kitchen table math, the sequel: assigned reading hell

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

assigned reading hell

I am in hell.

I have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages on animal stereotypies to read, annotate, commit to memory, and then write something coherent about.

Fortunately, Ken just sent an email saying that the last chapter of Zig's book (which I have yet to tackle, and for good reason)* has material on animals.

So I'm going to take a break and see what Zig has to say.

But first!

Funny story.

Probably most of you have never heard Temple's voice, which you kind of have to have done to "get" this.

The other morning Temple called excitedly to tell me that she'd met a vet in Ohio who specializes in parrot behavior problems. Parrots have a huge number of behavior problems, so I'm sure business is booming.

Temple was excited because the vet had managed to cure an African grey of feather-picking.

That is exciting, because African greys are bloody geniuses and they're neurotic as hell, or can be.

I came out of Animals in Translation convinced that birds are probably as smart as we are or smarter, and greys appear to be the smartest of all. Anyone who can persuade a grey to give up neurotic, driven, obsessive behavior has got my vote.

While Temple was telling me all about the vet and the bird and the feather-picking cure, she mentioned in passing that the vet had rescued the bird from a bird shop and, when she put the bird in a cage to transport it to a college classroom, the parrot had asked anxiously, "Going to the airport?"

The bird had been taken to a lot of airports in his life, Temple said, and going to the airport always meant something bad. So he wanted to know if they were going to the airport now.

When Temple is excited about something she is the least distractible human on earth. So she didn't hear me when I said, "The bird talks? English? This bird is asking people questions?"

"So the vet put him in the cage," Temple said, "and she drove him to the campus."

"Temple. This bird is talking English? Is that what you're telling me? This parrot is asking people questions? Autistic people don't ask questions, and this bird does ask questions?"**

"She drove him to the campus-----"

"Temple! Did this bird ask a complete stranger whether she was driving him to the airport?"


"Well, yeah. The bird didn't like going to the airport."

"Did this bird ask a question? Autistic people can't ask questions; asking questions is an advanced linguistic skill. You're saying this bird asks questions?"

more silence

"Well I guess I should have asked something about his language," Temple said finally. "I was focusing on his feather-picking."

are you happy

Around the time that Carolyn and I first began writing Kitchen Table Math I was asked to coauthor a book about an African grey who could speak English. I met the bird and his owner and spent the day.

From what the owner said and had recorded in voluminous notes, the bird was talking. No question. He was speaking English. He had even made grammatical errors in tense: "He flyed."

The bird had been told all about me, about how I might help him write his book. (The owner said it was the bird who wanted to write a book).

The bird didn't show off his language while everyone was there (two agents, one editor, me, the owner).

He didn't show off his language after everyone had left but me, either.

He was stressed by all the attention; he didn't want to be crowded. I think that's standard for greys.

So I tried to follow his lead. I did everything the owner asked, too.

The bird had been giving me sidelong glances all afternoon, but at the end of the day he was still keeping his distance. On the other hand, he was keeping a look-out on me and my doings, which I hoped was a good sign.

Around 5, his owner pulled out a scrapbook she'd kept on his life. I sat on the sofa across from the bird's cage studying it. The bird watched.

The owner took me through all the photos. I ooed and ahhhed. The bird watched.

At some point, for some reason, I looked up at him.

He looked straight at me and said, "Are you happy, bird?"

He meant did I like him.

Was I happy with the bird?

Then he flew across the room and landed on the arm of the sofa where I was sitting and spent some time beside me.

A skeptic would argue that the owner had taught him to say, "Are you happy, bird?"

But she hadn't. Are you happy, bird? was nothing like the language she used with him. I'd spent a day with them; I'd read her manuscript; I'd seen an hour of tape of the two of them interacting. I knew her language.

It was the bird talking. The language was his.

And he was asking me a question.

A question about my feelings about him.

Anytime you have a chance to meet an African grey, you must take it. Don't get too close, and don't stand too tall. Just sit down, smile, and say hi. The bird will tell you what to do: how close to come, when to make eye contact, whether it's OK to put your finger on the cage.

Spend some time in the presence of an alien intelligence.


* The reason being that it's likely to get me even more cranked up than I already am.

**(Obviously high-functioning autistic people ask questions. But I can count on one hand the number of questions Jimmy has asked. People like Jimmy "request and protest." They use their language to ask for stuff, and say no to stuff.)


Independent George said...

Holy wow...

Here's my question - from what you described, the African grey is not an especially social animal. How did it evolve such a sophisticated language center? How long have they been domesticated - might they have been selected to communicate with humans rather than with each other?

Catherine Johnson said...

oh no, they're super, super social

I'm pretty sure most parrots are almost hyper-social

There are parrots who've been made almost extinct because they refuse to leave behind fallen comrades. The stories are awful. An entire flock will stay and be slaughtered by one hunter because they won't leave their dead.

Catherine Johnson said...

The gray I met was so violently attached to its owner she could barely leave the house. She was pretty much a captive owner.

Which I gather is not uncommon.

Catherine Johnson said...

Here's the other thing.

The owner said that he has ESP....I think that's what we'd call it.

She had videotape that was quite convincing.

And for several weeks after I'd met t hem (I was writing about him; then the project fell through) I had "visitations" from this bird.

I would "feel" him "inside my head" -- sort of up at the top lefthand side of my head. (I believe it was in the temporal lobes; not sure.)

I have NO idea whether that was pure suggestibility....but I'm not particularly suggestible, and I'm "flat-footed" when it comes to ESP and the like.

She believed that there are "extra-sensory" forms of communication we just don't perceive or understand yet.

Perhaps a bit like the discovery that elephants communicate through the ground.

Catherine Johnson said...

The funny thing is, the first time it happened (feeling the bird inside my head) I found it intrusive and somewhat alarming. I didn't like it.

After that the bird kind of moved over....

When he'd "show up" he wouldn't feel like such a large, "loud" presence in my brain.

I know this all sounds crazy, but I'm not crazy and I wasn't crazy then.

Never happened before; never happened since.

Catherine Johnson said...

These are amazing creatures.

There's a huge rescue issue with them because they're extremely delicate emotionally. They live forever, and their owners die, or get married (parrots are extremely jealous of the spouse)....they have to be taken to special parrot sanctuaries.

Catherine Johnson said...

You should take a look at Irene Pepperberg's work one of these days.

She's someone who puts the schools to shame.

For years researchers had thought birds were stupid.

She figured out that they'd been teaching them all wrong.

Catherine Johnson said...

The birds weren't stupid; the teachers couldn't teach!

Catherine Johnson said...

Her breakthrough was using a social approach to teaching.

Catherine Johnson said...

That Damn Bird

LynnG said...

Fascinating. Generally, I find most people I know do not have any appreciation for the degrees of intelligence animals can display.

I have (finally) started reading Animals in Translation. So many things I've observed in horses over the years make a lot more sense with Temple's insights. I wish I'd read it sooner. I also wish book stores would carry it in their animal section, rather than their autistic section (or both), as it says as much about animals as it does about autism.

LynnG said...

African greys are bloody geniuses and they're neurotic as hell

Is there a correlation between genius and neurosis?

And, why don't autistic children ask questions?

Independent George said...

You know, this suddenly casts Hitchchock's The Birds in an entirely new light.

Lynn - You're going to love Animals In Translation. When I first started reading (the original) KTM, it was a few weeks before I clicked the 'About' page and finally connected Catherine with Catherine. I came this close to recommending that she read her own book.

Catherine - thanks for the additional info. In a way, it's almost unfortunate that they live so long - I strongly suspect that not only are they smart, but that they are also getting smarter with each succeeding generation.

Catherine Johnson said...

Is there a correlation between genius and neurosis?

well....there's definitely a correlation between creativity and madness, madness meaning bipolar disorder. (That's Kay Jamison's work.)

Just observationally, I think there's a correlation in domestic animals.

Abby, our happy Lab, is no genius.

If she were an African grey she would be a genius and she wouldn't be happy.

I think.

Catherine Johnson said...

And, why don't autistic children ask questions?

I would love to know the answer to that myself.

It's a distinctive deficit, as you can imagine.

They also don't point. (You know how little ones point before they talk? Autistic kids don't point.)

Catherine Johnson said...

You know, this suddenly casts Hitchchock's The Birds in an entirely new light.

oh yeah

sure does

Catherine Johnson said...

I think it's no accident that THE BIRDS was about birds as opposed to any other animal.

People intuit these things....I believe we all "know" more about animals than we realize.

I remember back when we first got Surfer, shortly after 9/11.

Christopher was just 7, and Surfer was a handful. We thought he was a shepherd-hound puppy, but he was going to grow up to be Rottweiler-pit bull.

(oops! missed that guess by a mile!)

Anyway, Surfer started growling at Christopher very early on, which is a huge danger sign in any dog.

One day, just as this was getting going, I heard Surfer growl at Christopher.

Instead of leaping out of my own chair and crushing him, I called out, "Why did Surfer growl?"

Christopher said, "Because I sat on his chair."

Now this is a young kid who really didn't know a thing about dogs, and it's a brand new dog,....and Christopher new exactly why Surfer had growled.

The communication was perfect.

Catherine Johnson said...

(Christopher had grown up with our dog, Jazzy, but Jazz had been so old by the time Christopher could interact with him that Christopher didn't learn much about dogs until Surfer came along.)

Catherine Johnson said...

'knew' is spelled with a 'k'

Catherine Johnson said...

I know that