Alex is the proof: Parrots deserve protection
THE NEWS TRIBUNE
September 14th, 2007
Pierce County Council members whove balked at
giving parrots the same protections as dogs and cats ought to review the career
of Alex, the brainy bird.
Alex an African grey parrot died
unexpectedly in the night last week at the age of 31. His last words to his
longtime trainer, animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg, were, You be
good. See you tomorrow. I love you.
Years ago, those phrases would have been dismissed as
mere mimicry, random parroting of the sounds humans make. But in
this case, Alex may have meant in his avian way that he indeed
was attached to Pepperberg and expected to see her the next day.
Pepperbergs work with Alex has cast
a whole new light on the intelligence of birds, learning and rudimentary
language. She bought him 30 years ago at a Chicago pet shop to find out how
much African grey parrots can be taught. In the decades since, she learned the
answer: more than anyone had imagined.
Under carefully observed demonstrations, Alex displayed
mastery of roughly 150 words using them correctly to communicate with
Pepperberg and other humans. He was able to distinguish multiple shapes and
colors, as well as the concepts of same and different, and
bigger and smaller.
Pepperberg reported that, shown a tray of mixed-up red
and blue balls and blocks, Alex could say how many blue blocks there were
distinguishing them from the red blocks and all the balls. After rubbing
his beak on an object, he could correctly name what it was made of
wool, for example. When he tired of an experiment, hed say,
Wanna go back (to his cage). When he sensed that Pepperberg was
losing patience with him, hed say, Im sorry.
When Alex asked for a treat say, a grape
thats exactly what he wanted; hed reject anything else offered him
until he got the grape. Said Pepperberg in a 2003 interview, If he says
that he wants a grape and you give him a banana, you are going to end up
wearing the banana.
When Pepperberg bought Alex, she insisted that he be
picked out at random. Theres no reason to believe he is smarter than
others of his species, she said.
Alexs extraordinary intelligence should be kept in
mind when the subject of regulating squalid parrot mills comes up
with the Pierce County Council or any other public body charged with
ensuring the humane treatment of animals. These birds arent cats and
dogs, but they deserve more protection than mosquitoes.
Alex, at least, would have been able to figure out that
comments as of September 28, 2007 9:10 PDT
This new addition to our news area
which youve just read is obviously not the latest national or
international newsflash written by an investigative reporter. It is, however, a
respectful and important homage to Alex, the African Grey parrot known by
thousands for his remarkable achievements through The Alex Studies.
Sadly, Alex is gone, but Dr.
Pepperbergs important work with parrots continues. Anyone interested in
reading more about Alex, the Studies, the Foundation, or would like to make a
donation to help further this cause can visit the website:
There is no question of the
extraordinary intelligence of parrots; these are sentient creatures, not
amoebas or plankton, the point it would seem the author of the OpEd piece was
trying to convey. In arguing that regulations are necessary to ensure their
protection, never would anyone deny that protection to another living being.
Currently in Pierce County, however, the issue of aviary licensing has been
argued for over three years with no resolution. We believe that the author had
some frail hope that the Pierce County Council members might actually think of
Alex and his remarkable accomplishments when deciding on the fate of hundreds
of parrots in their county. The intelligence of parrots is well documented and
there is no doubt they feel pain; the unlucky ones that do suffer most likely
do not understand why. It is our responsibility as the
species to afford them the protections they deserve.
Not surprisingly, this Opinion piece
brought on a maelstrom of comments from readers arguing for and against
regulations and about events in Pierce County. The comments are extensive
enough, so we will make a brief explanation of the events and copy the comments
in their entirety, below. We will make this comment lest there be any doubt
regarding the events of the council meeting on August 21; seeing is believing.
Anyone interested in viewing the meeting can do so by going to this site:
August 21, 2007
This is a very large file which will take a
long time to download even with a fast connection; it is the most expedient way
to view the meeting, but, for a fee, those that dont wish to download
this large file can request a copy of the tape from the deputy clerk in the PC
It was on the agenda during this
meeting for the council members to vote on the candidates Executive Ladenburg
had selected for the Aviculture Advisory Commission. According to Pierce County
Charter, other than some district specific ordinance exceptions, for advisory
boards the Executive appoints members. The last step in the process, however,
is that the council must vote to approve the selected members. On August 21,
there was (essentially) no vote. Only four council members bothered to show up
for this meeting, which would have necessitated a unanimous vote to pass the
candidates for the commission. Dick Muri quickly took control of this part of
the meeting, and with his vote of No, the proceedings were
postponed, just as the issue of aviary licensing has been for almost four
As with any council meeting, it was
open to the public, and the public was given the opportunity to speak, which
they did before the vote. Leading the pack was Mr. Muris own
assistant, Leslie Swalley, who in her prepared speech claimed that Many
Pierce County and District 6 citizens have called this District Office with
serious concerns about this application process followed in creating the
Did they? This statement was baffling
to us. How could many Pierce County and District 6 citizens even
have had any concerns about the application process or the candidates
selected, when neither the process nor the list of candidates was ever made
available to the public?
Mr. Muris assistant through her
comments made it abjectly clear that issues of ethics had been seriously
breached in Pierce County. How often and exactly by whom we may not yet know,
but we thought we would give Ms. Swalley the opportunity to respond to her
actions of August 21 before writing this article. The editors enlisted the aid
of a consultant who called Ms. Swalley and conducted an interview under the
guise of researching how WA State county governments work with their
constituents. The consultant praised Pierce Countys extensive use of
advisory boards and the interview went swimmingly
subject changed to the meeting of Aug 21st and specifically Ms.
Following is how this interview
concluded, from the consultants transcript of the interview:
recent tapes of the Pierce County meetings, Ill take you back to Aug 21.
On the agenda that day was voting for candidates for the Aviculture Advisory
Commission, do you recall that?
Leslie Swalley: (laughs
derisively) Youre going to have to talk to our legal
Consultant: Will you
confirm or deny the comments you made the day of that meeting and the veracity
of those comments?
Youre going to have to talk to our legal department.
Consultant: You are
refusing to make any comment about what you said at that meeting?
Leslie Swalley: (either
laughs or snorts, consultant wasnt sure) I told you, youre
going to have to talk to the legal department.
Consultant: So, to
confirm, Ill write that you refused comment and referred me to your legal
Admittedly, this interview tactic may have been
a bit sneaky on our part, but considering the complete lack of integrity
displayed by so many of the players determined to stand in the way of reform in
the avicultural community in Pierce County, we dont feel guilty.
You will note that the mere mention of the August 21st
meeting provoked a youll have to talk to our lawyers responsenot
one question about it had yet been asked of Ms. Swalley. Those that
should feel that guilt, but no doubt feel none, are the remaining
anti-regulation, anti-reform, anti-welfare, anti-anything that may affect their
bottom line profit parade of characters that read their prepared speeches on
Aug 21 attempting to cast doubt on the qualifications and even the character of
the Executives selected candidates for the Aviculture Advisory
Commission. For more details, well refer readers to the comment section,
below. Obviously the editors do not endorse Ms. Corwins (and one or two
other respondents) position or statements.
Regarding the comments, or at least
one of Pierce Countys citizens remarks, we offer some observations
about comments where a woman and her husband feel they must leave their home of
seven years as they feel they can no longer tolerate living in Mr. Muris
district. This individual states that, in her opinion, there is no shortage of
apathy in Pierce County. Scanning TNTs reader comments on a variety of
topics, however, this doesnt really seem to be the case. Pierce County
citizens do very much appear to care about what happens in their county and how
decisions affect them. The perception of apathy then, for this
individual, and likely for many others, stems from the lack of public support
or even interest in the aviary licensing issue. To be fair, most members of the
public have absolutely no idea of the importance of this issue, or exactly what
the issue is. Those with commercial aviary interests spread the
propaganda that only a handful of animal rights activists are pushing for
regulations and licensing because these crazed Animal Rights types
feel breeder birds should receive the same coddling as pets. This is not
the issue, nor are the individuals leading efforts to help Pierce County
finally move into the new millennium and provide just basic protections for
birds affiliated with any animal rights organizations. What this issue
is, and has always been, is simply putting laws on the books to afford basic
protections to birds in Pierce County, by allowing inspections—just as is
currently done with cats and dogs. The State laws are inadequate to provide the
protections needed, the Federal laws are not yet on the books and when are, it
is doubtful that USDA inspections will fulfill the required needs which can be
filled by a county ordinance. This issue is indeed important to the entire
citizenry of Pierce County as having regulations in place will assist in
vouchsafing public safety in addition to assuring the welfare of hundreds of
sentient creatures. Parrots are susceptible to several diseases that can be
passed on to people, some of them fatal. Perhaps because the issue is
about birds, still a great unknown to much of the public, rather than cute
little puppy dogs, people dont line up in force to support these efforts.
We wont be critical of that. The public should, however, be aware of the
actions of (some of) their council members in the handling of the aviary
It is our opinion, which documentation
clearly supports, that there have been ethics violations, a serious conflict of
interest, and an appalling lack of integrity amongst (some) Pierce County
council members. If the general populace of Pierce County can not be convinced
of the importance of supporting regulations for commercial breeding operations,
at the very least they should be aware of the behavior of their elected
leaders. The council members are accountable to their constituency, and as
such, we would challenge those of you reading this that live in Pierce County
to challenge the status quo. Watch the tapes of past meetings, attend future
ones if you can, and ask direct questions of your council members. One can not
ride the fence when the issues are those of ethics and integrity, both of which
have clearly been breached in at least one council members handling of
the Aviculture Advisory Committee proceedings. When there is a clear
delineation between right and wrongand the reader should by now
understand that the handling of these events was very, very wrongone
simply can not hide behind a non partisan position of neutrality. The good
people of Pierce County need to take an active roll in their own destinies
rather than allowing a few corrupt, in our opinion, people decide their fates.
It is far past time that these Pierce County residents understand how (some of)
their council members manipulate events to serve their own interests over those
of the majority of their constituency.