Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Conversations with Cosmo: At Home with an African Grey Parrot, by Betty Jean Craige

The relationship Betty Jean Craige describes in Conversations with Cosmo (Sherman Asher Publishers, 2010) is not a simple owner-pet bond. It is a much closer connection, almost as if she and her parrot have become partners in life, a symbiotic animal-human relationship. Although in the early chapters Craige describes how she acquired and began adjusting to life with her African Grey parrot, and how the parrot began talking, her most interesting and thought-provoking discussions come later in the book when she contemplates Cosmo’s acquisition of language and how it defines her not only as a parrot but as a member, in a certain sense, of a human linguistic community. Cosmo’s ability to talk back and forth with humans brings into question traditional conceptions of how birds can acquire speech, and of whether their speaking is mimicry or something more significant. These discussions touch on such issues as the meaning of consciousness, identity in both human and parrot form, the rights of animals to exist in a human-dominated world, the obligations of humans to protect and secure the survival of animals in the natural world. Cosmo can communicate in English in a way that often seems to use some of the more advanced features of language.  This distinguishes her from parrots who live in the wild, and from most non-human animals in general.

Craige is careful to explain that she acquired Cosmo from a domestic breeder, not from someone who caught her in the wild. Raised in captivity, Cosmo would not survive in the wild. She depends on her owner for food, protection, and companionship. Craige makes clear that Cosmo provides a close and meaningful companion for her. I am not well read in some of the issues Craige considers in this book, but I have never read a discussion of the animal-human relationship that approaches its subject in precisely this way. This book is entertaining from beginning to last, at times quite moving, and in the final chapters often profound.

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