So this story about a cat fearlessly staring down an elephant in Thailand has gone viral, and the photo is admittedly pretty incredible. Bud would’ve soiled himself and bolted, but this cat is truly brave.
“This is my territorah!” we imagine the cat declaring. “Find your own trees!”
The cat’s name is Simba, he’s three years old, and the photos were taken on the night of Nov. 17 in Thailand’s Nakhon Nayok province, about 112 km (70 miles in the Proper American Method of Measuring Distance™) northeast of Bangkok.
Beyond that, though, it’s actually a sad story: You know things are truly dire when we’ve destroyed so much wildlife habitat that elephants are coming up to people’s houses and eating the trees and shrubs in their gardens. Elephants usually do everything they can to avoid humans, and for good reason: Conflicts almost always end poorly for the elephants.
We hope this photo draws the attention of the right people, who can perhaps mitigate the situation or put resources into moving the elephants to a more suitable range.
P.S. Buddy disputes any and all allegations that he would have soiled himself or run away from elephants. In fact, the elephants are lucky they don’t share a continent with Buddy!
It was only a matter of time before someone leveraged machine learning and algorithmic AI to parse cat vocalizations, and thanks to Javier Sanchez, translating your cat’s meows — and trills, huffs and chirps — is now a reality.
Sanchez was a member of Amazon’s machine learning team contributing to the development of Alexa, the now-ubiquitous virtual assistant operated by voice commands.
“I got to see how the sausage was made, how they train their models and work with all the data science platforms,” Sanchez said. “So I was fresh off the heels of that and I was thinking, ‘Well, we could do something similar with cats and it could be an app.’”
Sanchez’s new employers at the tech firm Akvelon saw promise in the idea and gave him the green light.
The resulting app, MeowTalk, is now available on iOS and Android.
There are two layers to the concept: The first one involves nine or 10 “intents” common to all or most cats. They include vocalizations for “Feed me,” “Hey human!”, “Let me out,” and “Pay attention to me,” among others.
Sanchez didn’t guess or intuit the meanings — they’re based on research by a team at the University of Milan, who built a data set of cat vocalizations by attaching tiny microphones to cats and recording everything the fluffsters say. Each feline utterance was analyzed and catalogued by frequency, rhythmic quality and context, among other traits.
The second layer is where it starts to get really interesting: By using MeowTalk like Shazam, the app will start recording your cat’s particular trills, chirps and meows and — with your help — eventually piece together what they mean.
As with dictation software and machine learning in general, the more data the app gets, the better its translations become.
This is important because, while cats share many sounds, each cat develops its own unique vocalizations:
With MeowTalk, you can create a profile for your cat and start using its auto-recognition to translate your cat’s meows and start mapping its language. While some translations are built-in and inherent to the app, translations specific to your cat require you to train the app to recognize your cat’s specific vocabulary and intentions. Translations you deem to be incorrect can be corrected via the app. MeowTalk is not static; instead it learns and evolves with each translation that you confirm, adding to its corpus, just as we would add new words into our own memory banks or language processing programs.
At the same time thousands of other cat owners are also using the app, feeding the algorithm more data, which the app uses to improve itself. Development is ongoing, with future changes reflective of user (and cat) feedback.
“A tool like this can help certain people bond even more with their cats, especially if they can’t be in contact with other people on a regular basis,” Sanchez said. “So this could be a real game changer for a key demographic that have cats.”
Applying what they’re learning via the app, Sanchez and his team are also working toward their next goal: Giving your cat a human voice. They’re developing a small device that clips on a cat’s collar and translates meows into human speech in real time.
That tech has the potential to give me nightmares. Imagine Buddy having a human voice and saying “Gimme snacks now, servant!” “Open the door, butler!” “You’re 23 seconds late with dinner!”
Maybe I’ll pass on the collar device. In the meantime I plan to download the iOS version of MeowTalk and give it a spin. I’ll report back in a week or two after giving it some time to adjust to the Budster. If any of our readers give it a shot, we’d like to hear your impressions as well.
Wildlife conservationists are worried, and they have a right to be.
In addition to the billions of animals we humans kill every year in our ruthless exploitation of life on this planet, our pet cats have their own separate impact, killing birds and small mammals in significant numbers.
Yet conservationists aren’t making headway with cat lovers, primarily because their approach frequently relies on shaming and drastic, often cruel proposals: Some Australian states are outright culling cats, offering $10 a head for adults and $5 for kittens, for example, while a pair of academics from the Netherlands advocate criminally prosecuting cat owners who let their pets outside combined with a policy of euthanizing millions of cats. Extremists in the US are pushing for similar measures, arguing that TNR (trap, neuter, return) isn’t an effective way of managing cat populations.
Something has to be done, and a few smart conservationists are realizing the accusatory, Richard Dawkins-style of engaging “the enemy” just causes people to withdraw, not to listen and cooperate.
“I get quite sick of the conflict focus of some conservation biologists,” Wayne Linklater, chairman of the environmental studies department at California State, tells New Scientist. “The solutions lie with the people who care most about cats, not with the people who don’t care about them.”
Great. Now there are a few things conservationists should know as they engage with people who care for cats:
Most of us want what you want: We want cat owners to keep their pets inside. Cats aren’t wild animals. They have no “natural habitat” and contrary to misconceptions, they don’t belong outside. They’re not equipped to provide for themselves, and they face dangers from traffic, predators like coyotes and mountain lions, fights with other cats, and perverse humans who kill and torture them for fun. Strays and ferals live short, brutal lives (living to an average of 3.5 years) while indoor cats live 17 years on average. The “cats belong inside” angle is common ground from which to start a dialogue.
Come get your people: Peter Marra is one of the co-authors of the bunk 2013 Nature Communications study with the above oft-cited numbers, and he’s also the author of the shrill Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer. Marra is an advocate of using taxpayer money to kill millions of cats. He also says that anyone who questions his claims about cats — a group that includes major animal rescues, welfare organizations, and many academics — is tantamount to climate change deniers and tobacco companies that denied for decades that cigarettes have a negative effect on health. Marra’s major contributions amount to sowing misinformation, polarizing the issue and inflaming opinions on both sides. Everything about his behavior indicates he wants to sell books and promote himself, not save wildlife from predatory domestic cats. He should not be taken seriously and his research should not be reported as fact.
Cat lovers are, by definition, animal lovers. They’re people who care about wildlife and domestic animal welfare. It shouldn’t be difficult to engage with them.
At the same time, cat advocates need to purge the crazies out of their ranks as well. Sending death threats to scientists (see the New Scientist link up top) is way out of order, it’s inhuman behavior and it only hurts the legitimacy of our cause.
A good first step toward reconciliation could involve enlisting cat owners in an effort to properly study feline impact on small wildlife, producing reliable data to facilitate a measured, fact-based approach that doesn’t begin and end with the notion that cats are hellspawn.
If all sides engage in good faith, there’s no reason why we can’t protect wildlife and cats.
Nintendo’s newest game has been out for all of one day and already cats are like “Nuh-uh.”
The idea behind Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is clever yet simple and seemingly tailored for the pandemic era: Using a Nintendo Switch, players control a tiny Mario Kart equipped with a camera and race it around courses they design in their homes. Because players are controlling the kart through a screen and seeing things from the kart’s point of view, the game augments the race course by generating obstacles to dodge, coins to collect and opponents to race against.
It’s called augmented reality, because it adds layers of computer-generated imagery over things we can see with our own eyes. It’s the same concept behind smart glasses and floating heads-up displays.
But there’s one wild card Nintendo’s designers may not have anticipated: Felis catus.
Nothing grabs a cat’s attention quicker than a small, fast-moving object, and the little karts have been triggering the predatory instincts of countless cats.
Some cats go all “You shall not pass!” Gandalf-style on the karts:
I’d been in Japan for almost two weeks last year when I dialed back to the States on a Facetime call and my mom — who had been taking care of Buddy in my absence — held Bud up to her iPad.
“Someone wants to say hi to you,” she said.
Buddy looked at me, then tentatively blinked with one eye. When I returned the blink, he meowed excitedly, reaching a paw out to the screen.
Aside from making me feel bad about leaving my cat for so long, the exchange between Bud and I seemed to confirm the importance of the slow eye-blink in feline-human communication. It also confirmed that he missed me.
Now there’s a formal study that, for the first time, shows cats are more relaxed and more likely to approach humans — even strangers — if they’re greeted with a slow blink. Cats also like to reciprocate with a slow blink of their own when greeted that way, the study found.
“This study is the first to experimentally investigate the role of slow blinking in cat-human communication,” said Karen McComb, a psychologist from the University of Sussex and co-author of the study. “And it is something you can try yourself with your own cat at home, or with cats you meet in the street. It’s a great way of enhancing the bond you have with cats. Try narrowing your eyes at them as you would in a relaxed smile, followed by closing your eyes for a couple of seconds. You’ll find they respond in the same way themselves and you can start a sort of conversation.”
Why does a slow blink put cats at ease?
Tasmin Humphrey, a Ph.D. student and study co-author, said it’s “possible that slow blinking in cats began as a way to interrupt an unbroken stare, which is potentially threatening in social interaction.”
The researchers say their results could help people communicate more clearly with their cats, and could be useful in shelters, where staff and volunteers are often tasked with trying to calm scared cats.
Chronicling the adventures of Buddy the Cat and his various criminal enterprises.