SHELBINA, Missouri — Standing in the shade of his command tent on the side of a rural highway, Buddy the Cat holds a pair of binoculars up to his face with both paws early Thursday morning, scanning for cat food.
“I don’t see a damn thing,” the silver tabby cat says, squinting.
A four-year-old striped ginger cat, an assistant, clears his throat. “You have to take off the lens caps, sir.”
Buddy turns, glares at his assistant, then makes a show of removing the lens caps as if that had been his idea all along.
“Aha!” he says triumphantly. “I see the cans!”
That was the scene at what the mercurial feline is calling Operation Yums HQ, less than a half mile from the site of an overturned tractor trailer on Missouri’s Highway 36. The truck, which had been headed east, drifted onto the right shoulder of the highway and tipped over into a ditch, spilling its glorious, delicious, must-be-acquired cargo onto the surrounding grass and concrete.
“Look at it,” Buddy said, surveying the scene as firefighters, police and paramedics saw to the driver, closed down one lane and directed traffic around the accident. “Soon, it will be all mine. Er, I mean ours. Muahaha!”
After finding out his human attended the Maryland Renaissance Faire over the weekend — where vendors sold giant turkey drumsticks, roasted turkey and fried turkey — Buddy the Cat threatened military action against his human.
The silver tabby cat was magnanimous and didn’t give his human the cold shoulder after the latter returned home after several days away, but flew into a rage when he saw photos of the Renaissance faire.
“What is this?” the angry cat said, confronting his human with photos of a stall offering plump turkey legs. “You knew they had all sorts of turkey and you didn’t bring me?!? Et tu, Big Buddy?”
Turkey stall at the Maryland Renaissance Festival in Annapolis, MD.
Sources say Buddy was last seen mumbling about “raising [his] legions” and stewing in anger over his human’s thoughtless actions.
“I was left here all alone for three days with only someone coming by to feed me pate while you attended a festival, drank meade and had a grand old time?” Buddy asked.
The feline’s anger intensified after his human pointed out his cat sitter used to happily play with him until he attacked her on two of the three previous occasions she cared for him.
“Fake news!” Buddy yelled. “Erroneous! You must make right this grave injustice, human, or face my wrath! And by correcting this grave injustice, I mean only turkey will salve my wounds.”
Buddy the Cat joined the world on Thursday in expressing sadness at the passing of his dear friend, Queen Elizabeth II.
The dashing feline and the beloved monarch struck up a friendship during the latter years of her reign and saw their bond strengthen during trying times, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the Great Turkey Shortage of 2021 and the death of the queen’s long time consort, Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh.
Although surrounded by friends and family, the queen became fond of Buddy for his unwavering support, his sense of humor and their shared love of turkey.
“The queen advised Buddy to keep a stiff upper lip during the Great Turkey Shortage of 2021, and Buddy was able to return the favor by being there for Her Majesty during the passing of Prince Phillip,” said royal observer Samantha Martin Bainbridge, the author of Flummery Tarts and Framboises St George: The Royal Family’s Favorite Desserts.
The queen took to referring to her favorite feline as “my dearest Bud-Bud,” though in keeping with tradition and ever the gentlecat, Buddy always referred to the queen as “Your Meowjesty.”
Their unusual friendship made headlines in the British press, especially since feline companionship was unusual for a monarch known for her love of Corgis.
“The Queen loved her Corgis until the very end, but dogs are so very extra when it comes to expressing their love,” said Gideon Brackenthwaite, a royal observer and author of Henry VIII: The Kingly Pimp Hand. “Felines, like the British aristocracy, are much more reserved with their affection and shun garish displays of familiarity. For his part, the future Earl never name-dropped her Majesty or bragged about his friendship with her, a fact that the Crown deeply appreciated. You’d never find his future lordship’s name in the tabloids, heavens forbid.”
Indeed, Queen Elizabeth II took the unprecedented step of knighting Buddy the Cat in 2021, naming him Sir Buddy, KBE of Buddington at that year’s investiture ceremony.
It was the first time the Crown had bestowed an honor on a feline since Able Seaman Simon, a ship’s cat on the HMS Amethyst who survived injuries he suffered during the Yangzte Incident of 1949.
Sir Buddy’s elevation was a poignant moment, and cameras captured Kate, Dutchess of Cambridge, dabbing gently at tears with her handkerchief as Buddy kneeled for his knighting.
Only a few short months later, Sir Buddy was elevated to Lord Buddy, Earl of Budderset, a meteoric rise for anyone in royal favor, let alone a cat.
During their friendship, Lord Buddy telephoned the Queen at least once per week and holidayed with her at Balmoral Castle in Scotland.
In a charming anecdote relayed by Prince William, the Queen and Earl Buddy shared a bowl of popcorn while watching Braveheart and laughing uproariously at the Australian Mel Gibson’s Scottish accent. The friends also enjoyed playing bridge.
“Like the rest of the world, I am deeply saddened by the passing of my dear friend and beloved Queen, Elizabeth. I’ll treasure the memories of our adventures together, especially the time we had a little too much to drink and woke the kitchen staff at 3 am to make us an epic turkey feast,” Lord Buddy wrote in a statement. “There will never be another monarch like Her Majesty, so beloved across the world with such an enduring and fruitful reign. All of us at Budderset House are in mourning, and feel for our friends at Buckingham Palace.”
The earl was photographed on Friday in his Rolls Royce, eating a large meal of roasted turkey en route to London. At one point the Earl’s Rolls pulled even with the same model occupied by Princess Anne. The two exchanged pleasantries, and Lord Buddy was seen passing a bottle of Grey Poupon to the grieving royal between cars before the light turned green again.
“Such a simple gesture says volumes about His Lordship’s standing with the royal family,” said Edith Hershey, author of Direct From The Sauce: From Bechamel to Velouté, The Royal Family’s Most Beloved Condiments. “The Princess Royal would not accept Grey Poupon from just anyone. By passing the mustard, the earl was conveying his condolences and signaling his availability as a shoulder to cry on.”
New York Times science writer Emily Anthes details her experience with MeowTalk in a new story, and has more or less come to the same conclusions I did when I wrote about the app last year — it recognizes the obvious, like purring, but adds to confusion over other vocalizations.
Back in January of 2021, in MeowTalk Says Buddy Is A Very Loving Cat, I wrote about using MeowTalk to analyze the vocalizations Bud makes when he wants a door opened. After all, that should be a pretty basic task for an app that exists to translate meows: Cats ask for things, or demand them, some would say.
But instead of “Open the door!”, “I want to be near you!”, “Human, I need something!” or even “Obey me, human!”, it told me Bud was serenading me as he pawed and tapped his claws on the door: “I’m looking for love!”, “My love, come find me!”, “I love you!”, “Love me!”, “I’m in love!”
According to MeowTalk, my cat was apparently the author of that scene in Say Anything when John Cusack held up a boombox outside of Ione Skye’s bedroom window.
Anthes had a similar experience:
“At times, I found MeowTalk’s grab bag of conversational translations disturbing. At one point, Momo sounded like a college acquaintance responding to a text: ‘Just chillin’!’ In another, he became a Victorian heroine: ‘My love, I’m here!’ (This encouraged my fiancé to start addressing the cat as ‘my love,’ which was also unsettling.) One afternoon, I picked Momo up off the ground, and when she meowed, I looked at my phone, ‘Hey honey, let’s go somewhere private.’ !”
On the opposite side of the emotional spectrum, MeowTalk took Buddy’s conversation with me about a climbing spot for an argument that nearly came to blows.
“Something made me upset!” Buddy was saying, per MeowTalk. “I’m angry! Give me time to calm down! I am very upset! I am going to fight! It’s on now! Bring it!”
In reality the little dude wanted to jump on the TV stand. Because he’s a serial swiper who loves his gravity experiments, the TV stand is one of like three places he knows he shouldn’t go, which is exactly why he wants to go there. He’s got free rein literally everywhere else.
If MeowTalk had translated “But I really want to!” or something more vague, like “Come on!” or “Please?”, that would be a good indication it’s working as intended. The app should be able to distinguish between pleading, or even arguing, and the kind of freaked-out, hair-on-edge, arched-back kind of vocalizations a cat makes when it’s ready to throw down.
Still, I was optimistic. Here’s what I wrote about MeowTalk last January:
“In some respects it reminds me of Waze, the irreplaceable map and real-time route app famous for saving time and eliminating frustration. I was one of the first to download the app when it launched and found it useless, but when I tried it again a few months later, it steered me past traffic jams and got me to my destination with no fuss.
What was the difference? Few people were using it in those first few days, but as the user base expanded, so did its usefulness.
Like Waze, MeowTalk’s value is in its users, and the data it collects from us. The more cats it hears, the better it’ll become at translating them. If enough of us give it an honest shot, it just may turn out to be the feline equivalent of a universal translator.”
There are also indications we may be looking at things — or hearing them — the “wrong” way. Anthes spoke to Susanne Schötz, a phonetician at Lund University in Sweden, who pointed out the inflection of a feline vocalization carries nuances. In other words, it’s not just the particular sound a cat makes, it’s the way that sound varies tonally.
“They tend to use different kinds of melodies in their meows when they’re trying to point to different things,” said Schötz, who is co-author of an upcoming study on cat vocalizations.
After a few months in which I forgot about MeowTalk, I was dismayed to open the app to find ads wedged between translation attempts, and prompts that asked me to buy the full version to enable MeowTalk to translate certain things.
The developers need to generate revenue, so I don’t begrudge them that. But I think it’s counterproductive to put features behind paywalls when an application like this depends so heavily on people using it and feeding it data.
To use the Waze analogy again, would the app have become popular if it remained the way it was in those first few days after it launched? At the time, I was lucky to see indications that more than a handful of people were using it, even in the New York City area. The app told me nothing useful about real-time traffic conditions.
These days it’s astounding how much real-time traffic information the app receives and processes, routing drivers handily around traffic jams, construction sites and other conditions that might add minutes or even hours to some trips. You can be sure that when you hear a chime and Waze wants to redirect you, other Waze users are transmitting data about a crash or other traffic impediment in your path.
MeowTalk needs more data to be successful, especially since — unlike Waze — it depends on data-hungry machine learning algorithms to parse the sounds it records. Like people, machine learning algorithms have to “practice” to get better, and for a machine, “practice” means hearing hundreds of thousands or millions of meows, chirps, trills, yowls, hisses and purrs from as many cats as possible.
That’s why I’m still optimistic. Machine learning has produced algorithms that can identify human faces and even invent them. It’s produced software that can write prose, navigate roads, translate the text of dead languages and even rule out theories about enduring mysteries like the Voynich Manuscript.
In each of those cases there were innovators, but raw data was at the heart of what they accomplished. If MeowTalk or another company can find a way to feed its algorithms enough data, we may yet figure our furry little friends out — or at least know what they want for dinner.
Feline humor, news and stories about the ongoing adventures of Buddy the Cat.