An excerpt from “Ruminations on a Parrot Named Cosmo”
Some years ago, my sixteen-ounce African Grey parrot Cosmo noticed my thirty-pound American Eskimo dog Blanche following her closely down the hall. When Blanche sniffed her tail feathers, Cosmo turned her head around and reprimanded her: “No, no, no, no!” And then continued waddling toward the kitchen.
Startled by the reprimand from a bird Blanche skedaddled. She looked embarrassed.
Cosmo knows the house rules. I make most of them, but she makes a few. “No sniffing tail feathers” is her rule.
So is the rule “No barking, biting, or jumping”—that is, by dogs. One weekend I puppy-sat my nephew’s hyperactive three-month-old English Setter Sally. From her perch on her dining room cage, Cosmo observed Sally jump up and down, spin in circles, and nip my hand in her wild excitement over being fed. Cosmo exclaimed, “No, No, No! Bad doggy!”
These days, when I take a nap on the sofa in her room, Cosmo watches over me quietly from atop her roost cage. She has learned that if she is a good, good bird, does not talk while I’m dozing, and does not climb down, she can stay on top of her cage for my forty-five-minute nap. That’s one rule I made that Cosmo tends to obey.
If the dogs jump on me and wake me up, she scolds them: “Doggies, no, no, no! Doggies, move!” If they go outside and bark, she calls them: “Doggies, come here!” Cosmo assumes that she is the enforcer when I’m asleep.
Cosmo did not take long to learn what is permitted and what is prohibited in my household. She knows clearly when she is breaking the rules. She has a sense of right and wrong. Of course, knowing the rules leads to deceiving the enforcer of the rules. I’m the enforcer when I’m awake. When I catch Cosmo doing something particularly bad, I say “No, no, no!” and put her back in her cage.
Check out Cosmo on her YouTube Channel: cosmotalks
Another of my rules is: No destroying the baseboards.
One Sunday morning, I saw Cosmo enter the laundry room, where she customarily takes a big, splashy bird bath in the dogs’ large water bowl. On most occasions she’ll beckon me to view her fun: “Betty Jean, Come here! Cosmo wanna shower!” And after a dip, she’ll say, “Wow, good shower! Cosmo wanna kiss!”
But that morning, Cosmo was very quiet. I heard her working away at the baseboards, and I knew I’d find a pile of sawdust there. I hollered, “Cosmo, what are you doing?”
She hollered back, “Cosmo wanna shower. Look! Come here!”
As I walked down the hallway, I heard the quick pitter-patter of her toenails on the linoleum floor. Tic tac tic tac. By the time I got to the laundry room, she was climbing onto the water dish.
“Look!” she exclaimed. “Cosmo wanna shower! Good bird!”
Sure enough: there was sawdust all over the floor, and not a drop of water. But I went along with her deception. “Cosmo wanna shower? Good bird,” I said.
“I love you,” she said. “Betty Jean wanna kiss? Smooooch.”
“Smooch.” I returned to my desk.
Then I heard her scurry back to the baseboard, chuckling, “Hehehehe.”
I didn’t scold her. I myself was chuckling at the pride Cosmo took in outsmarting me.
So what had to go through Cosmo’s mind for her to deceive me? Cosmo had to know what I expected of her. In this case it was to take a bird bath and not to chew the baseboards. She had to know that I would put her back into her cage if I caught her breaking the No-destroying-the-baseboards rule. She had to know what would please me—watching her take her “shower”—and also what would annoy me.
And she had to think she was smarter than I and that therefore she could fool me. And she knew I’d be happy if she told me she loved me.
She had empathy.
The Cambridge Dictionary defies empathy as “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.”
Although I am not a linguist or a psychologist or an animal behaviorist, I’m convinced that language is the basis of empathy. It enables individuals to learn not only about themselves but also about each other.
Therefore, is empathy, which is the basis for love as we humans know it, also the basis for lying? And manipulation?
When I gave Cosmo my language, that is, a simplified version of English, I gave her my way of thinking about the world. I gave her access to my thoughts and the ability to communicate her own thoughts. I gave her my voice and, apparently, my sense of humor. I gave her my ideas of right and wrong, although apparently I didn’t give her a strong conscience. And I gave her the ability to tell me something untrue.
In short, I gave her the ability to anticipate my behavior.
So if Cosmo knows the difference between right and wrong, does she have a sense of morality? The Random House Dictionary defines morality as “conformity to the rules of right conduct.” If Cosmo knows the rules and doesn’t always conform to them, as when she is a “bad bird,” does she have a touch of immorality in her?
Marc Bekoff defines morality in his book Wild Justice as “a suite of interrelated other-regarding behaviors that cultivate and regulate social interactions.” In other words, morality enables social animals—humans and wolves and all the other non-human animals who live together in packs, flocks, herds, gaggles—to get along with each other. It is an aspect of cooperation.
Cosmo may have a sense of morality but she has no feelings of guilt. If she bites me, breaking the No-biting rule, she says cheerfully, without a hint of remorse, “That hurt? Cosmo bad bird go back in cage.”
(Photo by Sue Myers Smith)