What’s Happening in the Lab
- Lessons on How to Chastise a Human
It is a given that some humans are more fortunate than others, and most admirers of Dr. Pepperberg’s work harbor a secret envy of those who work with the parrots Alex, Griffin and Wart. Chris, a young student in the lab, is one of those fortunate few. During each workday he gets to experience the wonder and marvels of these incredible creatures.
But those amazing experiences are accompanied by some rather startling lessons that are taught to the lab employees—unexpected lessons which these humans may not realize they need to learn. At times Alex obviously feels the need for some improvement in human behavior, and he pulls no punches in his teaching methods.
“Alex took to me like a parrot to palm fruits,” said Chris. “I felt special, but I soon learned that Alex is a charmer, making almost everyone feel special.” Chris described Alex as “smart, sensitive, macho, articulate, a reveler and trickster.” Little did Chris know that Alex would soon take on the role of lab critic.
“It was a training session for Griffin,” Chris recounts. “Alex was in his cage, seemingly poised and calm. I would soon learn that posture meant trouble. Griffin was being asked to identify a toy truck, but he looked puzzled. Griffin’s facial expression seemed to say, ‘I’ve seen that thing a thousand times and just can’t remember the name of it.’
“Arlene, the lab manager, and I began a ‘human-human’ training session in front of Griffin. Arlene would ask me, ‘What toy?’ I would answer ‘truck’, get the truck, and drop it. I would then request and receive a nut so that Griffin would see that if he labeled the truck correctly, he could get whatever he wanted (which was usually a nut). All this was done in quite an interesting display of emotions. I would be happy and perky, caressing and playing with the toy, making ‘kiddie’ voices of ‘truuuuck, oooooh….I get a nut!’
“The session then switched back to asking Griffin to identify the toy, and Griffin was still not answering. This went on for several minutes, and I got a little frustrated, perhaps raising my voice a little.
“‘Calm down!’ called a voice from the corner, the corner that held Alex’s cage. Arlene replied, ‘He IS calm, Alex.’ In disbelief, I went at it again with Griffin,” says Chris, only to hear the voice from the corner erupt again with a rousing, '"Come on, give it a try!'"
“ Although he doesn’t offer verbal critiques on the behavior of his favorite human, Dr. Pepperberg, Alex has shown her that sometimes she might need concepts presented a little more slowly so she can understand them.
Alex usually receives whatever he requests for every correct answer during his learning sessions, but a limited amount of time on one day caused a slight change. This time he was requesting nuts, and because nut-eating is time consuming, Dr. Pepperberg decided to award the nut after several correct answers. Alex soon made his feelings known. “Want a nut” was heard after each response. “Alex, wait,” Dr. Pepperberg replied. “Want a NUT!” he complained again after the next correct answer. As Dr. Pepperberg tells it, “We’re going on and on and Alex is clearly getting more and more frustrated. He finally gets very slitty-eyed and he looks at me and states, ‘Want a NUT! Nnn--uh--tuh!’" —sounding out each letter clearly and precisely.
Perhaps he thought “sounding out” a word could help his poor human friend understand just what was expected. And Alex had been getting training on “sounding out” letters, but had never put them together to form a word—so his behavior was special in that way as well. One cannot help but wonder if Alex’s fertile mind reasons that sometimes human beings could improve their behavior in his lab, whether it involves the asking of questions or the giving of nuts.
We will never know the exact thought processes inside that wise grey-feathered head, but his comments do fulfill the sentiments of the old saying, “Those who can, do--those who can’t, become critics.” In Alex’s case, he has demonstrated that he can do both, and do both very well.
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