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Farewell to Zach, My Favorite Monster

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Yesterday, I wrote about science’s inability to explain the attraction some women feel for monsters. Fictional monsters. After posting, I learned that a real-life monster with whom I had an intense, long-term relationship just died. His name was Zach, and he was a parrot, a yellow-collared macaw.

Zach, a sadistic yellow-collared macaw, and I share a quiet moment in 1999, before Zach rejected me and bonded with my son.

I bought Zach in 1990, when he was a fledgling, to console my wife after the death of her dog, the love of her life. Zach was a noisy little bully, who enjoyed terrorizing humans. He had a perch in the kitchen, loaded with toys and dishes for food and water, but he roamed the house freely, causing trouble.

He liked to hide under an upholstered chair in our living room, waiting for bare-foot prey to pass. He’d dart out, bite the feet or ankles of his victim, and scuttle back under the chair’s skirt, cackling maniacally. When he laughed, Zach was probably imitating me and my wife, who found his antics hilarious. But I don’t doubt that he took genuine, sadistic pleasure at inflicting pain.

With some targets, especially blond-haired women, toward whom he was insanely hostile, his aggression was more direct. Wings flapping and beak gaping, he dive-bombed his terrified target, landed on her upper back and gnashed her neck. His bites could draw blood.

My wife finally, reluctantly, had Zach’s wings clipped to protect visitors. Sometimes, if a blond entered the kitchen, he still launched himself at her, landing with a thump on the floor, and chased her on foot.

Zach was, for years, as loving toward me as he was vicious toward others. When I came home from work, he welcomed me by bobbing his head and screaming “Hello!,” his pupils repeatedly dilating and contracting. Then he fluttered his wings, indicating that he wanted me to pick him up.

When I did so, he burrowed under my shirt and nestled against my chest, producing a purring noise by grinding his beak. When I walked around the house, he poked his head out above my collar to scope out the scene, and I had this weird sensation that I was a big, dumb machine and he was piloting me. Which probably wasn’t far from the truth.

He also liked to crawl onto my shoulder and nibble my ear, emitting murmurs of affection. With a forefinger, I’d ruffle his gold and emerald neck feathers, which would fan out like fur, as his eyelids slid shut dreamily. Now and then, with no warning, he’d interrupt our reverie by screaming in my ear or biting the hell out of my earlobe. He also crapped on my shirts and chewed tiny holes in them, defying my commands to stop.

When my son Mac was seven or eight, Zach dumped me for him, just like that, with no warning or explanation. If I approached Mac while Zach was on his shoulder, Zach lunged at me, snapping his beak.

When my wife and I got divorced, Zach stayed with her, so I haven’t seen him much over the last five years. Life was easier, calmer, quieter without him. But when I called my kids at home and heard Zach shrieking “Hello!” in the background, I missed him.

Zach was a monster, who drove me crazy, but I loved him, and I’m sad he’s gone. Explain that, evolutionary psychology.

About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. rshoff2 1:21 pm 01/8/2014

    I’m moved by your story, and very pleased that your creature was so well loved and cared for. It sounds like he gave back every bit of love that you gave him.

    As for evolutionary psychologist, I feel a dichotomy that I’m struggling to resolve. It’s obvious to me that evolutionary psychology, and other physicalist science perspectives, are pretty much on target. We are not ‘all that’ and know nothing of the ways of the universe. We only understand ourselves. Most of our science is an ongoing saga of introspection, because that is all we care about. Ourselves. But no guilt, we have no choice in the matter.

    However, it’s also obvious that I participate in the human level of life, and support love and nurture. Your story of your love for your monster warms my heart. I respond as a human, yet truly believe that underneath it all, we are evolutionary genetic code floundering in a universe of probability with a very high level of predictability.

    Ok, my head will explode!

    Thank you again for telling us about Zach.

    Link to this
  2. 2. rkipling 8:15 pm 01/8/2014

    rshoff2,

    First let me say that my reply is not hostile. Nor do I claim this is some grand insight. I just want to offer you another perspective to consider. I’m largely recounting what very many others have said.

    You talk about the universe as though it is something apart from human beings. Every atom, larger than hydrogen and helium, in us and in everything around us formed in long dead stars. In the TV program Cosmos, Carl Sagan called people star-children. We are tiny bits of the universe who have become sentient and begun to wonder about things.

    Our understanding may never be complete. We make mistakes. But are we floundering? I say no. We are learning. Give us some time. After all on a cosmic timescale, we just woke up.

    To paraphrase Walt Kelly’s Pogo, we have met the universe and it is us.

    Link to this
  3. 3. rshoff2 8:50 pm 01/8/2014

    rkipling, Thank you for your observation.

    1 -This I already know: “Every atom, larger than hydrogen and helium, in us and in everything around us formed in long dead stars.”

    2 -Wow, thank you. This I never noticed but you’re correct: “You talk about the universe as though it is something apart from human beings.”

    You have given me something to consider. I may be dissociating humanity from the universe the exact same way that I criticize others for doing. I just have a more negative view on humanity.

    Regardless, my heart still hurts for John and Zach.

    Link to this
  4. 4. rkipling 9:04 pm 01/8/2014

    rshoff2,

    I meant no criticism at all. Just offering thoughts.

    Yup, sorry about Zach. Sounds like he was a fellow troublemaker.

    Link to this
  5. 5. rkipling 12:46 am 01/9/2014

    rshoff2,

    Humanity has its good side. See below:

    Of all that Heaven produces and nourishes, there is none so great as man. CONFUCIUS

    You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection. – Buddha

    “When you’re chewing on life’s gristle
    Don’t grumble, give a whistle
    And this’ll help things turn out for the best…
    And…always look on the bright side of life…
    Always look on the light side of life.” – Monty Python

    Link to this
  6. 6. John Horgan in reply to John Horgan 7:31 am 01/9/2014

    You guys crack me up. Thanks for hanging around, and for your kind words about Zach.

    Link to this
  7. 7. rshoff2 1:41 pm 01/9/2014

    Ah, John himself! Thank you for putting up with my gibberish! It wasn’t clear to me whether it was acceptable…. Hopefully your advanced readers just skip right over ‘rshoff’ and save me some embarrassment.

    btw, you have mentioned that you teach a course in humanities geared toward the science/math students. Have you ever thought of a blog for student’s issues with the Humanities concepts they struggle to embrace or how they integrate into the physical sciences? Perhaps they would participate? I could learn a lot from them and their journey, so assumedly, others could too. (?) Is that appropriate to ask about? Maybe not.

    Thanks again for your Cross-Check blog!

    Link to this
  8. 8. rkipling 1:54 pm 01/9/2014

    John Horgan,

    Most welcome. I asked myself WWZD?

    Link to this
  9. 9. rshoff2 2:09 pm 01/9/2014

    answer: ZDWW

    Link to this
  10. 10. rshoff2 1:03 am 01/14/2014

    rkipling – You pointed out that I philosophically separate humanity from the universe even as I claim that humanity has to follow the physical laws of the universe and other aspect of humanity does not really exist. I’ve thought it over, and still don’t have an answer. However, I can say that you are right about the fact that we are part of the universe and cannot be separated. We are integral as far as that is concerned. That is understood.

    I do see after reflection that we are truly part of the universe and admit that as such may have a greater role than is apparent in our short lives. My pessimism is bitter and unwarrented (you called me on that). However, I still see the Universe as a physical machine and doubt that our value is more than a physical expression or utility of the Universe itself.

    There is a magic of sorts, but it’s not ethereal. And we cannot know what it is, or if it truly exists.

    Though we can expound upon theories…..

    To John: I cannot imagine a science or math contributor being fully capable without embracing what you have to teach. Not necessarily agree with your opinion, but embrace the concepts you have to introduce which deserve contemplation. Contemplation by the scientific or mathematical mind. Those people that can excel at both would make me proud to be human, even though I excel at neither.

    Link to this
  11. 11. rshoff2 1:07 am 01/14/2014

    I meant to write:

    …and “therefore” other aspects of humanity do not really exist.

    Link to this
  12. 12. rkipling 1:30 pm 01/14/2014

    It wasn’t my intention to call you out. Just offering my perspective. Perhaps in your situation I would be bitter too? There is no way for me to tell.

    I claim no grand understand of the universe. It’s likely none of us will ever finish that puzzle, but I enjoy working on it. Maybe we are cogs in a wheel? I don’t feel like a cog.

    Try to look at it this way. At least you got to be a sentient part of the universe. From the perspective of a chunk of ice and rock in the Oort cloud, you won the lottery.

    Link to this
  13. 13. rshoff2 4:28 pm 01/14/2014

    Bingo! Really nothing to complain about since we have it better than any other clump of matter! We are sentient.

    Link to this
  14. 14. rkipling 4:32 pm 01/14/2014

    Hey, I have a few complaints.

    Link to this
  15. 15. rshoff2 12:11 am 01/15/2014

    Naw, you wouldn’t be bitter in my situation. I’ve made bad choices and haven’t lived up to my potential. Or had no potential and don’t want to face the reality. I’d like to think that it was a failure of my environment, but…

    And I landed pretty darn good on this earth as a sentient being, that’s for darn sure. That was an excellent point on your part!!

    Link to this

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