On Monday September 10, 1945, farmer Lloyd Olsen of Fruita, Colorado, had his mother-in-law around for supper and was sent out to the yard by his wife to bring back a chicken. Olsen failed to completely decapitate the five-and-a-half month old bird named Mike. The axe missed the jugular vein, leaving one ear and most of the brain stem intact. Once his fame had been established, Mike began a career of touring sideshows in the company of such other creatures as a two-headed calf. He was also photographed for dozens of magazines and papers, featuring in Time and Life magazines. Olsen drew criticism from some for keeping the headless chicken alive. In March 1947, at a motel in Phoenix on a stopover while traveling back home from tour, Mike started choking in the middle of the night. As the Olsens had inadvertently left their feeding and cleaning syringes at the sideshow the day before, they were unable to save Mike.
After about six months, the staff noticed that Oscar, just like the doctors and nurses, would make his own rounds. Oscar would sniff and observe patients, then curl up to sleep with certain ones. What surprised the staff was that the patients with whom Oscar would sleep would generally die within two to four hours after Oscar's arrival. One of the first cases involved a patient who had a blood clot in her leg that was ice cold at the time. Oscar wrapped his body around her leg and stayed until the woman died. In another instance, the doctor had made a determination of impending death based on the patient's condition, while Oscar simply walked away, causing the doctor to believe that Oscar's streak (12 at the time) had ended. However, it would be later discovered that the doctor's prognosis was simply 10 hours too early – Oscar later visited the patient, who died two hours later.
Oscar's accuracy (currently standing at more than 25 reported instances) led the staff to institute a new and unusual protocol – once he is discovered sleeping with a patient, staff will call family members to notify them of the patient's (expected) impending death.
Most of the time the patient's family has no issue with Oscar being present at the time of death; on those occasions when he is removed from the room at the family's request, he is known to pace back and forth in front of the door and meow in protest. When present, Oscar will stay by the patient until he or she takes their last earthly breath – after which Oscar will sit up, look around, then depart the room so quietly that one barely notices.
Abilities aside, what makes his "last hour" companionship more puzzling is that Oscar is described by Dr. David Dosa as "not a cat that's friendly to [living] people." One example of this was described in his NEJM article. When an elderly woman with a walker passed him by during his rounds, Oscar "[let] out a gentle hiss, a rattlesnake-like warning that [said] 'leave me alone.'"
In July 2005 the artist gave birth to six healthy puppies. One of her sons, Doc Chinook Strongheart Cheddar, continues to live with her. Thus far, Doc has not followed his mother in her artistic forays. Her first official biography, Portrait of the Dog as a Young Artist by F. Bowman Hastie III, is published by Sasquatch Books (2006).
The artist's primary process is a dynamic color transfer technique. In preparation for each of Tillie's works, her assistants assemble a touch-sensitive recording device by affixing pigment-coated vellum to a sheet of lithograph paper backed by mat board. The artist takes the prepared "canvas" in her mouth and brings it to her workspace. Working on the outside surface, she applies pressure with teeth and claws in a methodic ritual marked by dramatic shifts in tempo and intensity. The resultant sharp and sweeping intersecting lines complement the artist's delicate paw prints and subtle tongue impressions, composing an expressionistic image that is revealed on the paper beneath when she is finished. She works with shocking intensity, sometimes to the point of destroying her creations.
Before Pepperberg's work with Alex, it was widely believed in the scientific community that birds were not intelligent and could only use words by mimicking, but Alex's accomplishments indicated that birds may be able to reason on a basic level and use words creatively. Pepperberg wrote that Alex's intelligence was on a par with that of dolphins and great apes. She also reported that Alex had the intelligence of a five-year-old human and had not reached his full potential by the time he died. She said that the bird had the emotional level of a human two-year-old at the time of his death.
Alex's death came as a complete surprise; the average life span for African grey parrots is fifty years. He had appeared healthy the day before, and was found dead in the morning. According to a press release issued by the Alex Foundation, "Alex was found to be in good health at his most recent annual physical about two weeks [before his death]. According to the vet who conducted the necropsy, there was no obvious cause of death." According to Pepperberg, Alex's loss will not halt the research but will be a large setback. The lab has two other birds, but their skills do not approach Alex's.
On October 4, 2007 The Alex Foundation posted the Pathology results: "Alex died quickly. He had a sudden, unexpected catastrophic event associated with arterosclerosis ("hardening of the arteries"). It was either a fatal arrhythmia, heart attack or stroke, which caused him to die suddenly with no suffering. There was no way to predict his demise. All of his tests, including his cholesterol level and asper levels, came back normal earlier that week. His death could not be connected to his current diet or his age; our veterinarian said that she has seen similar events in young (<10 year old) birds on healthy diets. Most likely, genetics or the same kind of low-level (impossible to detect in birds as yet) inflammatory disease that is related to heart disease in humans was responsible."