By CHARLES SIEBERTJAN. 28, 2016
nytimes.com | Jan. 28, 2016
Animal-assisted therapy is hardly a novel prescription, having been employed at least since the 18th century, when the York Retreat for the mentally ill opened in England in 1796 and began allowing patients to roam the outside grounds among farm animals. At his office in Vienna, Sigmund Freud regularly had his chow Jofi on hand during psychoanalysis sessions to reassure and relax his patients, allowing them to open up more readily. The U.S. military used dogs as early as 1919 as a therapeutic aid in the treatment of psychiatric patients at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington. Still, what distinguishes the mutually assuaging bond that the veterans and parrots are forming at Serenity Park is the intelligence — at once different from ours and yet recognizable — of the nonhuman part of the equation.
There is abundant evidence now that parrots possess cognitive capacities and sensibilities remarkably similar to our own. Alex, the now-deceased African gray parrot studied for years by his longtime companion, Dr. Irene Pepperberg, a psychology professor, is regularly held up as the paragon of parrot intelligence. His cognitive skills tested as high as those of a 5-year-old child. He mastered more than 100 words, grasped abstract concepts like absence and presence (Alex excelled at the shell game) and often gave orders to and toyed with the language of researchers who studied him, purposely giving them the wrong answers to their questions to alleviate his own boredom. Alex was also given to demonstrating what we would characterize in ourselves as ‘‘hurt feelings.’’ When Pepperberg returned to Alex one morning after a three-week absence, he turned his back on her in his cage and commanded, ‘‘Come here!’’
Stories like these are, in fact, legion among those who keep and work with parrots. Dr. Patricia Anderson, an anthropologist at Western Illinois University, told me that her expertise in anthrozoology, the study of human-animal relations, is daily tested by her own cadre of adopted, orphaned parrots, including the first bird she decided to take in nearly 30 years ago, a Quaker, or monk, parrot named Otis.
‘‘He was so bright,’’ Anderson told me. ‘‘I taught him to say ‘thank you.’ Very anthropocentric of me, I know, but he generalized it appropriately to anything I ever did for him. He never said it randomly. He only said it when I did something for him, so it appeared to have meaning to him. There appeared to be some cognition going on, and this totally blew my mind.’’ Anderson read extensively about parrots and learned that anytime she left, she should say, ‘‘I’ll be right back.’’ ‘‘I started saying that, and then whenever I began to put my shoes on in the morning to get ready to go to work, he’d say: ‘Right back? Right back?’ ’’