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A Form of Hope

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We begin in the middle of a phone call with Lulu Miller, who tells us the story of a couple with a seemingly unsolvable problem. It's the 1970s, and Richard and Tucker are very much in love. They'd like to get married, but it's against the law. And that would have been the end of the story...except that Richard, worried about Tucker and frustrated that he couldn't legally provide for him, came up with a very unusual (but totally legal) solution.

Lulu says these moments, where one little switch can reframe reality, are a kind of duct tape for the ethereal sadness. It's a form of hope, where an imperfect workaround opens up a door and makes life a little bit better.

And that brings us to a man named Jim Eggers, who suffers from a problem that not only puts his life at risk--it jeopardizes the safety of everybody around him. Producer Pat Walters explains how Jim found a way to manage his anger with the help of a bird named Sadie. African Grey Parrot expert Irene Pepperberg helps us understand how this could work, and shares some insights from her work with a parrot named Alex.

 

Guests:

Irene Pepperberg

Contributors:

Lulu Miller and Pat Walters

Comments [21]

Nelda from Staten Island

Your treatment of Jim was offensive. The implication of your story is that Jim is having auditory hallucinations and ascribing them to Sadie. No wonder Jim didn't want to talk to you the last time!

Dogs are trained to act as service animals for people with chronic, severe epilepsy. Without such dogs, these people are forced to stay at home all the time because they never know when they will seize. But with the dogs, they can go out and have a life, because the dogs can detect the seizure as much as 45 minutes ahead of time and get the person to a safe place. Scientists do not yet understand the mechanism by which dogs are able to detect seizure activity 45 minutes ahead of time, but the fact remains that they can and do.

A seizure is a neurological event, which is what is probably happening to Jim when he feels himself becoming unstable. In fact, it sounds like Jim's episodes are a type of seizure. They have a distinct physical signature that Jim recognizes as it's coming on. The parrot Sadie and Jim have a deep bond. She is sensitive and intelligent enough to detect these subtle changes in Jim and react accordingly. Whether we heard Sadie tell Jim to calm down or not, there's no doubt in my mind that Sadie has saved Jim on countless occasions, as he has saved her.

Feb. 15 2016 08:33 PM
Patrick Harvey

Anyone who has had to spell W-A-L-K with a dog around will understand that animals have much more language skill than we often give them credit for.

Feb. 15 2016 06:39 PM
Josie from Tennessee

I own a male African Grey parrot. Though I do not know Jim, I know without a doubt that his story is true based on my own interactions with my bird. These birds are uncanny in the way they pick up phrases and reuse them in an appropriate manner. They are always listening, always. They will pick up on things you say when you are not even talking directly to them. They are wonderful birds!

Feb. 14 2016 05:20 PM
Diana from Raleigh

Hi, I’m writing in response to your lovely show about Jim and his African Grey parrot Sadie. I have no doubt that Sadie is doing exactly what Jim says she does. I used to have a Yellow Nape Amazon parrot named Emily who often demonstrated a combination of intelligence and, “yes”, empathy.

1. I used to gently scratch her head or “preen” her since she didn’t have another bird to do this for her. Occasionally, I would bump the nub of a new feather tube and she’d flinch. I’d instinctively say, “I’m sorry” and give her a little kiss. One evening she was carrying on like a banshee, screeching and yelling and just out of control. I kept telling her “No, stop, be quiet” but she just kept it up. Finally, I put her back in her cage still telling her, “No" and "bad bird”. The screeching continued and in desperation, I put the sleeping cover over the cage repeating “No" and “Bad bird”. The screeching immediatley stopped and a quiet voice beneath the cover said “Sorry, sorry”. Somehow she’d connected “sorry” with something someone says when they hurt someone. After that incident, whenever she said “sorry” it was used appropriately.

2. While out walking one evening, we found three tiny kittens that someone abandoned in the woods near our home. The little grey one was spastic and we nicknamed him “Spaz”. The spunky black kitten was the “mother” of the group and very protective of her litter mates. Spaz began to have seizures and one day had a grand mal seizure in front of Emily’s cage. Once the seizing stopped, Emily crawled down from her cage and waddled over toward the distressed kitten. I started to chase her away but something stopped me. I hovered close by ready to wave Emily off if necessary. She stood over Spaz, then very slowly bent down and began to preen him. Her movements were so tender and gentle. Tears flowed down my face as I watched this persnickety bird display such concern and empathy for the sick defenseless kitten lying on the floor. His tiny black protectress quickly ran over and chased Emily away. Amazingly, Emily just went back to her cage when normally she would have stood her ground and run off the little panther. She was over twice his size with a wicked beak and was known to chase our rather large cat around the kitchen.

There’s so much about the brain that’s not yet known or proven but I truly believe there is a sixth sense that seems to be more developed in animals because their “minds” don’t question the “knowing”. Humans possess this sense but have lost the ability to “hear” or “feel” it because it gets lost in all of the noise and clutter in our minds. There are so many stories and examples of people with deep connections being able to “feel” when that loved one is near, in danger, or in same cases, “know” the person is still alive when it’s presumed they have died.

That's all. Love your show. Thanks for feeding our minds and sometimes our souls.

Feb. 14 2016 05:20 PM

What a fantastic mutualistic relationship Jim and his parrot have developed. It was very sad to hear about Jim's early family situation which was obviously very traumatic. The wonderful thing is Jim was able to move forward in his life and even to gain a supportive, and I'd venture to say, loving relationship in spite of all he had suffered.

The story is amazing in that Jim sought out his parrot and cared for him in such a way that the bird came back to life after mistreatment and neglect, much as Jim himself did. Bravo Jim!

The negative critique I have is a big one though, and it took the whole story in an unexpected direction. The moderator's doubt in Jim's honesty in telling his story seemed to come out of nowhere and was beyond the pale. I've listened to many stories on NPR and have never heard any of the story tellers being confronted for their honesty, or their story segments being fact checked. This seemed like blatant discrimination, completely without merit, or reason, and totally disrespectful of Jim. It seemed that once again, he was being mistreated, abused, mistrusted, and doubted. Bad ending to such a lovely life affirming story!

Feb. 14 2016 01:55 PM
Ronnie from Dufur, Oregon

Re empathetic parrots: My father was in the slow decline to his death in the hospital ICU. I went out for a walk to regroup, feeling sad and helpless. I wound up in a local pet shop browsing the isles, fighting back the tears when I felt a presence behind me. I turned around, and there in a cage, was a small parrot sitting on a perch, reaching its little foot outside the bars towards me. I walked over to the cage and quietly extended my finger towards his foot. He gently grasped my finger and held it--not otherwise moving. That's when I lost it. The tears flowed, with the two of us just holding on to each other in the middle of that isle. After a few minutes, the parrot released my finger, and watched me from his perch. I thanked him and left the store with gratitude and amazement in my heart.

Feb. 14 2016 09:07 AM
carolina from Brooklyn

Thanks for this story. Enjoyed it the first time and the 2nd today. One thing kinda irked me though. The reporter continually asks somewhat incredulously can the bird sense this when Jim is shifting into another state? how do they know? as if it was an impossibility. It seems so odd to me that this is presented this way. Humans are in many ways far LESS sensitive than some animals. Why would the intimacy and relationship that's built between an animal and a human vs. a human/human relationship not have this closeness? Not sure if it was conscious but it hints a bit at humans being superior. We have lost so much of our ability to communicate with and listen to the natural world and this just seems like an extension of that.

Feb. 13 2016 05:02 PM
Rose from Minnesota

Jim's story with the Grey should make sense to anyone loves and spends time with animals regularly. Dogs are my best friends and they pick up on the smallest things that happen frequently. Sadie being able to sense when Jim has an episode coming on was very cool to hear about, but not surprising. Loved the story.

Feb. 13 2016 03:28 PM

Thank you for this story and the problem solving theme is super. Jim is a genius problem-solver.
I felt that the reporter was somewhat insensitive and dull, however, and this made this segment less than it could have been.

Feb. 13 2016 12:35 PM
John

Lulu Miller talks like a teenager and Pat Walters mutters too many of his words. At one point, he said something I couldn't even recognize. It was a word, but I had to go back and hear it again thanks to his lack of enunciation. Why does this keep happening to podcasts?!

Feb. 12 2016 09:43 AM
Deyan from Vancouver, BC

To the person looking for a music credit: the first song is Doing The Wrong Thing by Kaki King.

Jul. 17 2015 02:12 PM
maxjroger from Edinburgh, Scotland

Does anyone have any references for the first story about the gay man who adopted his partner to get around the legal hurdles?

Feb. 18 2015 05:21 AM
Susie from Portland, OR

The last part, about the "fake" bus stop outside the nursing home, is similar to how I've had to handle my mom's need for the illusion of freedom. Her car sits in the parking lot of the assisted living facility where she has an apartment. She does occasionally drive it, perhaps once or twice a month, but just seeing it outside her window is usually enough to comfort her into knowing she is not "trapped". Sometimes she just goes and sits in it, listening to the radio.

Jul. 07 2014 04:21 PM
kelley from atlanta, ga

does radiolab keep a list of the segue music between stories? I hear such great clips on the program and want to look up more of the same...

Apr. 07 2014 09:06 AM
Travis

Didn't you already run this story a few years ago? About the guy with his parrot?

Apr. 02 2014 04:02 PM
Shirley from Phoenix, Az.

I have been around Grey's & know that they will talk to you just like what Jim is saying. I have a Lesser Sulfur Crested Cockatoo that when I am not feeling well will ask me "are you OK?" or say "It's OK" Like the doctor said the birds may not know what this means but they can feel the change in there ppl when they say things. We are there flock & that is important to the birds that there flock are together & if someone in there flock is upset they feel it. I think it is sad about the ones doing disability animals are not open to any other animal's besides dogs & mini horses. There are many animals that are out there helping ppl with disability's : dogs, cats, horse (different never heard of), monkeys, birds. I think they should look at the animal see if they are able to help & be more open minded.

Love the story & can relate very well with Jim. I don't have the outburst like Jim but do have my disability issues

May. 18 2012 11:48 PM
Susan from Charlottesville, VA

My husband has bipolar, and one of our dogs absolutely knows when he is becoming manic (which is what's happening with Jim when he starts to feel "tingly"). We've never trained her to behave this way, but she warns him very early on in a manic episode. It's incredible to watch. I'm assuming it's a chemical change she can sense in him. I would guess that's what is up with Jim's parrot as well.

Nov. 25 2011 08:13 AM
evrbdygoz2heven from Castle Rock, CO

Deepak Chopra explores animal/human connectedness in his latest book about the afterlife. Since all life is quantum, how could there not be communion.

Jun. 04 2011 12:15 AM
Emily from Buffalo, NY

Common, RadioLab. I expect more science from you. Don't get soft. Service dogs can be trained as seizure-alert dogs. They can alert people with epilepsy seconds to minutes before they have a seizure. Is this anything like that?

Apr. 26 2011 03:14 PM
Yona from Washington, DC

I have an African Grey for over 10 years and I know that they are capable of far more than mimicry. No, they don't understand individual words, but they understand the timing and they associate phrases with events. For example my bird has done the following:
1. Associated my going to the door and reaching for the dog leash with the phrase :"Coco out?" and saying that phrase every time I was about to call my dog.
2. Calling out my first and last name (his cadence is perfect) as soon as the phone rings -- anticipating my usual business greeting.
3. Saying "bye bye" during my phone calls (but never any other time. I don't know if because he is anticipating that I'm about to end the conversation (he is usually wrong about this one) or because he is trying to create the event that follows my saying "bye bye" -- i.e. hanging-up.
3. Screeching loudly and then anticipating my admonishment by declaring "Quiet Mongo!" before I can say anything.

I

Apr. 24 2011 06:50 PM

The strangest things occur when one works with animals. I grew up with a mother who was a veterinarian, and it's amazing the number of cats who learn to call out "No" or "Mom" or "Home" when they're kept at a vet clinic. For a parrot, it must be even easier.

Apr. 17 2011 10:35 PM

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