I asked Cosmo, “Cosmo wanna go to Betty Jean’s desk?”
Cosmo answered, “Noooo,” and looking at me straight in the eye bit my finger.
“Bad bird! That hurt!” I exclaimed. “Cosmo go back in cage.”
That’s where Cosmo is now, being punished for her bad behavior of five minutes ago. But she’s already forgotten her crime. She’s whistling, playing telephone, laughing, barking and calling to me: “Come here! Cosmo wanna go up! Cosmo wanna be a good bird.” And “Where are you?”
I’m in the study trying to write, but I’ll let her out.
Cosmo, the talkative African grey parrot who lives with me, was asserting her independence from me.
Cosmo asserts her independence in countless ways. In the morning if I ask whether she’d like to “go to kitchen,” she’ll reply, “Noooo! Cosmo don’t wanna go to kitchen.” Then a minute later she’ll waddle out to the kitchen on her own.
At night if I ask her whether she’d like to go to bed, she’ll answer, “Noooo!” Then a few minutes later she’ll say, “Cosmo wanna go to bed, OK?”
Cosmo is insubordinate. For sure.
But I like her insubordination. It shows her self-confidence. Cosmo knows she’s a bird, “a good good bird,” and she’s proud of it.
I don’t want to squash Cosmo’s high opinion of herself. I don’t want to remind her that I have total control over her life, that I rank highest in our household’s hierarchy of power.
For years I taught that in developed countries, long-standing social hierarchies were collapsing. We humans — especially in parts of the world influenced by Aristotle, who 2,500 years ago described nature in terms of a “scale of ascent” — had inherited a habit of ranking. We saw everything in a rank order without realizing that we ourselves were creating the rank order.
We ranked the races and the sexes. We ranked the animals on the basis of their resemblance to us. We ranked humans higher than chimps and gorillas, whom we ranked higher than cows and pigs, whom we ranked higher than mice and gophers, whom we ranked higher than bees and plankton. The lower the animal’s rank the better we felt about eating him, or experimenting on him, or polluting his habitat.
But now, I optimistically told my students, we’re developing a holistic vision in which everybody matters. We consider women as worthy as men. We consider bees and plankton as essential to the biosphere as cuddly animals with cute faces. We see the value of all the parts of a whole — whether it’s a nation, an ecosystem or our global society — because all parts interact with each other to keep the system healthy. We advocate universal human rights, and we appreciate diversity in culture and nature.
I like to think that when we humans no longer equate dominance with our own well-being, we will live more harmoniously with all the Earth’s residents than we do now.
However, the unschooled creatures of our planet don’t share these holistic ideals. Most social animals living in groups — wolves, deer, chickens and household pets — have a dominance order whereby the strongest/smartest individual rules and the others find lower places in the hierarchy.
Before I brought home 6-month-old Cosmo, my four female American Eskimo dogs lived together peacefully in a dominance order they all accepted. Daisy was the alpha dog because she was the largest, strongest, scariest and loudest; she appropriated the chair in my bedroom as her throne. Next came Kaylee, the youngest, who defended herself most fiercely; during the day she lived under the bed out of Daisy’s reach but at night she slept on the bed. (I’m of course referring to my bed.)
Third came Holly, the oldest, who served as the pack’s sentinel, alerting everybody to the many dangers approaching from outside; she slept on the floor by the window. And finally there was Blanche, second largest but most easily intimidated; she bedded down wherever nobody else wanted to be.
Cosmo arrived, and by the time she began speaking she dominated the pack. The four dogs acknowledged her authority and let her be alpha animal. Maybe they thought she was the smartest, or they noticed her big beak, or they respected me and she talked like me.
Now I have only two dogs: Kaylee and Mary. Kaylee rules Mary. Kaylee will block the doggy door, leaving Mary outside to yap indignantly till I let her in. Kaylee will scare Mary away from whatever she wants for herself. Kaylee exercises power over where Mary goes.
But Kaylee lets Cosmo go wherever Cosmo pleases. All Cosmo has to do is walk up to her, and Kaylee moves out of the way to let her pass. No biting, no barking.
•Betty Jean Craige is professor emerita of comparative literature at the University of Georgia and the author of many books, including “Conversations with Cosmo: At Home with an African Grey Parrot” (2010). Her email is email@example.com. Cosmo’s website is www.cosmotalks.com.
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