about
GROSS: Well that's such a great story. Dr. Kay, itâs been great talking with
you. Thank you so much for talking with us.
Dr. KAY: Thank you.
GROSS: Dr. Nancy Kay co-founded a 24-hour emergency specialty care center in
California. Her book and blog are called "Speaking for Spot." Our interview was
recorded in March. Coming up on Animal Week, what Alex the parrot taught us
about how animals think and what they're capable of comprehending.
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
'Alex & Me': The Parrot Who Said âI Love Youâ
TERRY GROSS, host:
How many times have wished you could talk with your pet and find out what
they're thinking. My guest, Irene Pepperberg wanted to conduct research into
animal thinking, so she bought a talking bird from a pet store, a gray parrot
she named Alex. Her idea was to replicate the linguistic and cognitive
breakthroughs demonstrated in research with chimps using an animal that could
talk. Alex became her good friend as well as her long-time research subject. As
a result of their work together, he probably became the most famous parrot in
the world. When he died two years ago at the age of 31, he got an obit in the
New York Times headlined, "Brainy Parrot Dies, Emotive to the End." Pepperberg
has written a memoir called "Alex & Me." She's now an associate research
professor at Brandeis University.
Irene Pepperberg, welcome to FRESH AIR. How many words was Alex capable of
Dr. IRENE MAXINE PEPPERBERG (Associate Research Professor, Brandeis
University): It's hard to say because there were some that were just
contextually applicable, something like I'm sorry. There was no contrition. It
was just something to say when he had done something wrong, and everybody made
sure he knew that it was something wrong.
But there was good data on about 50 different object labels, seven colors, five
shapes, quantities up to eight just before he died. And then he would combine
these to identify, request, refuse, categorize, quantify more than 100
different things in the laboratory. So once he knew block, then he knew green
and yellow and orange, and so he could identify the green block, the yellow
block, the orange block, things like that.
GROSS: How much ability did he have as a parrot to pronounce the words that you
wanted him to say?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: He got most of them right. There are some of them that are
really tough, like imagine saying paper without lips, and he actually did that.
But final Ss always seemed to get him, so he would say things like Alec instead
of Alex. If the S was in the middle of a sentence, like what's that, not a
problem, or what's saying, not a problem. He would say six by saying sic, and
we had to really push him to say sic, sic to get that final S-type noise. So
there were some things that were tough.
GROSS: We have lips, and that helps us pronounce. Parrots don't. They have
beaks, so that must be an impediment for subtle variations of vowels and
Dr. PEPPERBERG: Not so much the vowels. His vowels come out looking exactly
like ours, they're really quite similar. The change comes on those consonants,
those P and V and B sounds that we use our lips, and he uses esophageal speech
to do that. So just like people who've had laryngectomies, he will kind of burp
those sounds in some way. They don't look that different on the sonograph, but
they come up at very different energies.
GROSS: What do you think your work with Alex and with your other parrots
disproves about preconceptions of the abilities of animals to think and
Dr. PEPPERBERG: Well, what Alex really did was lay waste to the term birdbrain
as something derogatory. He really did show that this creature with a brain the
size of a shelled walnut could do the same types of tasks that the apes did and
the dolphins did and in many cases, young children could do. It was a major
Before I started my work, which was in the â70s, most people were studying
pigeons. They were studying through a procedure called operant conditioning,
where you starve an animal down to about 80 percent of its normal body weight,
put it in a box with nothing in the box other than a couple of buttons, and you
do a lot of tasks using those buttons and trying to see what the animal can do.
And obviously, we did things in very different ways. Instead we treated
GROSS: I should just say, you're talking about starving the animal, that's so
it would be receptive to food as a reward stimulus?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: Correct, correct. I'm sorry I should have mentioned that. Yes.
And you would, the rewards would have nothing to do with the task that you were
giving the animals. So, if you were trying to do, say, you know, that the
animal could do a match to sample, meaning you show it a red light, and then
you give it a sample of red and green lights and see if it could learn to hit
the red light appropriately. And then, if you change the sample to a green
light, could it switch over to hitting the green light. And you give it a
little piece of food as its reward. This was not the way to treat an animal if
you wanted to get communication.
Another big difference in what we did was, we trained Alex to label objects
that he initially wanted. So there was a real incentive for him to learn to say
key because that was something he could use to scratch himself, or wood because
that was something he enjoyed chewing. And these were his primary rewards, the
close correlation of the label and the object to be learned.
GROSS: You know, as you mentioned before, you didn't use the behavioral
sciences model of conditioning with your parrots. Can you describe the training
models that you used to teach your parrots how to communicate?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: We used something called the Model/Rival technique and it is
very, very simple. We started by finding objects the bird wanted, and we would
decide to train him those labels. So the bird would be on a perch. My student
and I would have this object, say it was a piece of wood that the bird really
wanted to chew. And I would show it to my student, who is the model for the
bird's behavior and its rival for my attention, and I'd ask her, what's this?
And she'd say, wood. And I'd say, that's right. It's wood. And I'd give it to
her, and she'd go, wood, wood, wood. And she'd proceed to break it apart, and
the parrotâs, you know, practically falling off the perch. Alex really wanted
this object, and he was really watching.
And then we exchanged roles of model, rival and trainer. So the bird saw that
one person was not only the questioner and the other one the respondent, but it
was an interactive process. And sheâd show it to me, and Iâd go quack, and
sheâd turn away and go, no, youâre wrong. So the bird would see that not any
weird new noise would transfer the object. And sheâd give me another chance.
And Iâd say, wood, and Iâd get it, and weâd play that game again. And we did
this several times. And then weâd show it to the bird. Now, at the beginning,
Alex obviously wouldnât just say wood, but he might go something like, ood, a
new noise, and weâd reward that. And then, over several weeks, we would shape
it up into something that sounded like wood.
GROSS: And what about things like numbers? How would you get Alex to understand
that three objects meant the number three?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: That was really interesting because for him, you know, wood was
wood, so whatâs this business of all these numbers of woods. And weâd do it
using the same modeling technique. Iâd show, you know, this is wood, and then I
would put a couple of more pieces on the tray, and Iâd say, this is three wood.
And the student would go, three wood and, you know, get the reward, and then
she could play with all three pieces of wood. And Alex, if he said three, could
play with all three pieces of wood.
GROSS: So, do you think he could count?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: He did. We really had data on counting. And when we did a study
on addition with Alex, we would put numbers of things under cups. And there
would be like, say, two nuts under one cup and three nuts under the other cup.
And weâd lift the first cup and weâd say look and after a second, cover those
nuts. Pick up the second cup, show it to him for a second and say look, put it
down. And then with both cups on the tray covering the nuts, weâd say, how
many? And heâd say, five, and he was fine, but he couldnât do five and zero.
Five nuts under one cup, and no nuts under the other. And we couldnât figure
that out at first. Every time we did that, heâd say six. And then it finally
dawned on me that oh, maybe heâs doing what humans do. Weâre not giving him
time to actually count.
So we finished the second half of the trials, giving him now maybe five or six
seconds, and lo and behold, he could do it. So this was our real evidence that
he was literally counting because he needed time to perceive all those things
under the cup.
GROSS: What do you consider some of the most advanced things linguistically and
conceptually that Alex was able to achieve?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: When we were studying concepts of same and different, we taught
him the label none to refer to absence of similarity or difference. So weâd
show him two objects and say, whatâs same or whatâs different, and heâd say
color, shape, matter, or none, if nothing were same or different. Without any
prompting, he transferred this when we did concepts of bigger and smaller. So
the first time we showed him something that was the same size, and we said,
what color bigger? He looked at me, and he said what same? And I said, well,
you tell me? And he said none. And then the really exciting part came when we
were doing number comprehension. And we gave him trays of different sets of
objects with different colors and numbers. So there would be, for example, a
tray of three yellow blocks, four purple blocks, and six orange blocks. And the
question would be, what color three?
So heâd have to understand the number three, what it meant, find the set of
blocks that were three, which would be all mixed up - all the different colors
would be mixed on the tray - and then tell me the color of the set that was
three. And he did this for about 12 sessions perfectly well. And then - itâs a
bit anthropomorphic - but he would get bored, and he would - what he would
start doing would be to throw everything on the tray on the floor with his
beak, just knock it off or give me colors that werenât on the tray or turn his
back to me and say, want to go back, and be very clear that he didnât want to
And so you start getting inventive, and you start using things like Jelly
Bellies instead of wooden blocks. And that heâd get one of those for his
reward. And youâre pushing the edge of the envelope a lot. And then one day, I
come in, and I show him trays, and it was three, four, and six things on the
tray. And I said, Alex, what color three? And he looks at me, and he looks at
me and he says five. And Iâm thinking, huh, thereâs no five things on the tray.
And so I say, Alex, come on, what color three? Letâs go.
And he looks at me again, and he says five. And this goes back and forth
several times. And Iâm thinking, what is going on here? Heâs not throwing
everything on the floor. Heâs not giving me wrong colors. Heâs saying a
different number. And there isnât any of the stuff on the tray. So I finally
said, okay, smarty, you know, what color five, not knowing what to expect. And
he looks at me, and he says, none.
So not only did he transfer this information from that other task to this task,
but he was responding to an absence of number, a kind of zero-like concept.
Plus, he had figured out how to manipulate me into asking him the question that
he wanted to answer, which I think was pretty, pretty sophisticated on his
GROSS: My guest is Irene Pepperberg. Weâll talk more about the research she
conducted with her parrot, Alex, after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Irene Pepperberg. Weâre talking about her work with her now
famous African grey parrot, Alex, with whom she conducted pioneering research
into animal linguistics and cognition. Alex died in 2007. Pepperbergâs memoir
is called, âAlex & Me.â
You describe a time when you were teaching at the University of Arizona in
Tucson, and you were living outside the city. And you had brought Alex home
with you, which you didnât typically do. And there were a couple of owls
outside the window, which terrified your parrot, Alex. And would you describe
the communication that happened after he got really freaked out by the owls?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: Yeah. I mean, normally, when I would bring him home, the first
minute or two, you know, he was outside of his carrier and in his trap - this
new cage that I would have for him. He would say, want to go back. And Iâd say,
oh, just calm down. Youâre fine. And then he would look around the cage, see
there was food, there was water, there were toys, and okay, he was fine, and he
would settle down.
Well, this time, he was just going on and on - want to go back, want to go
back, want to go back. And heâs staring out the window. And I finally realized
that there were these little screech owls - little, tiny screech owls that were
nesting up there. And so my first response was to just close the shade and say,
look, theyâre out there. Youâre in here. Youâre safe. But Alex had something
called object permanence. And he knew those owls were still out there, and he
just kept insisting - want to go back, want to go back. So, I had to take him
in the carrier and bring him back to the lab that night. And he never really
came back to the house after that.
GROSS: Alex was hospitalized with a life-threatening infection. How did you try
to communicate with him when you had to leave him at the hospital?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: Oh, that was â that was so incredibly difficult. He knew
phrases like, you know, Iâll see you tomorrow, Iâll be back, because we would
say that every night when we put him in the cage. And so here, weâre not
leaving him in his normal place. I mean, weâre putting him in this little
hospital cage, in a strange place with all these people, many of whom he didnât
know. He knew the vets themselves, but not the technicians. And as I walk out
the door, he looks at me, and he says in his pitiful voice, Iâm sorry. Come
here. Want to go back. And you sit there and look at him and go, oh, well, how
am I going to explain this? And I just kept saying Iâll be in tomorrow. Iâll
see you tomorrow. I promise. Iâll see you tomorrow. And finally, he calmed
down, and, of course, I made sure that I was there tomorrow.
GROSS: How do you think he knew to say Iâm sorry?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: That was - again, it was something we called contextually
applicable. When he did something bad, you know, if he bit somebody or if he
threw things on the tray and weâd get angry at him, and, you know, weâd say bad
boy, you know, donât do that, no. He learned over time that, you know, the
phrase Iâm sorry was very good. He would say it in this pathetic little voice -
Iâm sorry. And, of course, youâre a little â you go oh, you know. Your heart
melts even though you know thereâs no contrition. So that was something that he
had associated. And I guess something in his little bird brain said, oh, they
put me in this horrible place because Iâve been a bad boy. Maybe if I say Iâm
sorry, you know, things will get better. I mean, Iâm just guessing at that.
GROSS: You know, this story of Alexâs death is just so sad. You learned about
it through an email that you gotâ¦
Dr. PEPPERBERG: Hmm.
GROSS: â¦in the morning at your home from one of the people working in the lab
who delivered the sad news. Were you able to actually find out how Alex died?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: The autopsy did not show a lot. By sort of subtraction, my
veterinarian assumed that it was heart arrhythmia because there was nothing
obvious. And he did have a little bit of arteriosclerosis, which meant that, if
there was a heart arrhythmia, things couldâve shut down, and it couldâve
happened very quickly. And certainly, you know, we gave him the best foods and
healthy foods and he had just had a checkup a week before. I mean, it was just
like the middle-aged guy who goes to his doctor, and the doctor does all the
tests and says, hey, youâre great. Youâll live another 30 years. And the guy
walks out the door and, you know, collapses. And thatâs sort of what happened.
GROSS: What do you believe now about the potential of animals to communicate
that you werenât sure of when you started your research?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: That that potential is much greater. I think that, for many
animals, we need to figure out the appropriate channels to use. Obviously, Alex
could talk. People who work with apes use computers and sign language. People
who work with dolphins also use computers and sign language. Itâs a matter of
figuring out what medium. I mean, to emphasize the communication with humans in
some ways is unfair because they have their own communication systems that work
wonderfully well in the niche in which they live. And in a sense, pushing them
to communicate with us is unfair. But itâs one way of our actually getting - as
Don Griffin(ph), my mentor, would say - getting a window into their minds to
actually determine how they process information, how they think by giving them
GROSS: Irene Pepperberg, thank you so much for talking with us.
Dr. PEPPERBERG: Oh, youâre so welcome. Pleased to be here.
GROSS: Irene Pepperbergâs memoir about her research with her parrot is called
âAlex and Me.â Our interview was recorded last year when it was published. Our
Animal Week series continues tomorrow.
(Soundbite of music)
You can download podcast of our show on our Web site freshair.npr.org. Iâm
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.