Life with Alex the Grey Parrot: a memoir | Film Review

12 December 2012 by GrrlScientist, posted in Birds, Ethology (Behaviour)

SUMMARY: What did Alex the grey parrot think of the many humans who shared his life? This video shares never-before-seen footage of Alex and tells his story -- in his own words


In late 2007, Alex the grey parrot stunned the world when he died suddenly and unexpectedly. But Alex was more than just a parrot, he was a colleague to animal cognition researcher Irene Pepperberg. As a direct result of their decades of work together, Alex could identify a variety of colours, shapes, numbers and letters, he could count, and he understood a number of concepts.

But Alex was no automaton: it was his ability to clearly communicate his wishes to us in English that captured the public's imagination, making him the most famous research animal that the world has ever known. Even today, more than five years after his death, the lab where Alex worked still receives mail from his millions of admiring fans around the world.

Although many of us are familiar with Alex the TV star, Alex the research project, and Alex the legend, none of us have seen Alex the parrot as he worked every day in the lab to share his view of the world with us.

"He deserved a movie to tell his story", said Arlene Levin, lab manager for Pepperberg's research facility and the producer of the new film, Life with Alex.

"There is a lot of footage out there that is very old and is shown over and over, [but] that is not the Alex that I knew."

Although Ms Levin is not a filmmaker, she founded Grey Parrot Studios LLC to share her experiences with Alex with all of us. The result is Life with Alex, a 55 minute film that features never-before-seen footage of the inimitable parrot, much of it shot by amateurs over the years using home video-type cameras.

The variety of film media used made it challenging to bring it to life, according to Emily Wick, the director of the film. However, Ms Wick, a lifelong fan of African grey parrots, persevered.

"For me, putting together a documentary is like hunting for treasure and building something beautiful, and there was so much to think about and so many great moments to witness", Ms Wick said in a press release.

"The beginning stages of editing the movie and my first interviews with Arlene and Dr. Pepperberg were really exciting. I slowly saw the story unfold."

I've watched this film half a dozen times in the past five days and with every viewing, I am still most impressed with how the director patiently allowed the story -- and Alex -- to reveal themselves. Indeed, Life with Alex is so well-done that you wouldn't know that it is Ms Wick's first feature film.

"The first time Alex speaks on screen [you] realize that a bird will be a speaking character in a real-life movie", said Ms Wick. "Seeing him actually respond to a human's question is awe-inspiring, even if you've read all about him already."

In this film, we see what a day in Alex's life was like: how his food was prepared, how his training sessions were structured and how he interacted with those around him -- with his labmates, grey parrots, Griffin and Arthur (Wart), and with a few of the flock of students who worked with him. We also hear from Irene Pepperberg, who worked with Alex for thirty years in her quest to understand the cognitive abilities of grey parrots.

The natural history and conservation of grey parrots are briefly discussed, and the overlap between wild and tame parrot behaviours are also mentioned, especially when they affected the daily training sessions.

But Alex had his own personality. One thing we learn fairly quickly is that Alex was a bossy parrot. He insisted that Irene greet him first in the morning (or he refused to work with her the rest of the day), and he seemed to find a devilish delight in training newly arrived students in the fine art of fetching a variety of objects ... wheat, nut, corknut, corn, bread, banerry. He also enjoyed distracting the lab manager from answering email in the mornings.

Released in September 2012 to coincide with the fifth anniversary of Alex's death, you may worry that this is either a morbid or dry documentary. But it's not. This engaging memoir is a celebration of Alex's life and accomplishments -- and it's a peek into future insights that may await us. But first and foremost, this documentary a labour of love.

If you loved Alex the parrot, or parrots or birds in general, then this is a must-see film. Those who are interested to see how cognitive research is done with animals will also find much of value in this film. But most important, besides telling a poignant and very human story, this smart and amusing film is great fun for the entire family.

Here's a trailer of this film:


[video link]

Visit the Life with Alex website to learn more or to purchase this film. This film can be shipped internationally, and (if you order it soon) it will arrive in time for the holidays. To encourage you to include Alex the parrot in your holiday giving plans, Arlene has made a special offer especially for my readers: free P&P starting Tuesday, 11 December 2012 until Thursday, 13 December 2012.

A portion of the proceeds of this film will be donated to The Alex Foundation. You can follow the Alex Foundation on twitter: @AlexFoundation

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Would you like to read more about Alex?

Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence -- And Formed a Deep Bond in the Process by Irene Pepperberg [Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (Sep 2009): Amazon UK; Amazon US/kindle US]. The engaging story of Irene's groundbreaking research with Alex, particularly focusing on their early years together.

The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots by Irene Pepperberg [Harvard University Press; New edition (7 May 2002): Amazon UK/kindle UK; Amazon US/kindle US]. This book is very interesting, but it is intended for an academic audience, so its appeal is more limited.

NOTE: this piece was slightly edited from the original, which was published on The Guardian.

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