Excerpt: 'Alex and Me'

A little later, he displayed another clue to his increasing understanding of sounds as labels. A few weeks after the "by George he's got it" moment, he correctly identified a red key as "key," even though we had trained him only on silver keys: he knew that a key was a key, whatever its color. It was his first demonstration of what psychologists call "transfer." This kind of vocal cognitive ability had never before been demonstrated in nonhuman animals, not even in chimpanzees. This was a very, very good start.

It wasn't all eureka moments in those first few months, and I have journal entries to prove it. In addition to the August 5 "Alex incredibly stupid today!" entry, I have many, many more: "Alex awful grumpy"; "One grouchy bird"; "Alex acts dumb today"; "Alex totally crazy this morning"; "Alex is totally impossible today, doing his war dance"; and so on. Maybe he had his reasons for these off days. I have no idea. But they became fewer as he became more confident, as we bonded as partners and built trust between us. We became less wary of each other. Nevertheless, for the first couple of years he remained extremely cautious with strangers, to say the least. He would shake, cower, and occasionally shriek. He often refused to cooperate with me when someone he didn't know was in the lab.

Yet he also began to assert himself with me. "Alex has become rather demanding if he's not promptly rewarded," I wrote on September 1. "After saying PAPER he repeats it more loudly and more quickly" if I was slow to produce it. It was as if he were saying, C'mon, get moving, lady. I'm Alex. I want it now! It was my first glimpse of a very different, more assertive personality that would soon emerge in full force.

When I arrived at Purdue at the very beginning of 1977, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. But I found myself in a quasi–Catch 22 situation. I needed grant money to support my research program, to pay for assistants, bird food, all the objects Alex was to label; to cover fees for my own laboratory space and maybe even a small salary for myself; but I didn't have a faculty position. It is very, very difficult—not impossible, but very difficult—to be awarded a research grant from the major funding agencies if you don't have a faculty position. At the same time, the authorities at Purdue said they might be able to give me a nonfaculty research position if I could get a grant. (It was made pretty clear to me that I was regarded as a faculty wife, David's, and that I should be content with that, rather than being a nuisance by trying to get a faculty position for myself, too.)

Nevertheless, I did secure a small piece of lab space in which to do my work, kindly loaned to me by Peter Waser, an evolutionary biologist in the department of biological sciences. With a little artifice on my part with the dean, and the support of the department head, Struther Arnott, I managed to submit a grant proposal to the National Institute of Mental Health early in 1977, months before I even got Alex.

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