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alex and me

2009-11-20 - 11:55 a.m.

Peachfront's Note: Check out my October 2009 Bolivia "Bird of Prey" trek: To start with Part 1, please click right here. If you missed any previous installments, well, here's Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and the thrilling conclusion, Part 6. Or check out my bird trip list with over 50 new life species. Also don't forget to investigate my photo essay, the beautiful butterflies of Bolivia.

Upon our return from the hunt for the Tree Swallow Tornado, IMOM and I found a few interesting offers and coupons awaiting us. New Year's Eve at the Casino with No Discernable Theme except "Hey, we're near Bellagio too!" Maybe. If it's honored. Two more days at the casino that seems to forget that they kicked us out with extreme prejudice after we'd lived off them, with RFB/limo and airfare, for pretty much an entire year. Well, I have my doubts about anyone honoring that one. A free-lance host even called IMOM on the phone but IMOM was reluctant to commit to any trips.

"I don't know, this guy isn't going to make any commissions off me, and he's just a guy," he said.

"Yah but what if he's getting some compensation based on how many butts he puts in seats? He might not get much but he might get something..."


Well, there's one coupon we could definitely use, the 25% off Barnes and Noble coupon of the day. I got a copy of Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg, and I read the whole story last night. It isn't a difficult read, because the technical stuff is elsewhere, in scientific papers or in The Alex Studies. This book is more the personal story. Anyone who has seen the interviews with Alex can't help but walk away impressed, but here she goes behind the scenes and reveals the truth about his personality. Yah, Alex was a parrot, for sure. A smart parrot, but maybe a little bit evil under all the fluff and feathers. When the cameras were rolling, he would play to them all right -- producing the impressive interviews and interactions that have made him famous.

But once he's in the green room? Watch out, world. Alex "hazed" both humans and the other parrots alike. If you were a new human to Alex, expect to be kept running if you wanted any cooperation on your project, bunky. Because Alex didn't just use his super-powers for the greater good. What does it profit a parrot to be a super-intelligent celeb if he doesn't use it to make you fetch him a nut once in awhile?

If that host had called Alex on the phone, he'd be booked in his RFB suite at the Palms right now. I'm just saying.

As for poor Griffin, one of the other Grays in the study, he was constantly being one-upped, with Alex butting in to either answer the questions while Griffin was still thinking or else to be chided to "say better." Alex was not even above telling Griffin the wrong answer once in awhile to keep him on his toes.

Despite Alex's brains, spunk, and sass, I was surprised at how much of the story was sadness and struggle. After all, he lived large, exceeded everyone's expectations, got famous and beloved, and died suddenly in his sleep with no pain. A damned good life by anyone's standards. But I had no idea of the financial hardship -- the eternal struggling that never seemed to get any better. In an awful twist of fate, Pepperberg finally gets a dream job offer at the Media Lab, which includes a five year contract. Although she has to surrender a tenured position to accept, the tenured position is low paid and dead end, and the Media Lab is offering an incredible opportunity for intellectual freedom. Well, we all know what happens next. The internet/tech boom continues to bust, and 9-11 puts the final nail in the free-wheeling economy. A job that was supposed to last 5 years is gone in 3 months, and it's back to the fund-raising grind. At a low point, the birds are actually homeless and living in supporter's houses. Ouch.

Pepperberg doesn't whine, but you honestly have to ask yourself. How much time have we lost, how much knowledge have we denied ourselves, because we simply don't bother to give any kind of adequate funding to the study of animals? I was shocked to learn a few years ago that a prominent artist/ornithologist associated with a prominent university was not paid by the university at all, not once, for 20 years. People are doing research part-time, because the main job is fund-raising, whether it's giving speaking tours (in Pepperberg's case) or doing art (for many talented ornithologists, painting and photography is a second source of grants/patrons) or giving bird tours. Hey, I love the paintings, the photography, and the tours, but after a certain point, don't these people need to be doing original research? It reminds me of the day in the market in Tana, when I suddenly became disgusted with myself, because here was a guy who should be out discovering (more) new species and documenting the nests, and instead here I have the poor guy translating for me while we haggle in a stupid flea market. Is this really the best use of his time right now?

I don't know how many Greys are left in the wild. Probably not too many. We might never really know anything much about how they lived in the wild and what created their brains. We still have a chance with some of the large parrots of South America. But there's a lot of parrots out there and a lot of knowledge that might be forever lost. It seems like there's any kind of money for somebody who wants to create a new kind of weapon but peanuts for somebody who wants to study a new kind of brain. And if you think I'm kidding about peanuts, right now, today, if you visit the Alex Foundation website, they're having a raffle for a quilt to raise money. It's a beautiful quilt, by the way, and I'll throw a few bucks at a chance to win. But come on. It's like that old wheeze, It will be a beautiful day when the Pentagon has to throw a bake sale to buy a bomber and our schools have all the funding they need. This world is upside-down.

I guess this diary entry isn't much of a book review. It's a "society" review. And our society isn't getting such a high grade, based on performance to date.

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