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-- E.O. Wilson

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Alex, Wesley... and Love

Two broad-brush reviews for the price of one today...

I shan't pretend to cold, scientific objectivity here (especially since it rarely exists anyway); I'm an animal-lover, particularly a bird-lover; and of birds, parrots and owls are among my favorites, perhaps the most human-like of all avians. With that said....

By stroke of happenstance I recently commenced reading two somewhat similar and wonderful 2008 books simultaneously; both centering on the relationship between a single bird and a single human companion:

"Alex and Me" (newly out in paperback) by Dr. Irene Pepperberg recounting the now-famous 30-year relationship between a parrot, friend, and research subject, and its owner/companion; a unique memoir.

"Wesley the Owl" by Stacey O'Brien telling of the remarkable 19-year relationship between an injured wild Barn Owl and it's rehabber human companion and 'mate'-for-life. This book by a first-time author may already be destined to be a classic.

Alex's story has been well-covered in the press and on the Internet, so much so that much of the book will already be known to readers. Wesley the Owl's story is less well known, thus fresher, and for that reason alone might be the more interesting read, full of surprises. Both books are filled with wonderful anecdotes, scientific tidbits about birds, and emotional tugs, evoking smiles and tears... and, more smiles and tears.

Beginning with Alex, was there any animal lover, or certainly any bird lover who didn't email or write Dr. Irene Pepperberg upon the sudden death of her beloved African Grey in 2007? There's little new I can add to the 1000's of words already written about this book and story. Alex's death traveled around the world via the press and Internet in a manner usually reserved for major world leaders, and unknown in the annals of non-human creature deaths. This was a book that Dr. Irene Pepperberg HAD to write; she really had no choice, but to give some closure and satisfaction to Alex's legions of fans, and no doubt to herself as well. There is almost a kind of urgency to some of the text, or a forced feeling that this story MUST be put into print in tribute to Alex, because the public demands it.

However, even with the many interesting, humorous, instructive, insightful anecdotes sprinkled throughout the volume there is still a certain clinical, almost dry feel to much of the narrative. Pepperberg can't fully escape the scientific detachment which is such an ingrained part of her training as a scientist, and which was probably even more enforced by the frequent criticism/doubts she endured about her work early on. Scientists working on animal cognition always have a difficult row to hoe, and probably even more-so for females in the field. Pepperberg walks a tightrope here between expressing the emotion Alex's fans may want and expect, but also maintaining the scientist's steely cool that is her academic milieu. The book totters a bit as she walks that tightrope. She also sketches the various ups and downs of her personal/professional life, hinting at many of her feelings/emotions, but without going into great detail (...which is understandable, since this is at root a volume about Alex, more-so than about her, and yet it also leaves a feeling of restraint or holding back, and wanting to hear more about her inner life).

She early on admits that only Alex's death allowed her to finally feel the depths of her love and connection to this 30-year companion; feelings that she had to always guard against as the grant-seeking researcher/scientist, even while others sometimes recognized the close relationship/bond that was there, one observer comparing Alex/Irene's fusses to an 'old married couple' (indeed, they were together longer than most married couples!).

I rate the book a "B" that all animal lovers will want to read (most already have), but it will likely fall short for the less animal-enamored crowd. (More hard-core science-folks may actually prefer Pepperberg's earlier, more technical volume, "The Alex Studies.") Chapter 1 and the last chapter, "What Alex Taught Me," where Pepperberg does free herself up to speak more openly about science, about the nature of our relationship to animals, and about interconnectedness, are highlights of the book. The middle chapters are a more matter-of-fact compendium of history and chronology, that varies from interesting and touching to mundane, and brings the reader to the final emotional ending. The last chapter should be read by all, even if you don't read the entire volume. This is a good book, it just isn't the great or overpowering book that some may have yearned for.

Pepperberg's studies continue at Brandeis University with other African Grey Parrots, and she is head of The Alex Foundation.

For all their similarities Stacy O'Brien's offering, "Wesley The Owl," is also quite different from "Alex and Me," and I give it an "A" rating; a simple, beautiful, again unique story. "Charming" and "heartwarming" are overworked terms for animal stories, but in this instance they apply in spades. Others have called the book "sweet," "quirky," but it is so much more; rich, insightful, moving, wondrous.

The book flows evenly from one touching, amusing, instructive anecdote to another, condensing a 19-year relationship into 230 emotional, captivating pages. The writing is simple and terse, yet descriptive, without being floral or gushy, and the small black-and-white photos accompanying are delightful as well. Interesting scientific factoids and observations about owls abound through these pages, right alongside the emotive storyline; in fact I'd say there may be (surprisingly) more scientific/behavioral insight here than in the Alex volume. But more importantly, the Wesley pages ooze with sheer depth of feeling and intensity. Unfortunately, for all the love his handlers no doubt felt toward him, Alex still comes off more as a subject, even an object or prop at times, than Wesley who is clearly a sensitive, participating member of a family, even if it is but a family of two.

From the first chapter on, O'Brien refers to "the Way of the Owl," a reference to the passion, commitment, and unconditional love of these fascinating avian creatures. By the end of the book it is a mantra for what we all ought strive for.

O'Brien writes toward the end of her work how she hates that animal stories typically cause you to fall in love with the main character throughout the book only to leave you in tears when the animal dies in the last chapter. She says she has learned to often read the last chapter of such books first so as to be braced well ahead of time for the ending that is to come. That recommendation might well apply to her own book as well. You may want to read chapter 16 first to know of Wesley's death before you are drawn into the deep emotional ride that is this story.

Chapter 10 of the book veers off course slightly to give a picturesque sketch of life/study and idiosyncratic characters at Caltech, where O'Brien was employed, and where owl studies were routine; at one point she compares the famed school to Hogwarts of Harry Potter fantasy.
Chapter 12, "Deep Bonds," is one of the best of the book, detailing human "bonds" of different types and levels. This is followed by chapter 13, "The Sex Tapes," which as the title hints, is another wonderful, entertaining chapter, the details of which I'll let you discover on your own.
The last few chapters of the book build beautifully toward a crescendo even more powerfully than Alex's story.
And having originally saved the life of this remarkable creature, before it's over, Wesley in turn saves Stacey from the depths of depression she confronts during her own devastating health crisis (although she doesn't go into great detail about this phase of their lives).
Wesley is simply one of the most memorable animal characters I have encountered in a nonfiction book.

Anyone who has ever deeply loved a companion animal, and certainly anyone who loves birds, will want to read both these volumes... just be sure to have a box of tissues handy within arm's reach.

Ultimately both these volumes are more about relationship, connection, and love, than about science or birds; cross-species love, but love nonetheless. In the video clip below O'Brien concludes that we use the wrong things to define ourselves, and we are really on this planet simply to bestow love. That is after-all, 'the way of the owl'... And Alex's famous last words to Irene, the night before he passed on, were "You be good. I love you." ...The world would be a better place if we could all take a cue from these feathered teachers.

(One can Google either "Wesley the owl" or "Alex and me" and find a great deal more around the Web about either of these.)

1 comment:

Larry Jordan said...

Thank you Arj for bringing these to my attention. I too love owls and the story of Stacey and Wesley has moved me. The video is great additional inspiration for any animal lover, especially of the bird variety.