Most people have grown closer to their pets during the pandemic, but few pets talk to their owners like Cosmo.
If you’ve lived in the Athens area for any length of time, chances are you know or have heard of Dr. Betty Jean Craige and her African Grey parrot Cosmo. It could be said that Betty Jean is well-known because of Cosmo, although some could argue the reverse. But it does seem the two are often spoken of together, as in, “You know, the professor with the talking parrot.”
In this pandemic year that sent us into our protective cocoons, Betty Jean and her feathered friend had to settle into a new routine of prolonged hours together. Many of us fell into a similar interactive routine with our pets, the deviation being that our pets don’t converse in complete English sentences like Cosmo.
As we pull into the driveway for the photo shoot, Betty Jean rolls Cosmo on her perch into the living room.
“We’re gonna have company!” the bird says quietly.
I press the doorbell, and Cosmo announces, “We’ve got company!”
We entered the living room to find Cosmo stretching and twisting her head to see who had, in fact, come to visit her. Her light grey feathers are freshly preened, her red tail feathers glow like fire. The highly intelligent parrot studies us from her perch but utters nary a word while we set up.
I pull down my mask slightly for our introduction. “Hello, Cosmo. I’m Tracy. How are you?” I sing. “I’m Tracy,” I repeat. “Can you say Tracy?” My efforts to converse with Cosmo fall silent, save for a random, beautiful whistle accompanied by a sideways perusal. Thankfully Betty Jean is happy to fill the silence to share what the last year has been like for her and Cosmo.
Betty Jean’s daily schedule has always been full, even after retiring in 2011 from UGA as University Professor of comparative literature and director of the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts.
“I had been so busy at the university that I assumed I should be equally busy in retirement. So I kept on having lunch with different friends every day and doing stuff, you know being president of OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) and that sort of thing,” she recalls.
The two companions also made regular appearances at local schools as a way to talk to children about animal intelligence, cognition and language acquisition.
But when the pandemic hit last year, Betty Jean’s in-person activities abruptly stopped. Now those conversations with friends take place virtually on the computer or phone.
The upside of this year of isolation has saved time from driving, parking and waiting in restaurants, giving Betty Jean more time to write. “Ruminations on a Parrot Named Cosmo,” debuts April 15, as a follow-up to her 2010 book “Conversations with Cosmo: At Home with an African Grey Parrot.”
Writing has become her central focus since retirement, including four books in a mystery series and a crime novel.
“I wake up in the morning thinking about the next part of the book I’m writing,” she says.
Cosmo seems to relish the extra time Betty Jean has been spending at home, even when she is occupied with writing.
“During the pandemic, Cosmo has taken to sitting on the back of my chair while I write,” Betty Jean relates. “I can work for two hours with her not saying a word, and then when it’s time, she’ll say, ‘Time to go to kitchen,’ or ‘Cosmo want to go to bed.’ She knows what she wants.”
“And sometimes she says, ‘Cosmo go to Betty Jean’s bedroom.’ What she really wants it is to get loose, so I put her on top of her cage in my bedroom. Pretty soon, she’s down and then walking around the house, going to the kitchen, opening all the cabinets.”
Betty Jean wants Cosmo to feel that the house is hers. But there are rules, and Cosmo knows when she breaks them. In her latest book, an easy read of 75 humorous essays woven with interesting information about parrots and their mental capabilities and behavior, Betty Jean writes about the mischief that Cosmo gets into when she’s left alone for a period of time. In the chapter “House Rules,” Betty Jean tells of Cosmo imploring, “I love you,” when caught breaking the No-Destroying-the-Baseboards Rule (see page 24). Betty Jean admits that made her laugh, while also pondering the notion that Cosmo employed empathy as a tactic for forgiveness. She is constantly amazed at Cosmo’s ability to reason.
“I never think of Cosmo as less intelligent than I am. I think of her as differently intelligent,” she explains.
For instance, when Betty Jean says, “Betty Jean gonna go in a car,” Cosmo will reply, “Cosmo go back in cage.”
“She feels safe there at night,” says Betty Jean. “If she’s in my bedroom, she’ll come out and tell me, ‘Cosmo want to go to bed.’ Well, she could go to bed all by herself. She wants to be tucked in, her cage closed and locked. So I take her back. When I once told her, ‘Time for Cosmo go back in cage,’ she said, ‘Time for Betty Jean go back in cage.’ We laughed! She laughs just like me. She lives to make me laugh.”
African Grey parrots are naturally intelligent, so Betty Jean’s love of language has unequivocally helped foster Cosmo’s vocabulary, which at one point boasted around 165 words and phrases.
“I taught Spanish in graduate school, so I know how to use a simplified language, and I know the pleasure that comes with being able to use words in another language. Some people ask if I speak Spanish to Cosmo. I don’t, because I want her to be understood by anybody her whole life.”
Having an African Grey parrot, like most domesticated exotic birds, is a lifetime commitment. Cosmo’s life expectancy is about 50 years. Betty Jean has had Cosmo for 19 years, which is a long time to work on language acquisition and conversation and to form a trusting, simpatico companionship. Their relationship is a testament to a long domestic cohabitation and the envy of humans who aren’t as lucky to have such a companion—bird or otherwise.
Betty Jean pauses to prompt Cosmo, resting on her hand, to pose for their photo. “Cosmo wanna kiss?” Their adoration for one another is apparent in their mirrored gazes. Cosmo plays it up for the camera, turning her head this way and that while Sue snaps a series of photos, quite comfortable being the center of attention.
At the end of the interview, Cosmo, now deposited on her perch, has still not offered me a quote. She doesn’t even acknowledge the question of her beauty.
“Cosmo’s a pretty bird!” I say softly. She looks at me up, down and sideways. Lifts a leg, repositions herself, blinks. Silence. I resign myself to the fact that this sweet bird will not talk to me.
A few minutes later, as we head into the hallway and make mention of leaving, a voice from behind us in the living room calls, “Good-bye-ee!” Betty Jean is right. Cosmo does have a sense of humor.
(Photos by Sue Myers Smith)
Related story: Pets and the Pandemic: Our Companions Make Us Feel Better, House Rules