Alex was a little subdued that week, though nothing out of the ordinary. The birds had had some kind of infection the previous month, but they were now fine. The vet had given them all a clean bill of health. On the afternoon of Wednesday the fifth, Adena Schachner joined me and Alex in the lab. She is a graduate student in the psychology department at Harvard, researching the origins of musical abilities. We thought it would be interesting to do some work with Alex. That evening, we wanted to see what types of music engaged him. Adena played some eighties disco, and Alex had a good time, bobbing his head in time with the beat. Adena and I danced to some of the songs while Alex bobbed along with us. Next time, we promised ourselves, we would get more serious about the music work.
The following day, Thursday the sixth, Alex wasn’t much interested in working on phonemes with two of the students during the morning session. “Alex very uncooperative in the task. Turned around,” they wrote in Alex’s work log. By midafternoon he was much more engaged, this time with a simple task of correctly selecting a colored cup, underneath which was a nut.
At six forty-five the supplemental lights went on, as usual, a signal that we had a few minutes left to clean up. Then the main lights went off, and it was time to put the birds in their cages: Wart first, then Alex, then the always reluctant Griffin.
“You be good. I love you,” Alex said to me.
“I love you, too,” I replied.
“You’ll be in tomorrow?”
“Yes,” I said, “I’ll be in tomorrow.”
[...]The following morning, after checking my e-mail, I poured myself a cup of coffee. While I was savoring the coffee’s rich aroma, a thought crossed my mind, as it did from time to time, something that my friend Jeannie once said: Had I gotten a different Grey parrot that day back in 1977, Alex might have spent his life, unknown and unheralded, in someone’s spare bedroom. I didn’t, of course, and here we were with a history of astonishing achievements behind us, and poised to journey to the next horizon and beyond in our work together. And we had the resources we needed. I allowed myself to savor all this, too, a sense of happiness, excitement, and security that had eluded me since the heady days at the Media Lab. Yes! I then returned to my computer.
In the interim, another e-mail had arrived. In the subject line was a single word: “Sadness.” My blood turned to ice as I read the message. “I’m saddened to report that one of the parrots was found dead in the bottom of his cage this morning when Jose went to clean the room...not sure which?...in the back left corner of the room.” It was from K.C. Hayes, the chief veterinarian in the animal care facility at Brandeis University.
I was in raw panic. No...no...no! Back left corner of the room. That’s Alex’s cage! I was gasping for breath, trying to stave off rising terror. Maybe he’s mixing up his right and his left. Maybe he made a mistake. Maybe it’s not Alex. It can’t be Alex! Even though I clung to that feeble hope as I snatched at the phone, I knew K.C. had not made a mistake. I knew Alex was dead. Even before I could dial, a second e-mail from K.C. chimed onto the screen. The message was simple. “I’m afraid it is Alex.”
I wanted to remember the Alex I’d put in the cage the previous night. Alex, full of life and mischief. Alex, who had been my friend and colleague for so many years. Alex, who had amazed the world of science, doing so many things he was not supposed to be able to do. Now he had died when he was not supposed to, two decades before the end of his expected life span. Damn you, Alex.
I wanted to remember the Alex whose last words to me were, “You be good. I love you.”
I stood, put my hand on the door, and whispered, “Goodbye, little friend.”
Scientifically speaking, the single greatest lesson Alex taught me, taught all of us, is that animal minds are a great deal more like human minds than the vast majority of behavioral scientists believed—or, more importantly, were even prepared to concede might be remotely possible. Now, I am not saying that animals are miniature humans with somewhat lower-octane mental powers, although when Alex strutted around the lab and gave orders to all and sundry, he gave the appearance of being a feathery Napoleon. Yet animals are far more than the mindless automatons that mainstream science held them to be for so long. Alex taught us how little we know about animal minds and how much more there is to discover. This insight has profound implications, philosophically, sociologically, and practically. It affects our view of the species Homo sapiens and its place in nature.