Other Animals

Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: Life In The Time Of Coronavirus

Dr Pepperberg Griffin
Dr. Irene Pepperberg and African grey Griffin

Life at the moment is incredibly confusing. As I write (03-19-2020), my computer is filled with horrible news reports of all sorts, and the thought of writing a light-weight, chatty piece as a distraction doesn’t seem reasonable. So, I’m going to provide a report of about life in a “non-essential” research lab (i.e., one not working on coronavirus) at this particular moment.

The first inkling that life was about to change was not an “inkling”—it was more like a bolt from the blue. With no prior warning other than “we are carefully following the developing situation,” everyone here at Harvard received emails last Tuesday from the administration, stating that the College (the undergraduate part of the university) would cease in-person instruction for the rest of the semester beginning with the start of Spring Break (Friday afternoon), and that all undergraduate students had to leave their housing by Sunday night. You can imagine the panic: All of a sudden, everyone was being evicted! And everyone, students and faculty alike, would have to figure out how to teach and learn through on-line instruction.

Chaos on Campus

David Mark/Pixabay

Many students had absolutely no idea what to do, and the ones in my lab were no exception. Instead of doing a lot of research, I listened to tales of woe; thankfully the parrots seemed to calm everyone with their antics. Notably, Harvard has quite a number of foreign students, plus students who need expensive domestic airline tickets to return home—not to mention that for students on scholarship, the cost of shipping home their worldly goods on short notice was more than they could handle.

Think how you would feel if you were told you had less than a week to get yourself and your belongings back to Australia! And aside from the financial hardship, the imminent loss of contact with close friends triggered considerable sadness and depression, particularly among seniors, who probably will not have a traditional graduation and farewell. After a day or so, Harvard realized the full effects of their demands and devised specific plans to help all the students, financially and emotionally, so that—hopefully—no one would suffer undue hardship…but the rules were still in place.

Over the course of the week other local schools, whose students also work in my lab, experienced variations on the same theme. MIT, Boston University, Tufts, Northeastern…the story was the same. Some schools planned to close for shorter times and re-evaluate the possibility of students returning to campus; others, like Harvard, just shut down.

Now, our lab is run almost entirely with undergraduate assistance—students on paid and unpaid internships, students working on theses, students who work for an hourly wage, students working in the lab for class credit—and almost all would be gone! My lab managers and I started checking in with everyone local, and even reaching out to former research assistants, to see what we could cobble together to keep us going. It looked as though we would manage. Not well, but we would have enough help in the lab to keep at least a few projects going.

What About the Parrots?

African grey parrotThen came the next blow. Harvard decided toward the end of the week that all faculty should work from home—that we would teach on-line, and spend our time writing, planning lectures, etc. At this point, there was no explicit rule that anyone running a lab couldn’t come in, as long as the now-common safety precautions were being taken: frequent handwashing, staying home at the first sign of any illness, covering mouths and noses when necessary, etc.  I figured we would be okay: My lab must maintain a level of cleanliness that would drive anyone else who has parrots insane; we have passed every extremely rigorous sanitation inspection for the past seven years. Thus, we weren’t unduly worried and there seemed to be some understanding that everyone would do their best to stay home if necessary, but staff the lab within reason.

However, things changed very quickly. By Friday night, research labs were told they needed to “power down”: to choose only two or three people who could come in to ensure that essential equipment would be managed and lab animals fed and their cages cleaned, nothing more. I’m not even sure that mice, rats, and pigeons would survive on this regime—and Griffin and Athena are used to interaction with people 11 hrs/day, 7 days/wk, 365 days/year! Without such stimulation, we run the risk of feather-plucking, depression, and, of course, not being able to restart experiments after a long hiatus—what was the likelihood they would remember how to do the various tasks?

We figured that maybe we would be ok, nonetheless: We are in what is known as a satellite facility, where we do all the animal care work; the birds live in an area that looks like a cross between a living room and a daycare center, but with equipment like an industrial-strength air filter, a special humidifier, full-spectrum lights, etc.. And the rest of our building would be completely empty. At that point, my department head said that as long as I had no more than two people at any one time, we could continue…and by that time, so many people had completely freaked out that I figured we would be lucky to have even two people at once…but, clearly, merely three people could not keep up the pace for at least 8 weeks without total exhaustion. We were freaking, but in a controlled manner.

The Flock on Lockdown

And then came Sunday. We were told that every lab now had to fill out a petition to explain why it had to remain open, who would be working, all the precautions that would be taken…if the petition was not granted, the labs could be put on that minimum basis by Wednesday. Of course, the petition had an 800 character limit for each of the declarations (that’s letters and spaces, not words!). By then some more students had bailed, but we did have a total of six or seven folks (including myself and my lab managers) who would be available. A new email seemed to imply that animal care helpers would be treated somewhat differently, but it did not explicitly say so.

Then on Tuesday, the department head rejected my petition. He said that we would have to close completely by Wednesday. He couldn’t put my staff at risk. I wrote detailed notes to him, explaining all the reasons that we had to stay put. Trying to make it clear that if there was only one person in at a time, and the rest of the building was empty, what was the risk? Trying to explain that moving them to an animal care facility where they would be allowed a visitor for one hour/day would destroy their mental health, could result in severe feather picking (to which they both are prone) and in Athena’s case, possibly even self-mutilation. I explained that I couldn’t take them home with me—that they weren’t pets, and at 71 years old (with two artificial hips, a bum shoulder, and several wonky lumbar disks), I’d have to have lots of people traipsing in and out of my home to help—a huge risk in my age category.

A Compromise

He relented enough to give us until Thursday. I appealed to one of the Deans, whose admin said that I had to petition another Dean—who has not answered me as of this a.m.. Everyone involved insisted that they were “just carrying out orders”…Need I remind you of where that led in the past?

You can imagine my panic. Thankfully, one of my research assistants, who lives nearby in her own house, volunteered to take them. Her only restriction—reasonable—was that my staff move the birds and their equipment, so that no strangers were coming into her house. So, I told my department head in no uncertain terms that would be the case, even though he had explicitly prohibited from anyone other than me from returning to lab today.

I take some solace in knowing that the birds will at least be with someone whom they know, who can care for them properly, who will give them as much time as possible (although obviously she can’t replicate the lab experience). The space they are in at her house is absolutely perfect, and when I brought them over, they were alert and a bit wary, but neither bird seemed freaked out. Fingers crossed! One of my lab managers will come by to help out, and I’ll visit, probably once/week to let the birds know I haven’t abandoned them.

For obvious reasons, the woman who is taking them wants to limit visitors to her house. It’s clearly not at all optimal…it’s quite possible that the birds will not adjust to this situation, or never re-adjust to the lab when they are brought back. We are all hoping that this craziness continues for no more than 6-8 weeks; no one has signed up for this long-term—but absolutely no one knows what is going to happen.

In sum….Yes, I do understand the seriousness of this pandemic. I was not doing anything outside my house other than come to lab, and if not for the parrots, I would have stayed home all the time. Yes, I certainly understand the potential perils of traveling on buses and trains, and understand why no one wants to commute that way, and thus respected the fears of the students who did not want to take that risk. But some of us, who had volunteered to drive in and spend the necessary time with the birds so they would be ok, who had figured out a way to perform our duties without putting any of us at risk…why couldn’t we have had the option?

Coming to our sanitized lab is thousands of times safer than going grocery shopping! How can people still hide behind “I’m just following orders”? Why can’t people be trusted to make their own decision about the risks they are willing to take for the well-being of the nonhumans who keep our scientific labs functioning? We ask a lot of our avian colleagues; I am completely heartbroken that I can only do so much for Griffin and Athena at their time of need. They won’t understand that I spent hours on the phone and days crafting emails to avert the situation; all they will know is that their world has been turned upside down.

With hopes that these insane times are short-lived.

You can help Dr. Pepperberg continue the groundbreaking parrot research she began more than 30 years with Alex, the African grey parrot that won admirers from around the world with his cognitive abilities. If you shop online through sites such as Amazon.com, you can designate the Alex Foundation to receive a percentage of your final sales, or register with the Alex Foundation at iGive.com and a percentage of sales from companies associated with iGive will go to the foundation. The Alex Foundation also has a “Donate” button linked to PayPal. Visit http://alexfoundation.org and click on the “Support Us” link for more information.

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