Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Ee-ew, that smell!

Nocturnal creature that I am, I finally crawled off to bed about 12:30 this morning only to be dragged from dreamland an hour later by a skunk. It's been a big summer for the little stinkers in southern Arizona, rabid ones included, but it had been a couple of weeks since the last uncomfortably close spray incident. I tried to ignore this one, hoping every moment that the worst was over and the stench would begin to fade, but over about thirty minutes the miasma thickened to choking intensity. This time the odor wasn't coming from across the wash or over at the neighbors' or even in our own yard - it was directly under our bedroom floor.

I finally threw open all the windows, cranked up the ceiling fans to "typhoon," sprayed the air liberally with a product that's supposed to neutralize odors, and took refuge on the couch. It wasn't easy getting back to sleep, between the stubborn smell and the over-revved ceiling fan letting out a sharp groan every few minutes as though it was about to come crashing down on me. By morning the reek had dissipated, and we could breathe again. Comparing notes on the ordeal, Tom and I discovered that we both had incorporated skunks into the dreams we had just before awakening to the odor.

So how do we evict our unwelcome neighbor? Blocking the skunk's access points isn't an immediate fix. It's an old frame house whose narrow subfloor crawlspace is enclosed by flimsy lattice, and claustrophobia is hard enough to deal with without the prospect of encountering scorpions and black widows. Though trapping might be the reasonable choice given the rabies issue, it's a last resort. Instead, we'll try beating the skunk at its own chemical-weapons game. When a woodrat (packrat) moved in and kept us awake by chewing on the floor joists, we drilled a hole in the floor as close to the sound as possible and poured vinegar down it. End of problem, until the next rat moved in a few months later. Another bottle of vinegar, another eviction. With luck, the skunk will get the idea and move on before we have to take more drastic measures. --SW

Monday, September 10, 2007

Farewell, Alex

I'm writing today with a heavy, heavy heart, friends. Alex, the African Grey Parrot who, with his human mentor Dr. Irene Pepperberg, revolutionized scientific thinking about avian intelligence and communication, has died suddenly at the age of 31. Any bird lover should mourn Alex's passing, but this tragedy hits particularly close to home for us because, though we never met him, we know his best friend Irene, and our own family includes an African Grey, 21-year-old Jesse, who is very dear to us. Had we harbored any scientific skepticism about Irene's conclusions from her work with Alex, living with Jesse would have vanquished it.

Until Irene began her studies with Alex in the late 1970s, scientists and laypeople alike vastly underestimated the capacity of parrots and other birds to think and feel (we wouldn't want to be anthropomorphic now, would we?). Neuroanatomists went so far as to dismiss the avian brain as too anatomically simple to perform the higher functions once ascribed exclusively to humans but grudgingly extended to our fellow primates and cetaceans. Predictably, reports of Alex's accomplishments were pooh-poohed by insecure scientists and philosophers who rush to their ivory battlements any time another species appears to be encroaching on exclusively human turf (language, tool use, culture, music, etc.). The same crowd has denied the significance of the accomplishments of Washoe the chimpanzee and Koko the lowland gorilla, who learned to communicate in American Sign Language. Wearing down such substantial opposition took unconventional thinking, rigorous methodology, meticulous documentation, and selfless dedication to uncovering the long-ignored truths about the minds of birds.

By scientifically documenting Alex's ability to communicate using human language and to grasp abstract concepts, Irene fostered a broader awareness that parrots are not merely amusing mimics but sensitive creatures with complex emotional and intellectual needs. These revelations have helped to change our traditionally exploitive and abusive relationships with parrots. Alex may have lived his entire life in human company, but he was a charismatic ambassador for all his kin, wild as well as captive. Today it's unacceptable to treat captive parrots as home decor or amusing novelties, and wild parrots have been promoted from colorful tropical icons to sentient beings. Not that we don't still have a long way to go, but more parrots are living better lives now thanks to Irene and Alex.

Not surprisingly, given Alex's worldwide fame, there has been a huge outpouring of sympathy from around the world. Sadly, amidst the public sharing of grief in various online communities some puerile bottom-feeders masquerading as animal rights activists have posted vile, defamatory, and completely ignorant remarks about Alex and Irene. Know this, friends: Alex was never a "lab animal" in the traditional sense, he lived a far better life than the vast majority of pet parrots, and he significantly raised the standards for care of captive parrots.

Irene was interviewed on NPR's All Things Considered, and she was amazingly self-composed considering the pain I know she's in. Thinking back to what an emotional wreck I've been for weeks after losing a dear creature, I'm in awe.

Be strong, Irene - Alex may be gone, but his life's work and our love and respect for him and you live on. --SW