Tag Archives: Stacey O’Brien

And Your Bird Can Sing: Alex and Me

Alex and Me (lg.)Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg is an inspiring read about:  “How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence – and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process.”   The story is about evenly split between Alex’s pioneering work in the study of avian intelligence – it was Alex who turned the phrase “bird brain” into a positive – and the relationship between the author and her pet.   However, as Pepperberg makes quite clear, Alex – who died in early July of 2007 – was often The Boss of both the scientist and her laboratory assistants!

I found the writing style to be a bit rough and awkward in the first part of the tale.   The writing also suffers from mixed tenses.   For example, Pepperberg uses the current tense in describing events that occurred in the past, “Obviously, my students and I have no problem understanding the sounds Alex makes.”

But the author found her voice at the halfway point of the narrative, describing her arrival in Tucson:

“…Tucson brought tears to my eyes – literally, as I fairly quickly developed allergies…   but metaphorically, too, because of its beauty, majestic in its mountains, deserts, and giant saguaro cacti, and in its details, the animals, the smaller plants and the birds.   Oh, the birds!

For the first time in my life I felt deeply connected to nature, the rich diversity of the Sonora Desert fauna and flora…   And in a part of the country where the Native American presence is palpable, I was very much aware of that people’s sense of oneness with nature.”

Perhaps this experience inspired Pepperberg to see Alex as a representative of Nature with a capital “n”.   There are several cute and charming stories in this book that illustrate Alex’s keen intelligence, none of which I wish to give away here; they are better saved for the enjoyment of future readers.

This reader enjoyed the human-bird interaction sections more than the animal intelligence portions which sometimes bordered on the overly technical with words like “anticipatory co-articulation” (referring to linguistic analysis).   And some will find that Pepperberg, who loved Alex, comes off a bit dry and reserved in tone when compared to authors of similar animal love stories like Stacey O’Brien (Wesley the Owl) or William Jordan (A Cat Named Darwin).   Despite this, Pepperberg’s deep love and awe for Alex shows itself in the end.

Alex’s final words to Pepperberg – as she left the animal lab one evening – were, “You be good.   I love you.   You’ll be in tomorrow?”


Joseph Arellano

Note:  The hardbound version of this book was purchased by the reviewer.   A trade paperback version (pictured) will be released on September 1, 2009.


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Wesley the Owl


Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl by Stacey O’Brien (Atria Books, $16.00, 256 pages)

“Wesley changed my life.   … I wondered if he was actually an angel who had been sent to live with me and help me through all the alone times.   He comforted me; many times I cried into his feathers and told him my troubles, and he tried to understand.”

These are words that come near the end of this true love story about an adopted barn owl named Wesley, who lived for 19 years with author Stacey O’Brien.   O’Brien was a young biologist, trained in wild animal behavior at Caltech in Pasadena, when she adopted the baby owl with the injured wing, knowing that he would not survive in the wild.

What O’Brien did not know at that time was that she was literally following in the footsteps of her maternal grandmother, who had adopted a barn owl that had been injured by dogs and had named it Weisel.   This explained the long-time mystery of why her grandmother had lived in a home filled with owl dolls and figurines.

O’Brien’s story takes us from Wesley’s adoption at a mere four days old to his death from cancer after what amounted to a remarkably long life for a barn owl.   Anyone who owns a cat or dog will identify with O’Brien’s discoveries about her “wild animal.”   Wesley loves to preen and groom, to tell her about the events of the day, and to attack “prey” such as pencils and film cannisters.   Wesley also understands the difference between words like tonight, tomorrow and (in) two hours.   Most importantly, Wesley attaches himself to his owner as a lifelong surrogate mate, since barn owls have but one partner in life (although Wesley was often tempted by the wild female barn owls who hovered outside the window of his San Diego canyon area apartment).

Wesley teaches O’Brien about trust, commitment and love; as she puts it, “It’s the Way of the Owl.   You commit for life, you finish what you start, you give your unconditional love, and that is enough.”

O’Brien learns, via Wesley’s life and death, that “If all I had to give was love, that was enough.”   Her life was forever changed by knowing Wesley, the intelligent and loving barn owl, and the reader is blessed by having access to the story of this very remarkable and very special relationship.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

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Flying: A Review of Wesley the Owl by Stacey O’Brien

“When I would look into his relaxed, at-peace-with-himself eyes, I felt like I was looking into something inscrutable, unobtainable, deeper than we can possibly imagine, an old soul that reflected someone bigger, ineffable, eternal.”

So writes Ms. O’Brien about Wesley, a baby barn owl with an injured wing that she adopted while living in southern California.   Wesley, an intelligent and wise “old soul” wound up living for all of 19 years, the equivalent of 120 human years.   Trained as a biologist specializing in wild animal behavior, the author thought she know a lot about wild animals but Wesley showed her she still had much to learn.

The reader learns that Wesley played like a kitten, had an impressive vocabulary, played in bath water (supposedly something that would never occur with a barn owl), attracted wild female barn owl admirers, and could tell time.   We further learn that Wesley, like a house cat or dog, could get mad at his owner and either bawl her out or literally turn his back on her.

The best parts of this true story are the happy beginning and the sad ending.   As O’Brien rightly notes:  “The… thing I hate about animal stories is that after you’ve read the entire book and you really care about the animal, they go and tell you all about how the animal died.”   This is so true here as the first 215 pages are easy to read, but the remainder is quite difficult for animal owners and lovers to get through.   O’Brien goes so far as to explain to us how, while she was suffering from a potentially fatal illness, her love for Wesley led her to repel her thoughts of suicide.

Yes this is, as advertised, “the remarkable love story of an owl and his girl.”   While it is not quite as strong as the greatly moving books A Cat Named Darwin by William Jordon or The Best Cat Ever by the late Cleveland Amory, it is top-rate.

The author has never fully stopped missing the charming barn owl known as Wesley.   When you finish this book you, the reader, will also greatly miss him…   But you will be quite glad to have shared in his amazing life, at least for a short while.

Free Press, paperback, 235 pages.   $15.00Wesley the owl

The book was purchased by the reviewer.

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