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The Parrot Who Said 'I Love You'

During their 30 years together, psychology professor Irene Pepperberg and Alex, her African gray parrot, said "I love you" to each other nearly every day. Pepperberg writes about the extraordinary abilities of her pet in the memoir Alex & Me.


Other segments from the episode on December 26, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 26, 2008: Interview with Nick Trout; Interview with Irene Pepperberg.


Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
An Animal Surgeon's 'Tale of Humor, Healing'


This is Fresh Air. I'm David Bianculli of Broadcasting & Cable Magazine and, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today, we're going to listen back to some of our favorite interviews of the year. Animal surgeon Nick Trout has noticed that many pet owners feel more like pet parents. The people who bring their animals to him want him to know how much they love their pets. He loves animals, too, although the cats and dogs he treats might not return the sentiment during his examinations.

We're going to hear about some of his more unusual cases and how the whole field of veterinary medicine has changed in the past few decades with interventions that once were reserved for people. Dr. Trout is a staff surgeon at the Angell Animal Medical Center, which is part of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He's also the author of the memoir, "Tell Me Where It Hurts." Terry spoke with him earlier this year.

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, March 20, 2008)

TERRY GROSS: Dr. Trout, welcome to Fresh Air. Now the name of your book is "Tell Me Where It Hurts," and of course, that's a great title because you can't ask your patients to tell you anything. I mean, you can ask them, but they can't speak. Of course, you can talk to the people who live with the animals. So, what are some of the things you do to diagnose a pet to compensate for the fact that you can't talk with the animal?

Dr. NICK TROUT (Angell Animal Medical Center, Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; Author, "Tell Me Where It Hurts"): Well, I think there are obvious instances in which the problem is so blatantly obvious it sort of hits us upside the head. But if not, then we're going to move on to, you know, potentially, x-rays, radiographs, CTs, MRIs, blood work, urinalysis, just a whole - ultrasound - a whole wealth of new technologies that we as people take for granted and to have now permeated veterinary medicine to become sort of the normal standard of healthcare for our animals.

GROSS: I want you to tell us about one of your more challenging cases. This is a case - I would describe this dog as almost a hermaphrodite.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. TROUT: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: It's a male dog that had become feminized. It had - why don't you describe what it had?

Dr. TROUT: This wasn't an easy story to convey and get across, but I tried my best to basically describe a boxer dog who, on the outside, appeared to be male. This dog only had one descended testicle, and the remaining testicle inside had succumbed to a tumor, a tumor that was secreting feminine hormones, and those feminine hormones were making this male dog become somewhat female in nature. This dog would stand to be mounted by other dogs, had somewhat pendulous breasts and had this real sort of hormonal turmoil going on inside of him.

The other problem was, unbeknownst to both me and the owner, that he had a remnant of an embryonic uterus that should have disappeared during his development as a puppy and yet had persisted. And so, this increase in female hormones had sort of turned on a female reproductive organ within his body, and as a result, he had developed what's called a pyometra, which is not an uncommon infection of this male dog's uterus. And so, this gave me this very unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to end up actually neutering and spaying one and the same dog.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's just really bizarre.

Dr. TROUT: It was quite bizarre. You know, occasionally, these cases do get reported in the veterinarian literature. What is more entertaining is how you explain this to a somewhat chauvinistic owner.

GROSS: And how did you?

Dr. TROUT: Well, I like to think the feminine side of his male dog brought out the feminine side in him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: How so?

Dr. TROUT: Well, because, you know, he did find it difficult. He was just insistent that this was a male dog and that this couldn't be happening, this hormonally induced ability to be attractive to the other male dog in the dog park. And so, what I ensured at the end of the day was that he should understand that the male side of this dog actually shines through, was the dominant party, and he seemed to be comfortable with that.

GROSS: You know, one of the supermarket tabloids seems to specialize in bizarre animal stories. I wouldn't have been surprised if they picked up on this one, but you know, just have a lot of stories about like the biggest cat in the world or half cat/half dog.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. TROUT: Right, right.

GROSS: You know, they kind of combine the photos together so it's half cat and half dog.

Dr. TROUT: Yes.

GROSS: Do ever run into that, where a tabloid picks up on one of the more unusual medical stories?

Dr. TROUT: I - you've got me worried now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. TROUT: I'm wondering if I'm going to be inundated with phone calls, but I mean, I think the closest I've come to it is the very real story of a 40-pound cat that - you know, I remember someone showing me a picture of this animal that had come in and just being both shocked and appalled by its size. And it led me into an opportunity really to discuss this epidemic that animals face in our society today, which is not only for us, but also our pets, you know, obesity and overweight.

GROSS: What does this 40-pound cat look like? That's a lot.

Dr. TROUT: I mean, just like carrying a bean bag that you would sit in. I mean, this is just a ridiculous amount of fur and flesh, almost to a point of hardly being able to see where the limbs and head were. I mean, a 40-pound bag of potatoes or whatever is a significant weight to be carrying, let alone to be carrying around with you when your little skeleton is so small and relatively fragile to that body mass.

GROSS: Well, what are the medical problems involved with being overweight, you know, with cats and dogs? I mean, your concern isn't that they look too fat.

Dr. TROUT: Right, right. Yes.

GROSS: You're concerned medically. So, what's the problem?

Dr. TROUT: Well, I mean, me personally, you know, doing surgery, the biggest thing I see is significant risk of arthritis and worsening of arthritis. There was a study some years ago that showed something like an 11-to-18 percent weight loss of overweight pets could produce a statistically significant improvement in lameness. And to actually achieve statistical significance is a big deal. And so, I've had many cases over the years, dogs that are overweight. The owner comes in. We talk about a more conservative approach to their dog's hip problems, say, a problem that they originally came in for an expensive hip-replacement surgery. We get the weight off over a couple of months, and I get phone calls saying, I don't need to do that hip replacement surgery. My dog is doing great. I'm very pleased. Losing that weight made all the difference, and so, that's one way in which I feel the big impact of improving animals' body weight.

GROSS: Let me ask you about another case that you write about in your book. In this case, the dog's owner was a man who had lost his wife not long ago. And you figured he was probably closer to the dog than anybody else.

Dr. TROUT: Sure.

GROSS: You must see that a lot, where people are just, like, so close...

Dr. TROUT: Absolutely.

GROSS: To their animal and are therefore so unsure about what to do because they don't want the animal to die. You know, in a situation like this, do you do the surgery? Do you not do the surgery? Will it work? Will the animal die? What are some of the, like, kinds of really emotional conversations you ended up getting into with pet owners when their animals are in jeopardy?

Dr. TROUT: Yeah, I mean, that's - it really varies depending on the nature of the problem. But I think the first thing I try to do is to sort of step back from being sucked into the emotion of the relationship, because my first responsibility is to try to tell the owner what the problem is and what options we have to deal with it. I'm just trying to give them their information because there's obviously so much from their side of the examination table that I don't know, you know, the depth of this relationship, the importance of the animal in their life, their previous experiences with loss, their own health issues, their thoughts on natural death versus euthanasia and, you know, last but not the least, their ability to pay for whatever care would be required.

And so, I think one of the things I - you know, we need to convey is the fact that whatever we are putting our animal through with some of these difficult decisions and these potentially life-threatening problems, that animal really doesn't have an ability to appreciate that, I'm going to have to go through something negative because I have that notion of extended life; I have an understanding that this is all for the good for me because there's the other end of the equation of which life will be improved for me. You know, they're living in the here and now, and so that responsibility of what decision we make very much falls with us as pet owners. And I think we need to look at that carefully and say, whatever we put our animal through, are we going to get - is it reasonable, what we're going to ask? And also, on the other end of this, are we going to see enough upside and benefits to make it worthwhile?

GROSS: This must be one of the more frustrating parts of being a vet; you know, again, you can't talk to the animal and you can't explain to the animal that this is going to help the animal in the long run.

Dr. TROUT: But I think there is that wonderful silent communication, you know, when we are working with these animals, the sense of their understanding that we are doing and trying to do the right thing by them, if only in the fact that so many of them sort of accept it. They appreciate what we're doing, and it's so easy to convey in the silence between us that we mean well and we wanted to do right by them.

GROSS: I'll tell you what, not my cat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: My cat is so terrified of going to the doctor, and when we put her in a carrier and then take her into the doctor's office, she starts howling like a wolf. It sounds like the beginning of a vampire movie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It is so pathetic to hear her. And then one doctor actually refused to treat her because she was just - she'd just gotten so wild. It's like she was possessed. One doctor put her in, like, a little pussy cat straightjackets.

Dr. TROUT: Right.

GROSS: So, that he could...

Dr. TROUT: Right, right.

GROSS: So, he could kind of get to her without being, you know, fought by...

Dr. TROUT: Sure.

GROSS: By her. So, I think she doesn't feel that special calming presence.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. TROUT: Well, I think...

GROSS: Kind of - like, really exciting.

Dr. TROUT: At least from all side of the table, we're trying to convey that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. TROUT: Whether it's reciprocated or not is another matter.

GROSS: But what do you do in a situation like that, when you're facing a cat that's just terrified?

Dr. TROUT: Oh, I mean, it happens. And I think if you can achieve what you are trying to do in order to, you know, find out what's wrong with that animal and you can do it somehow around physical restraint, then that's what we'd do. But there are instances when you just have to say, I'm going to cause your animal far more distress battling away here than if we could just give a little chemical restraint and be able to get to the problem more quickly and without distressing the animal in the process.

GROSS: Yeah, I think some sedation wouldn't have been a bad idea in this instance.

Dr. TROUT: Well, it'll probably makes you feel better as well that, you know, at least they're relaxing into the experience, because, I mean, it does become silly after awhile because they're very talented with their teeth and claws. And you know, for a good reason that little fight-and-flight mechanism from way back in evolution still happy to kick in.

BIANCULLI: Animal surgeon Nick Trout speaking with Terry Gross. His memoir is called "Tell Me Where It Hurts." More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Animal Surgeon Nick Trout, author of the memoir "Tell Me Where It Hurts."

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, March 20, 2008)

GROSS: Veterinary medicine has changed so much in the past few years. I remember the first time I heard that a pet was going to get chemo for cancer, and I thought, wow, that sounds so extreme. And now, it's just kind of standard, I think.

Dr. TROUT: Right.

GROSS: For a lot of animals. If you get cancer, you get the treatment. And you know, animals get MRIs now, and therefore, veterinary expenses have just skyrocketed. And it's very difficult for pet owners to keep up with those expenses, and they sometimes have to make very difficult decisions about how much they're capable of spending to keep their animal alive.

Dr. TROUT: Sure.

GROSS: What are some of the interventions that you use now that would have been unheard of 10 or 20 years ago?

Dr. TROUT: Well, as you rightly point out, I mean, MRI is sort of the standard of care now for all these dogs that come in with potential brain problems, spinal problems. CAT scans, ultrasound, bone scans and you know, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, we will do, you know, hip replacements, arthroscopy, endoscopy, thoracoscopy, brain surgery, spinal surgery. You know, if you're doing that on a person, you're pretty much doing it for an animal, at least you have the opportunity to. Renal transplants, open-heart surgery, all of these things are becoming and increasingly the norm when it comes to our pets, because - you know, I think it just comes down to the fact that not only are these options available to us, but also, you know, the shift in the importance of the animal in our lives. You know, pets are family. This is my child, is the standard comment I get from the vast majority of my clients. And if this is my child, then I want the kind of care that I can - would expect for my child. And sadly, in the new millennium of veterinary care, we are becoming not limited by medical advances or surgical advances, but really the ability to pay for those.

GROSS: One thing that you're really opposed to is cosmetic surgery for animals, unless it's medically required. What are some of the typical cosmetic surgeries being done now that you think should not be done?

Dr. TROUT: Well, I like to think this goes back to my British sensibilities, as a member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and, you know, being educated in England. The Royal College does not approve of any kind of cosmetic surgery, like ear-cropping or tail-docking. And so, the U.K. is full of floppy-eared Dobermans and Great Danes and Rottweilers with long sweeping tails. And so, if the blame lies anywhere, it lies with my upbringing and education. And also now that I work at Angell, which is part of the MSPCA, the Massachusetts Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in which we perform no tail-docking or ear-cropping or declawing of cats. And that that's fine by me. I think, you know, this - one of things I mentioned, these things called Neuticles, these testicular implants that can be inserted into dogs at the time of neutering and castration. And so...

GROSS: What's the purpose of that?

Dr. TROUT: The purpose, as far as - again, this is my personal opinion - is entirely cosmetic. It is to give them an outline, an anatomical outline, that looks like nothing had happened, that they retain that outward appearance of being male. It serves no medical or hormonal benefit. These are inert inserts that just go into the vacated scrotum. They are purely cosmetic, and I have a problem with that.

GROSS: In the human world, if somebody is sick and in a great deal of pain and they want to end their life, that's not accepted right now. Some - a lot of people think it should be accepted, but it's not. In the animal world, it's always been more accepted to put down an animal, whether it's a large animal or small one, if they're in a great deal of pain and there's no hope for that to improve. Do you think the standard has changed at all with animals?

Dr. TROUT: No, I don't think so. I think, you know, that the euthanasia is still a very important part of what we do. You know, people have religious, spiritual, moral issues with euthanasia and that's, you know, that's obviously a very personal decision on their part. And you know, some of it comes down to the fact that for veterinarians, we still have that oath and there's still that thought of, you know, first do no harm, and if that harm is actually putting to - an animal to sleep, you know, are we going against that oath? But I think - the way I look at it, what I mention in the book is the fact that, you know, I think all of us aspire to that death in which we died peacefully in our sleep, and you know, that holds some appeal and that, you know, veterinarians have this responsibility or at least this option to cause a loss of consciousness, to alleviate pain without the application of pain, that we can bring to bear a dignified and graceful end to an animal's life. But it is a very difficult and emotive issue.

GROSS: What do you tell people about what to expect if they're watching the lethal injection?

Dr. TROUT: I think I've learnt the hard way to very much prepare them because a whole variety of things can happen. I've come to very much prefer having a catheter, plastic tubing into a vein, so that we can deliver the injection without the act of a needle when they witness the event. I've told them that dogs may take a deep breath, a sort of final sigh. They may pant; they may paddle; they may lose control of bodily functions. I do warn them that, for the most part, dogs and cats leave this world with their eyes open, that that sort of Hollywood ending of laying on of hands and that - closing their eyes sometimes doesn't happen.

And I've learned, you know, make sure you tell them that this is - you know, you're just flushing the catheter with the saline solution, because you give them the injection, they look at you surprised that their animal is still alive. I've also warned them it's very quick; it's very painless. Some people are so surprised that it happens so gracefully and so quickly. You know, they really expect something more. And you know, there's some solace to be taken in it actually being a sort of quiet and peaceful event.

BIANCULLI: Animal surgeon Nick Trout speaking with Terry Gross. His memoir is called "Tell Me Where It Hurts." We'll hear more of their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli. And this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of song "Dogs Are Everywhere")

Dogs are everywhere, almost everywhere that I go.
They can't help themselves, and so they help themselves to my home.
They leave their scent behind them everywhere they go.

Oh, dogs are everywhere.
Dogs are everywhere....

BIANCULLI: This is Fresh Air. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Back with Terry's interview with Dr. Nick Trout, a veterinary surgeon who has written a memoir called "Tell Me Where It Hurts." He treats cats and dogs at the Angell Animal Medical Center, which is part of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, March 20, 2008)

GROSS: On the dust jacket of your book, "Tell Me Where It Hurts," there's a photo of you with your two dogs, and one of them is a big Labrador who's sitting next to you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And he looks really large. And then there's a little - was it a Jack Russell?

Dr. TROUT: Correct, yeah.

GROSS: Who's sitting on your lap, and you know, he's really small, particularly compared to the big Lab. Did you intentionally get a really large and a really small dog?

Dr. TROUT: That's my youngest daughter's doing. When Emily said she wanted a dog, what am I going to do? She - we got the terrier initially. Sophie is 11 years old, and I - you know, incredible dogs, very smart dogs. You know, she's got that sort of Red Bull running through her veins, and she actually, now at 11 years old, has slowed down just slightly. And so, I like to think that that gives me an opportunity to empathize with the terrier owners. And then I, of course, have the Labrador, which was another pick by my daughter, and this gives me the orally fixated, happy-go-lucky retriever, and gives me a chance to empathize with the retriever owners.

GROSS: What about in your house now? Who's the dominant dog? Is it the big Lab or the little Jack Russell?

Dr. TROUT: Oh, the Jack Russell.

GROSS: Little Jack Russell, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. TROUT: Oh, yeah, the terrier is completely in control. She just rules the roost, and the goofy Labrador seems quite content to live on her terms. Yeah, it's a nice mix, actually. I was very surprised that it worked out as well as it did.

GROSS: Let me read something you wrote in your acknowledgments at the end of your book. You write about your wife, "Like so many mothers of children with chronic disease, she has quietly sacrificed her life for the greater good of our family." What is the disease that your daughter has?

Dr. TROUT: My daughter has cystic fibrosis, which is the number-one genetic killer of children and young people in this country. And she was diagnosed at about two and a half years of age. And you know, there was no way not to pay homage to my wife in this acknowledgment because, you know, she has sacrificed a lot for our daughter, for our daughter's care. And you know, it's funny, the - when you first get this diagnosis, I'm sure so many parents of children with chronic disease, there's all the anger and frustration. And I think at that time, I did question, you know, I'm here treating pets, yet this child, who is my own, you know, sharing some of my genes and DNA, is so sick. Should I be reconsidering what I'm doing? Should I be thinking about becoming a human doctor or research scientist, trying to find a cure? And all that anger sort of builds up in you.

And then, you know, as the time goes by, you start to realize that you are so blessed and so lucky to have this child in your life, and she's such a great kid. And you start to accept your situation, the good fortune you have, despite what she goes through. And I think some of that has been beneficial to me in my dealings with pet parents, because I see in them the same kind of fear and concern when they're faced with a similar crisis, for someone who is a child to them, who they love just as much as I do my daughter.

GROSS: Is she the daughter that chose the two dogs?

Dr. TROUT: Yes, of course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. TROUT: I mean, again, she - to be honest, with regard to Meg, the Labrador, she and I were in the critical care unit at Boston's Children Hospital; it was about two o'clock in the morning. And she said to me - and she must've been about eight to nine at the time - and she said to me, Daddy, are you going to get me that yellow Labrador I want? What are you going to say? She's got you completely cornered.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. TROUT: So, I said yes. She was quick to remind me when she came out of hospital, and so it happened.

GROSS: Let me ask you now. You mentioned that you know that some of the pet owners who bring their pets to you love their animals as much as a parent loves a child. That will sound offensive to some people. Some people think that, you know, animals can't possibly have the weight or be worthy of the same depth the feeling that a child can be.

Dr. TROUT: I would have to disagree. I mean, you know, obviously everybody's welcome to their own opinion. But I mean, I've seen it with my own eyes. You know, there can be no question in my mind that the depth of love and affection for the animals in some people's lives is no less than I've seen with people with children. You know, I talk in the book about one section in which - I referred to the chapter as Dangerous Liaisons, because some people, you know, just get so invested in their animals; I mean, one gentleman who legally changed his middle name to that of his dog because he just felt that at the end of his life, he wanted his dog to be buried with him, his - the dog's ashes to be buried with him, and that for people to look at this tombstone and say, you know, that's how much that dog meant to me. I mean, that's intense; that's so deeply-rooted.

And you know, there's a woman who's so obsessed with the dog in her life, she'll happily endure injections on a twice-weekly basis and live with an inhaler because she's horribly allergic to the animal, but it still sleeps in the same bed, shares a pillow. I mean, this is deeply-rooted. And I think the other thing to take away is the fact that when these animals that we bring into our lives, we consider them to be our children, you know, the natural order of things is such that we should not bury the children in our lives. You know, they should outlive us.

And yet, we embrace them with all that love and commitment that - full well knowing that probably in our lifetime, we're going to have to let them go and live without them again. And that's what's so hard, the - you know, that you love a creature so much and yet you're sort of living with this anticipatory grief. One of my friends just got a new Shih Tzu puppy, and you know, she is so in love with this animal, she's saying to me already, I don't know how I'm going to cope with losing this animal, I mean, something - 15, 16, 17 years in the future, and yet there's already that sort of niggling fear that this is going to have to come to an end.

GROSS: Well, Dr. Nick Trout, thank you so much for talking with us.

Dr. TROUT: Well, thank you for having me.

BIANCULLI: Animal surgeon Nick Trout speaking with Terry Gross. He's a staff surgeon at the Angell Animal Medical Center, which is part of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. His memoir about his experiences working with cats and dogs is called "Tell Me Where It Hurts." Coming up, scientist Irene Pepperberg tells us about working with an animal that actually talked back. I'm David Bianculli, and this is Fresh Air.
Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
The Parrot Who Said 'I Love You'


This is Fresh Air. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. We're listening back to some of our favorite interviews from 2008. Unlike our previous guest, animal surgeon Nick Trout, Irene Pepperberg worked for years with an animal that actually talked to her. Years ago, when Pepperberg wanted to conduct research into animal thinking, she bought a talking bird from a pet store, an African gray parrot she named Alex. Her idea was to replicate the linguistic and cognitive breakthroughs demonstrated in research with chimps but 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 became probably the most famous parrot in the world. When he died at the age of 31, he got an obit in the New York Times. The headline read, "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, and she teaches animal cognition at Harvard. Terry spoke with her earlier this year.

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, November 12, 2008)

TERRY GROSS: Irene Pepperberg, welcome to Fresh Air. How many words was Alex capable of saying?

Dr. IRENE PEPPERBERG (Psychology, Brandeis University; Animal Cognition, Harvard 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 seem to get him. so he would say things like Aleck instead of Alex. If the S was the middle of the sentence like, what's that? Not a problem. Or what's same? Not a problem. He would say six by saying sick. And we had to really push him to say sick, sick, to get that final S-type noise. So, there were some things that were tough.

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 communicate?

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 the 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 breakthrough. Before I started my work, which was in the '70s, 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 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 them as...

GROSS: I should just say, you're talking about starving the animal 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, if the animal could do a match to sample - meaning you showed a red light and then you give it a sample of red and green lights and see if he 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 a little piece of food as its reward.

This was not the way to treat an animal if you wanted to get communication. What - 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, a close correlation of the label and the object to be learned.

GROSS: Did you feel that in not going the route of behavioral science and the reward-stimulus model that you were going against current academic practices in studying animal communication?

Dr. PEPPERBERG: Oh, yes. Oh yes, oh, yes. This was a major, major issue. The first time I sent in a grant proposal, you know, asking to get funding to do this kind of work, the reviews came back, essentially asking me what I was smoking. Not only did they think that a bird brain was incapable of doing anything like this, but you know, just to talk to the bird? You had to be crazy. This wasn't the way one should do research. It couldn't be scientific. And yet, you think about how we talk to our children, and that's how they develop their communication skills. There's a certain amount of wiring that predisposes them for it, but they have to interact with us and talk with us and learn from us. And that was my proposal for the birds.

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 use something called the Model/Rival technique. This was developed initially by Dietmar Todt. We adapted it somewhat. And it is very, very simple. We started by finding object 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 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 would 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 parrot's, you know, practically falling off the perch. Alex really wanted this object, and he was really watching. And then, we exchange 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 she'd show it to me, and I'd go...

(Soundbite of squawking sound)

Dr. PEPPERBERG: And she's turned away and go, no, you're wrong. So, the bird would see that not any weird new noise would transfer the object, and she'd give me another chance, and I'd say, wood, and I'd get it. We played that game again. We'd do this several times, and then we'd show it to the bird. Now, at the beginning, Alex obviously wouldn't just say wood, but he might go some like, ut(ph), a new noise. And we'd 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, what's this business of all these numbers of woods? And we do it using the same modeling technique. I'd show, you know, this is wood. And then I would put a couple more pieces on the tray, and I'd 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 we'd lift the first cup, and we 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, we'd say, how many? And he'd say five, and he was fine.

But he couldn't do five and zero, five nuts under one cup and no nuts on the other. And we couldn't figure that out at first. Every time we did that, he'd say six. And then it finally dawned that me that, ooh, maybe he's doing what humans do. We're 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, we'd show him two objects and say, what same or what's different? And he'd say color, shape, matter or none, if nothing were same and 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's same? 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, he'd 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 up on the tray - and then tell me the colors of the set that was three. And he did this for about 12 sessions perfectly well, and then - it's 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 weren't on the tray, or turn his back to me and say, want to go back, and be very clear that he didn't want to work.

And so. when you start getting inventive and you start using things like Jelly Bellies instead of wooden blocks and that he'd get one of those for his reward, and you're 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 I'm thinking, huh? There's no five things on the tray. And so I said, Alex, come on. what color three? Let's go. And he looks at me again, and he says, five.

And this goes back and forth several times and I'm thinking, what's going on here? He's not throwing everything on the floor. He's not giving me wrong colors. He's saying a different number. And there isn't any of this stuff on the tray. So, I finally said, OK, smarty, you know, what color five? Not knowing what to expect, 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 sophisticated on his part.

BIANCULLI: Irene Pepperberg speaking with Terry Gross. Pepperberg's new memoir, "Alex & Me," is about the pioneering research she conducted into animal linguistics and cognition using her parrot Alex. We'll hear more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: We're listening back to Terry's interview with animal researcher Irene Pepperberg. Her work with her African grey parrot Alex is the subject of her new book, "Alex & Me."

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, November 12, 2008)

GROSS: 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 didn't 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 - in his cage that I would have for him, he would say, I want to go back, and I'd say, oh, just calm down, you're fine. And then he would look around the cage, see there was food, there was water, there were toys. And OK, 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 he's 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, they're up there, you're in here. You're safe. But Alex had something called object permanence, and he knew those owl 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 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: Well, that was so incredibly difficult. He knew phrases like, you know, I'll see you tomorrow, I'll be back, because we would say that every night when we put him in the cage. And so here we're not leaving him in his normal place. I mean, we're putting him in this little hospital cage in a strange place with all these people, many of whom he didn't 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 little voice, I'm sorry, come here, want to go back. And you sit there and look at him and go, oh, how am I going to explain this? And I just kept saying, I'll be in tomorrow. I'll see you tomorrow. I promise. I'll 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 I'm sorry?

Dr. PEPPERBERG: Well, 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 we'd get angry at him, you know, we'd say, bad boy, you know, don't do that, no. He learned over time that, you know, the phrase, I'm sorry, was very good. He would say it in this pathetic little voice, I'm sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. PEPPERBERG: And of course, you're - you go, oh, you know, your heart melts even though you know that there's no contrition. So, that was something that he'd associated, and I guess something in his little bird brain said, oh, they put me in this horrible place because I've been a bad boy; maybe if I say I'm sorry, you know, things will get better. That's - I mean, I'm just guessing at that.

GROSS: You know, the story of Alex's death is just so sad. You learned about it through an email that you got 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 is was heart arrhythmia because there was nothing obvious, and he did have little bit of arteriosclerosis, which meant that if there was a heart arrhythmia, things could have shut down and could have happened very quickly. And certainly, you know, we gave him the best foods and healthy foods. And he had just had a checkup the 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, you're great. You'll live another 30 years. And the guy walks out the door and, you know, collapses, and that's sort of what happened.

GROSS: What do you believe now about the potential of animals to communicate that you weren't sure 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 dolphin also use computers and sign language. It's 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 communications 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 it's one way of our actually getting, as Don Griffin, my mentor, would say, getting a window into their minds to actually determine how they process information, how they think by giving them these tools.

GROSS: Irene Pepperberg, thank you so much for talking with us.

Dr. PEPPERBERG: Oh, you're so welcome. Pleased to be here.

BIANCULLI: Irene Pepperberg speaking with Terry Gross. Her new memoir, "Alex & Me," is about her late parrot Alex and her research in the animal linguistics and cognition.
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.

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