Irene Pepperberg made the news in 2007 when Alex, her longtime research companion. Alex was an African gray parrot and had been the focus of Pepperberg’s research for some 30 years. When she began her research she had great difficulty getting funding, because the presumption was that animals are mere automata, capable of mimicry and trainable only through Skinner-like behaviorist methods. This is astonishing, as Skinner’s methods and conclusions had long been discredited by that time, but the ability of intellectual elites, including scientists, to assign themselves a special place in the world is unbounded. She managed to find temporary lab space and occasional funding over the years, including stints at MIT media lab and at the University of Arizona, but throughout her time with Alex she was forced to raise outside funds, and led a nomadic life moving from one university to another every few years. Her growing public fame and her lack of income, lack of ‘a real job’, eventually led to a divorce.
Over the years she acquired additional parrots and a coterie of graduate students to assist in the research. Her research focus was on animal cognition and learning/teaching methods. Specifically, she developed a method that she terms ‘model/rival’, in which 1 researcher would interact with another researcher (or a parrot) while the subject parrot observed. The interactions consisted of questions about a physical situation, for example a table with objects of various shapes, colors, and materials. I have no way of evaluating the science, but the results seem fairly impressive. Alex was eventually able to demonstrate conceptual understanding of colors, shapes, textures, and numbers (including counting, adding, and subtracting, and a vestigial understanding that zero is a number).