When Yosuke, an African grey parrot, escaped from his cage near Tokyo, everyone thought he was lost – until he announced his name and address to the people who had found him

Picture of Yosuke.

Introduction Who’s ever lost a pet, perhaps for just a while?

[Take some stories]

It’s quite upsetting to lose a pet, and yet it can happen so easily. Dogs get suddenly frightened and run off. Cats get into difficulty and are sometimes injured away from home. Snakes get tangled up with radiators. Hamsters disappear behind the furniture. Budgies fly off through open windows. Elephants get stuck in the chimney. (No, forget that one.)

What you have to do, of course, is to try to take some precautions. Who knows some of the things you can do to keep your pet from getting lost? [Take some answers]

Yes, there are lots of things. You can make sure your dog is wearing a collar with his name and yours, and your address, and you can do the same for cats. Some people even have little implants like computer chips put painlessly under their pet’s skin, with information on them.

The best thing, though, is always to be careful. Always remember that your pet isn’t a human being. He or she is an animal and is always likely to do something unexpected, like dashing or flying off, even if you’re quite sure they wouldn’t do anything like that.

Of course, if you have a talking pet… Anyone here have a talking pet? A talking dog, perhaps, or a talking rabbit? No, what I mean, of course, is a bird that can say some words. Anyone want to tell us about their talking bird? [Take the stories]

I think that, if you have a talking pet, you can teach it to say where it lives, can’t you? It can say, [Put on a good parrot voice here] ‘Hello! I’m Joey. I live at 33, the High Street, Wigan. My email address is [email protected], Please take me home.’

That couldn’t happen, could it? Well it actually did – most of it, anyway, in Japan. Here’s the story.

Yosuke’s story
When the police in Nagareyama, near Tokyo, in Japan, found a parrot sitting on a fence, they knew he must be a lost pet. So they arrested him and took him to a local vet to be looked after. The vet was quite content to look after the parrot, but he knew the bird would obviously rather be at home. The trouble was, of course, that he had no way of knowing where the bird lived. I expect he kept an eye out for adverts in the paper, or for those little notices about lost pets, but there was nothing. So, the vet looked after the parrot carefully, hoping that something would turn up to solve the problem.

And then, of course, the parrot solved the problem himself. After quite a few days, when he was feeling comfortable with the vet, he suddenly started to talk, and the first thing he said was, ‘I’m Mr Yosuke Nakamura’.

Then he said his complete address, complete with house number, and everything.

And, of course, he really did live there, with a family called Nakamura, who were overjoyed to see him back. They were very proud of their parrot, and very thankful that they had thought of the idea of teaching him to say his address.

African grey parrots are some of the best talkers. But, as Yosuke proved, they often only talk when they feel like it.

The big question is, of course, do parrots really talk in the way that you and I do, using words that they understand? Or are they just making noises that imitate the sounds they have heard?

For a long time, everyone assumed that parrots didn’t understand what they were saying. We sometimes use the phrase ‘parrot fashion’ to decribe someone saying something that they’ve learned but don’t understand.

Some really clever work, with a very clever parrot, did a lot to show that, although parrots don’t chat quite like human beings, they are doing much more than just repeat words ‘parrot fashion’.

American animal psychologist, Irene Pepperberg, bought an African grey, in 1978, and set to work to find out just what he was capable of. She called her parrot Alex – because he was an Avian Learning Experiment – and she worked with him for many years, working out how to teach him, and doing experiments to show what he was capable of.

Eventually, by the early nineties, Alex had become the most famous parrot in the world. He could say the names of fifty different objects. He knew how to use the words ‘bigger’ and ‘smaller’ correctly, and had a lot of other skills. Alex died in 2007 and Dr Pepperberg was sure that he was still learning until the end of his life.

The stories of Yosuke and Alex tell us that we can’t ever take our pets for granted. If we treat them with respect, and teach them properly, they will reward us with their behaviour and their loyalty.

A prayer
Lord, we thank you for the animals that we take into our homes as pets. May we treat them well, and keep them safe, and never take them for granted.

Your pet isn’t a toy. You need to give it time and attention. If you do, it will give you great pleasure and loyalty, in return.

Further information

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2008

About the author: Gerald Haigh