MIAMI — Imagine a group of four-year-olds in a room with glass windows: Cleo, Zach, David, and Jany. From August to February they are watched and talked to by anyone who pays an admissions fee. They are expected to respond, parroting back “hellos” and interacting with viewers. They have access to food and toys. They are well cared for, even monitored by a pediatrician weekly. They should be used to the attention; some have appeared in commercials and movies. Would it be OK? It is in the name of art, after all.
A 2011 study published in the journal of the Royal Society of Biological Science found that parrots (the big ones like African Greys, Cockatoos, and Macaws) have the logical reasoning capabilities of a four-year-old. A 2007 study discovered that some birds possess theory of mind (the ability to see things from another’s point of view). It takes human children until age five to fully develop this capability. To date the only other animals to display these kinds of cognitive abilities are primates.
I was given my first parrot, a Dusky-Headed Conure, when I was 11 years old. I read every book I could find on parrots. Over the years I’ve owned three Conures, one Lovebird, and several Finches. I also spent a summer working in a parrot shop in Manhattan. Suffice to say, I know birds. I have no doubt that they have the intelligence of four-year-olds.
One of my birds, Puffy, had to stay home during my first semester at college. When I returned she’d barely look at me and if I tried to hold her she’d bite. Before that I was her human (birds often bond intensely to one person). Puffy was angry; she understood that I’d been away and that I was going away again. Our relationship was never the same. When I eventually put her up for adoption, she refused to be held by women for months. Birds hold a grudge.
At the parrot shop I saw even crazier evidence of birds’ intelligence. One parrot Facetimed with its owner through an iPhone strapped to its cage. Another, Tito, hated having his picture taken and would wildly ring the bells in his cage if he saw a camera or iPhone pointed his way. Another amused itself by imitating the shop’s phone, prompting the employees to run for the receiver frantically only to realize it was just the bird.
When I walked in to the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), I was drawn to a large enclosure in the lobby. Inside were four parrots — two African Greys, a Cockatoo, and an Amazon parrot. The aviary is an exhibition titled Speechless by artist duo Bik Van der Pol, which is comprised of Liesbeth Bik and Jos van der Pol. Based in south Holland, Bik and van der Pol have been working together since 1994, producing work that often makes a political or social commentary.
Speechless addresses issues of global warming and climate change. The birds were taught phrases from T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem “The Waste Land.” Inside the sizable enclosure are scattered letters that spell out “global warming,” “climate change,” and “sustainability.” Partially inspired by an attempt to ban use terms including “climate change” and “global warming” in the Florida state government, Bik Van der Pol created a work that attempts to use language to connect humans with nature. Historically, language and the ability to communicate have been considered dividing factors between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom.
Using live animals in contemporary art isn’t a new idea. In 1938, Salvador Dalí produced an installation titled “Rainy Taxi” that included live snails and plants. In 1969, Jannis Kounellis, a major figure in the Arte Povera movement, hitched 12 live horses to the walls of the Galleria l’Attico in Rome. The installation was later restaged at the 1976 Venice Biennale. Joseph Beuys spent 3 days with a live coyote at the Rene Block Gallery in New York in 1974 as a part of his work “I Like America and America Likes Me.” Darren Bader included a room with live cats and another with a live iguana in his 2012 MoMA PS1 show Images. Cai Guo-Quiang used live tortoises with iPads attached to their shells in his 2014 exhibition Moving Ghost Town at the Aspen Art Museum.
But snails, horses, coyotes, cats, and iguanas aren’t parrots. Horses are intelligent, comparable to elephants even, but they come nowhere close to possessing the same level of cognition as parrots.
I stood and watched the parrots at the PAMM for some time. None showed signs of extreme stress like feather plucking, quivering, or aggression. But they also didn’t act like happy, relaxed birds. Two were perched toward the back of the enclosure, holding their feathers tightly against their bodies, which can mean they’re on edge. One was flapping its wings, something birds often do to exercise. None was talking, much less quoting Eliot. Granted, I only observed the birds for 20 minutes, and do not proclaim to know whether they are happy or not.
Bik Van der Pol’s parrots are well taken care of. They have ample space and toys, staff have been trained to care for them, a veterinarian monitors them, the lights are turned off around their enclosure nightly, and there is a space outside the museum where they could be moved in an emergency. For some reason, none of this makes it feel OK to me. When you’ve spent time around parrots and know how truly human-like they can be, it feels wrong to think of them as being on display. I recognize the irony of this coming from someone who’s owned birds, the very purpose of which is the owner’s pleasure, not the birds’. I also find it odd that Bik Van der Pol is trying to make a statement about humanity’s negative impact on the environment by taking something living out of its natural environment and using it to serve a human purpose. Isn’t this essentially how global warming began, just instead of oil or coal or wood, here it’s parrots?
The show’s title, Speechless, presumably alludes to the environment’s inability to speak for itself. Oceans, animals, forests — none of them can tell us to stop. But what Bik Van der Pol overlooked is that the parrots in Speechless are speechless, too. Sure they can mimic human voices deceptively well, but they possess no language to tell us that they don’t want to be kept in an enclosure and looked at all day.
I do not claim to know whether or not Cleo, Zach, David, and Jany are happy. I can say objectively that they appear to be healthy — the museum has done a commendable job of caring for the birds. But I can question the use of intelligent animals as part of a display. In some ways, Bik Van der Pol’s installation brings to mind Ota Benga, a Congolese man who was part of an exhibit at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. At the time people presumed Benga’s intelligence and cognition to be equal to that of monkeys. Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr. eventually released Benga, but he fell in to a depression and committed suicide at the age of 32.
The 2013 documentary Blackfish offers another example of what can happen when we put intelligent beings on display for our own purposes and pleasure, not theirs. Parrots are not as big as Orca whales and cannot rebel physically against their captors so powerfully. They aren’t humans we can relate to, like Benga. But as someone who has worked with and cared for many birds, I can tell you that they are some of the most intelligent beings on this earth aside from us. So I will end with the same question with which I began: would you be OK with four-year-olds being held in a cage for seven months in the name of art?