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In the latter half of the 20th century a debate raged within the scientific community, the result of discovering what at least seemed to be a disconcerting capability possessed by certain animals – it looked for all the world like they could learn to talk. That wasn’t possible of course, because lower animals were incapable of language – only people could talk, as everybody knew (a prime example of the true meaning of “begging the question”; animals couldn’t be using language because animals can’t use language). This is one of several things that makes us special within the animal kingdom.

Yeah, but it sure looked like they were talking, didn’t it?

Take Alex, the African Grey Parrot. Now, we all know parrots can “talk”, in that they can mimic sounds that they hear, including the sound of human speech. Thus the colourful little fellow on the pirate’s shoulder could holler “pieces of eight!”. That was vocalizing, but it wasn’t using language. Polly Parrot had no idea what he was squawking, of course. He might as well be a dictaphone.

Alex, though, seemed to understand. He used words deliberately, seemed to comprehend spoken questions, and readily passed tests designed to suss out whether he really grasped what he was doing. He could count, and describe the number and colour of objects placed before him, or just sitting around in the lab (including himself, by declaring that he was himself grey), and when his handler would leave at night he’d voice a farewell, saying “you be good, see you tomorrow, love you”. Left on his own, he practised vocalizing words, and even tried to teach other parrots, becoming visibly frustrated when they couldn’t grasp the concepts.

Many argued (and still do) that all the bird was doing was imitating, and producing sounds it didn’t understand in response to visual cues, in order to get little rewards, but that argument tended to fall apart a bit when Alex started putting logical words together on his own, in novel combinations, to address things and concepts. For example, Alex figured an almond, a favourite treat, should be called a “cork nut”. Sometimes he would sigh, just thinking about almonds: “Ahhhhhh, cork-nut”. He had a vocabulary of about 100 words, and could say things like “wanna banana” – at which point if a nut was proffered, he’d toss it aside and emphasize “wanna banana”.

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Then there was Koko, the female lowland gorilla. Koko learned to use a modified version of American Sign Language. Her instructor and caregiver, animal psychologist Francine Patterson, reckoned she could comprehend about a thousand different signs, and that while she couldn’t vocalize them (lacking the right physical equipment), she could understand and respond appropriately to about 2,000 words in English.

As with Alex, there was great controversy over whether Koko really understood language, or was just imitating humans and learning what to sign by being given treats when she got something right by accident. Again, it was hard to hold with that view in light of the gorilla’s ability to use words in original ways to address novel concepts. For example, Koko referred to rings as “finger bracelets”, and walnuts as “rock berries”.

Koko also displayed signs of a conscious intelligence similar to ours in the way that she learned to nurture and keep pets – she loved kittens all to pieces, and named one of her pet cats “All Ball”. She was allowed to have pets in the first place because she expressed repeated dissatisfaction with a realistic stuffed toy that was supposed to keep her happy – she kept signing “sad”, until they let her pick her own pet from a litter of kittens. She was always gentle and loving with her little charge, hugging and stroking her kitty just the way a human would.

Koko’s gift for language and apparent capacity for affection and empathy were the inspiration of a brilliant piece in the Onion that was equal parts heartbreaking and hilarious, concerning the emotional abuse being heaped upon poor, hapless Quigley the Gorilla by a group of overzealous researchers:

The Onion piece cuts wickedly close to the bone because Koko really did seem to have feelings, and, sadly, appeared to understand the implications of death. Indeed, Koko displayed all the signs of what we would call heartbreak, if we observed them in a human, following the death of beloved All Ball. The cat escaped and was killed by a car. When researchers signed to Koko what had happened, she signed back “bad, sad, frown, cry, sad”, and made sounds that were eerily like human weeping.

So there they both were, Alex and Koko, each at least seeming to understand language. Then Alex was gone. He died young for a parrot, at 31. He’d seemed just fine when his handlers were closing up the lab on the last night of his life, bidding them farewell, as he always did, with “you be good, see you tomorrow, love you”.

Now, I’ve just learned that Koko died last Tuesday. She was 46.

Both of these creatures bid fair to shatter our comfortable preconceptions about the moat of reason and consciousness supposed to separate we Homo Sapiens from the rest of the animal kingdom. If we were to accept that a gorilla, or much worse a bird, could feel love and friendship, cry at the loss of a treasured pet, or bid you a fond farewell at the end of the day and mean it, we’d be venturing into deep and uncharted moral territory. Perhaps that’s part of the reason for the ongoing opposition to the whole idea. To me, though, it seems as if both Koko and Alex passed what might be called a variant of the Turing Test described in a previous post: if you can converse with me and convince me you’re comprehending language, then, well, for all practical purposes you are.

I can remember feeling crestfallen back in 2007, when I learned that Alex had died, from a typically well-written obituary in The Economist:

Farewell, Alex

I feel the same today about Koko. This might seem absurd. Why feel sad for a gorilla that had a good life, when God knows how many innocent people are felled daily before their time? Why feel sad for a parrot?  Isn’t it irrational, even a little bit indecent, to weep for animals and then tune out the news about kids being gassed in Syria?

That’s the point, though. Maybe Koko and Alex weren’t “just animals”. Maybe they were conscious beings with feelings not unlike our own, a sense of who they were, and a feel for where they’d been and what might come tomorrow. Maybe the death of such creatures merits a eulogy as much as the sad ends met by any of the rest of us, in which case we’ve all got some thinking to do before we chow down on that next plate of bacon.

Besides, who says I tune out any of the rest of the world’s bad news?  As it happens, I’ve got plenty of sadness to go round.

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