ST. PETERSBURG — Apollo is only 2, but he’s growing up fast.
He knows the names of colors and how to ask questions to satisfying his growing curiosity. His parents nourish him with fresh chicken eggs, organic vegetables and the occasional bug. He loves looking out the window and crushing pistachios into his sharp, clawed feet.
“We always kiss after I give him a snack,” said his mother, Tori Lacey.
“He’s my son, my child,” she continued. “But also a project.”
Lacey, 24, and her fiance, Dalton Mason, 23, have been raising Apollo to be the most intelligent bird possible. The African gray parrot can answer questions on command and clearly communicate what he’s thinking.
Oh, and he’s TikTok famous. His account, @apolloandfrens, has over 620,000 followers and counting.
Apollo’s parents fell in love five years ago. Both are Pinellas County natives with a soft spot for animals.
Before Apollo, they owned a pair of caiques, which died in an accident. The couple mourned for nearly a year before Mason saw Apollo at Animal House Pet Center in December 2020. The parrot had his wings clipped. He was just eight months old and on sale for $1,700.
Apollo was awfully cute, with smoky feathers covering his body and round white eyes. Mason knew African gray parrots are also smart.
“I’ve just been obsessed with animals and nature since I was a kid. Crows and ravens and animal intelligence broadly really fascinated me,” Mason said. “She wanted a parrot, and that’s how we got started.”
He thought it would be fun to train a bird with Lacey while attempting to grow an online following. African gray parrots have muscles in their tongue that allow them to mimic sounds needed to speak words in the English language. Mason also wanted to test a theory with Apollo: If they raised this parrot as a human, maybe they could blow away all of the current intelligent animal benchmarks.
“We’re giving him conventional schooling, so to speak,” Lacey said. “We’re tutoring him, training him. We’re not just interacting with him like people do with their birds.”
First the couple got Apollo comfortable, training him to be OK with a finger tap on the beak, then luring him onto their hands for a walnut or pistachio. His first words were “hello” and “water.”
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Then Apollo started practicing sounds he liked — the squawking of a chicken, the nasally “wah!” from Super Mario’s Waluigi, and a high-pitched “hee-hee” a la Michael Jackson. It didn’t take long before he was stringing new words into full sentences.
“It was like a car driving up a hill, and now it’s like a rocket,” Mason said.
Apollo can identify colors, materials and actions. He can also request water, a bath or to spend time training with his owners.
“Earn a pistachio?” he asks when he wants to learn.
The couple was inspired by the work of Dr. Irene Pepperberg, a scientist known for her work studying animal cognition. Pepperberg’s famous parrot, Alex, learned how to name over 50 different objects, plus colors and quantities, over the three decades she had him.
“Alex the African gray parrot was pretty much the furthest language in animals had ever been taken,” Mason said.
Mason and Lacey are not scientists in the formal academic sense (Mason pointed out neither has an associate degree). But they figured if they took Pepperberg’s teachings and applied it to a bird in a two-parent home, they could fill Apollo’s walnut-sized brain with knowledge.
“If it works out, it’s guaranteed to make money, because I will have one of the best talking birds,” Mason said.
They transformed their St. Petersburg house into something of a bird sanctuary. The second bedroom, occupied by Apollo and two new baby caiques, is festooned with a canopy of hanging toys. Framed pictures of their pets hanging in the living room and kitchen. A bookshelf, topped with stuffed bird plushies, holds science books about animal intelligence and Pepperberg’s findings. Nearby sits a microscope, purchased to examine Apollo’s stool samples.
Their self-taught approach has paid off. In just two years, Apollo has already reached the milestones Alex did in five or six. Lacey compares his language skills to that of a human toddler at his age.
“I just think this is going to be one of the smartest animals ever. He’s going to be publicized like you’ve never seen. We’re recording everything, putting it out, sharing methods,” Lacey said.
While the couple taught Apollo language, they were teaching themselves video editing with Adobe Premiere Rush. Inspired by younger siblings, they decided to try TikTok, Instagram and YouTube as the first platforms.
They started uploading content in September 2021. Some of the most popular videos show Apollo answering their questions: What is this? What’s this made of? What color is it?
“He’s a content factory,” Mason said.
Their days are structured around training and filming sessions with Apollo. Mason still works in the family landscaping business; Lacey has a part-time job in retail.
Since monetizing their TikTok videos, she’s been able to cut down on her hours. It just means more time and resources to pour back into their avian son. After all, she said, Apollo was the starting point of knowing what they wanted to do with their lives.
“We’re along for the ride to see what Apollo can do,” Mason said. “How many records can our little man break?”