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Pet Product News Editorial Blog:

December 12, 2011


By Elizabeth Creith


African Grey
Thirty-some years ago Dr. Irene Pepperberg walked into a pet store and asked one of the staff to choose her a young Congo African Grey parrot. This bird became Alex (Avian Learning Experiment). Pepperberg's 30 years of work with Alex changed the scientific ideas about avian intelligence.

I applaud Dr. Pepperberg's work—she's given the scientific seal of approval to something that people who keep parrots have known for years: The big parrots are more intelligent than we give them credit for. People who don't know the birds think their ability to talk is mere mimicry. People who live with them know otherwise.

We board birds, reptiles, small mammals and occasionally fish at the Hotel Animalia. One of our most memorable boarders was Cato, a Congo African Grey. Cato stayed with us a couple of times a year while his people were on vacation. A few years ago he stayed with us over Christmas.

"He started saying 'Merry Christmas' all by himself a few days ago," said his owner as he set Cato's carrier on the counter. "He really knows what's going on."

"I'm sure he does," I said—and I wasn't just being agreeable. African Greys, both the Congo and the smaller Timneh birds, are probably the best talkers among the parrots. We'd heard Cato say things appropriate to the situation while he stayed with us. He did it so often that it seemed less of a stretch to believe he knew what he was saying than to attribute it to coincidence.

Jack is more interested in cuddling than in talking, as most cockatoos are. Even so, I've heard him say "Bye-bye" when people—certain people, those he likes—leave the store. At bedtime he tells David, "I love you" and "Jack's a good bird!", and Victoria has heard him say "Whatcha doin'?" while she feeds the reptiles. Jack probably knows a couple dozen phrases, but Cato's vocabulary blows him out of the water.

Cato, like Jack and Lily, doesn't really like to fly. If he wanted to go somewhere, he preferred to walk, or, better yet, be carried. Jack would sometimes fly down to the floor to walk around the store, but Cato never did. If nobody answered his call of "Cato go for a walk!", he climbed down and did his little pigeon-toed strut down to the back of the store where his cage was. Because of that, we left him out of his cage during the day and set up a perch for him in the middle of the store, where the action was. He'd sit there quite happily, amusing himself at quiet times by imitating his owners' cell phone. It sounded enough like the store phone that one of us would usually come running. Cato got quite a kick out of this little prank, judging by how often he did it.

It surprises me how many people come into the store and profess to being afraid of birds, especially birds that are loose. One afternoon that December, a young woman came in for cat treats. She had been in a time or two before, and was warily used to Jack, but when she saw Cato I could see that he made her nervous.
"He won't fly at me, will he?" she asked, glancing over her shoulder at him as I handed her her change.

"Oh, no," I said, "I've never seen him fly at all."

At that very moment, Cato spread his wings and flew precisely over the customer's right shoulder to land on the counter in front of her. He didn't touch her, but she shrieked and jumped back, then ran out of the store.

"You little feathered bas—" I began. Cato cocked his head at me. Oh, yeah, that's all we needed, for him to learn a new bad word. I put out my hand and he stepped up demurely and let me take him back to his perch.

"Cato go for a walk!" he said.

I never, ever saw him fly again.

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