Tag: coronavirus

The Battle of the Buddies!

Back in August there was a story about a bored animal behaviorist and fellow New Yorker who built a talking board for her cat, a la Koko the Gorilla.

Kristiina Wilson told People magazine she was inspired to start the project during the initial Coronavirus lockdown, fashioning a makeshift talking board for her beloved foster fail.

Wilson used large buttons, coded by color and symbol, with each button triggering a recording of a different word when pressed: “Lady” for her, “Snuggle,” “Outside,” “Kittynip” and, of course, “Eat.”

She taught the little guy to use the board using “associative concept learning,” which in this case means pressing a particular button when she has the cat’s attention, and then performing the related action and pressing the button again.

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Wilson’s DIY cat talking board.

“Whenever you’re responding to them, you also repeat the modeling,” Wilson said. “So if he asks for catnip and then I give him catnip, I hit ‘catnip’ again while I’m giving it to him to reinforce what that button is for.”

Her cat is a quick learner, Wilson told People. “He’s like a person dressed in a cat’s body. He’s been screaming at me since he was born and being very clear about his needs and wants.”

Hmmm. Sounds like someone else I know, someone who never hesitates to loudly inform me when he considers the service subpar or the meals tardy.

I decided to give it a try with Buddy, modifying the system to his most frequent demands. When pressed, the buttons say “Big Buddy,” “Food,” “Snack,” “Mattress,” “Nip” and “Mighty Hunter!” (Mattress, as regular readers of this blog have probably already figured out, means Bud wants to take a nap on top of me. Mighty Hunter is his favorite wand toy game. It should be called Inept Hunter, but we must keep up appearances so as not to offend delicate egos.)

I began training Buddy on his new talking board. On the first day he had great fun with it, slapping the buttons randomly and jumping on them to see how many he could activate at once.

On the second day, he understood that pushing the “Big Buddy” button would draw a response from me.

On the third day, I woke up to find three of the buttons relabeled and reset with new digital voice recordings: “Servant,” “TURKEY NOW,” and “SNACK NOW.”

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THE PERPETRATOR: Although he may appear cute, behind that angelic face is a devious, scheming mind that will stop at nothing to obtain more turkey.

Perhaps most frighteningly, Bud was learning to combine the commands: “Servant…TURKEY NOW! TURKEY NOW! … Servant,” the speakers intoned as he hammered on the buttons with his paws.

But by the fourth day things had become truly horrifying. I walked into the living room and saw the humble talking board replaced by a complex ad hoc apparatus, with more than 150 symbols and a developing syntax.

“Good morning… servant… breakfast… immediately… then… massage… mattress…nap!” a synthesized Stephen Hawking said.

Buddy had tapped the message out with the speed and skill of a court stenographer, then sat there silently, looking up at me with his big green eyes.

“Little shit…is too clever…for…his own…good,” I said, mimicking the sound board.

“Big Buddy…better…watch…when asleep,” Buddy responded, pawing each button. “Sometimes…dark … I … can’t tell… where … is …litter box.”

He made a “mrrrrphh!” sound as if for emphasis, then tapped a single key three times: “Breakfast. Breakfast. Breakfast.”

I have now realized my most grievous error: Within two days Bud had wired his apparatus into the fiber optic router, and a few days after that he’d completed work on a prosthetic opposable thumb.

The arms race was escalating, and my lead was evaporating.

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I considered bringing in a dog, but Buddy would just outsmart it: The little terrorist probably has an automated missile launcher at this point, and if not, dogs can be easily bribed with food.

No, I needed something nuclear. Something that would inspire cold terror in my cat and prompt him to think about further escalating the cold war between us.

I needed a vacuum.

The next morning I awoke again to find Buddy tapping out a message for me, ordering breakfast and providing me with a list of tasks and errands.

His smug smile melted like plastic in a fire when I pulled the hand vacuum from behind my back and brandished it.

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The nuclear option.

“No…you…wouldn’t,” Buddy tapped, keeping one nervous eye on the orange plastic terror.

I held up the power plug.

“Watch me.”

“No…No…No…Big Buddy…servant…No…” he typed furiously. “No…no…nooooooo!!!”

After 7 Shelters And 3 Adoptions, Merlin The Cat Found Love

Merlin was born during 2007’s storm season in the Carolinas, and it was a hurricane that took him from his mom and siblings.

“He was found all alone in rubble and ruin,” his human mom, Meg Ferra, recalled. “Rescue picked him up but mom and litter mates were nowhere to be found, and Merlin was inconsolable. He was not yet weaned.”

Merlin’s kittenhood and first few years were chaotic, cruel and marked by repeated disappointment: The little guy, then called Shadow, was cycled through seven shelters and two families who adopted him, only to bring him back to the shelter system like a defective toy.

He was traumatized by his early experiences, shy and fearful, the kind of cat who huddled miserably in the back of the cage while more outgoing kitties found their forever homes.

His last stop — and last chance — was a kill shelter in New Jersey. The shy grey tabby with tufts of epic white-and-grey fur may have sensed his time was running out and uncharacteristically reached out to a couple that wandered into the shelter one day.

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Merlin getting some fresh air. Credit: Meg Ferra.

“Merlin put his rather large paw out and grabbed my husband’s shoulder — a feat in itself since three bullies kept pushing him into the corner and making him sit in his food,” Ferra said. “He was malnourished, skinny, oily, messy and sad.”

Ferra hesitated. Long-haired cats usually mean lots of shedding on clothes, carpets and couches. A cat with such a complicated history would present challenges as well.

“Once my husband held him, well, my thoughts of avoiding lots of hair went out the window,” she said.

The Ferras brought Shadow home and renamed him Merlin, a name befitting such a regal feline. They were surprised to discover he didn’t shed much despite his great tufts of wild fur. A subsequent DNA test identified him as a Siberian forest cat, an ancient, accidental breed that developed its characteristics naturally because it lived in isolation from other cat populations, deep within the Russian tundra.

Siberians have quite a few unique qualities. They have three fur layers — guard, awn and down hair — and rival Maine Coons in their floofiness, but their fur is easy to maintain and resistant to matting. They moult twice a year. Their moulting phases are milder than similarly-floofy cats, and their fur has lower levels of the allergen Fel-d1.

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Good boy: A collage of Merlin’s moments. Credit: Meg Ferra

Merlin was fearful and shy in his new home, and it became clear that he was not going to soften any time soon. He’d flinch, hinting at past traumas: “You couldn’t raise a hairbrush near him, or hold your hand over his head to caress him.”

“It took five years to break through Merlin’s wall of anger and fear when we brought him home,” Ferra said. “We played it low key, never loud, pushy, punishing, forceful or insulting. By insulting I mean with Merlin, you don’t make deals! Deals always hurt his feelings.”

One day, Ferra was trying to get Merlin to play with one of his toys when he lashed out at her.

“He tore up my forearm. I was dripping blood from wrist to elbow. I didn’t move. He didn’t move. His eyes were black orbs. I could see the wheels spinning. ‘Will she hit me? Yell? Throw me? Send me away?’

“I exhaled slowly and in my calmest demeanor said to him: ‘Merlin, what are you still so angry about? Frightened about? Don’t you know by now no one is going to hurt you here? It’s been five years and you’re safe, honey. You’re home, nothing will ever harm you again. They’d have to go through your family, daddy and me. You’re not alone, my love.’ And damned if his pupils didn’t recede. He let out a little whimper and his whole body relaxed.”

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Ferra with Merlin. Credit: Meg Ferra

From there, Ferra said, “it’s been belly kisses and raspberries,” but Merlin “was not a cuddler.”

“But like clockwork every week he would approach me, tap my leg and stare up at me. Not too mushy, but as if to say ‘I want a hug now!’ I ate up those two minutes. I’d pick him up and simulate his lost mom’s cheek rubs, which he loved and craved.”

Merlin developed health problems. In particular, his hips and neck began to bother him. Those are side effects typical of his breed, which has longer back legs that make Siberians powerful jumpers. He began suffering from hyperthyroidism and arthritis in his later years.

At seven years old, Merlin fought off a bout of pneumonia. But when he came down with it in early December, he didn’t have the strength to fight it off.

Ferra and her husband, Joe, stayed up with their beloved cat for almost 48 hours, monitoring him. Her husband even put off his dialysis to stay with the little guy.

But by Tuesday, when Merlin could no longer lift his head, Ferra knew it was the end. Merlin was euthanized on the morning of Dec. 9 at the veterinarian’s office. He was 13 years old.

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The Wizard of Fuzz: Merlin was a Siberian, a naturally-occurring breed known for its epic coat. Credit: Meg Ferra

The typical symptoms of grief set in: Ferra kept looking for the little furball, momentarily forgetting he was gone. She left his food bowl and his water fountain untouched. Her life suddenly had a vacuum in it.

That this happened now in the midst of a pandemic, as the death and infection rates skyrocket, lock-downs begin anew and the prospect of a dark winter casts a gloom over life, makes Merlin’s absence especially challenging. The Ferras’ children are adults, and their house is now quiet. Merlin’s presence mitigated the isolation and dreariness of life in a pandemic, as cats and dogs have done for millions of Americans this year.

For Joe, even his treatments remind him of his cat: Merlin would stand guard when Joe settled in for dialysis, remaining for the length of the treatment.

Ferra said she and her husband are considering adopting litter mates or inseparable friends. They feel Merlin would want them to provide a home to new cats.

“Joe has asked me how long I need until we open our home and hearts to a bonded pair. My husband can’t stand the emptiness. I just need a little more time. But with COVID and and the overflowing shelters I feel even Merlin wouldn’t want me to wait too long.”

Special thanks to Meg for talking to us about Merlin despite her fresh grief at losing the special little guy. We wish Meg and Joe the best this holiday season, and when they open their home to new kitties who need some love and a place to call their own.

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A male Siberian forest cat. Siberians have thick coats, but they don’t produce as much allergens as most other breeds. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Real Life Cats Are The Villains of Nintendo’s Newest Game

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:

Others aren’t sugar coating what they think of the invasive little cartoon racers:


Finally, some cats just don’t know what to make of it:

The best part about this is that, from the kart’s eye view, house cats look like furry kaiju — giant, lumbering beasts hell bent on sending the racers careening off course.

It also begs the question: Is there anything in existence that cannot be improved by adding cats?

Big Buddy Goes Face To Face With A Tiger

The big cats at the Bronx Zoo have had a rough 2020 too.

First the zoo was shut down — along with thousands of other gathering places — due to the novel Coronavirus.

Then a tiger at the zoo got sick and tested positive for COVID-19, marking the first positive test for an animal in North America and the first recorded instance of human-to-tiger transmission. Seven other big cats at the zoo caught the virus, including four tigers and three lions.

Thankfully they recovered and everything — or almost everything — looked normal when I visited this week.

One of the awesome things about the zoo’s Tiger Mountain is that it has a trio of viewing ports that provide a prime view of a small pond where the tigers drink, swim and nap.

This tiger lounged in the distance for a few minutes, then got up and gave us a show.

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At one point the tiger came right up to the glass and looked at me:

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Standing three feet from a tiger is an experience, glass or no:

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Not as terrifying as Buddy’s visage, of course, but still something to behold.

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The lions were less welcoming. They were clumped up in the shade of an oak tree, snoozing without so much as a tail flick for motion.

Next was a snow leopard. This guy clearly didn’t deal well with a lot of humans gawking at him, and I could only snap a few shots before he retreated back up a hill in his enclosure, where the angle and brush gave him a measure of cover from human eyes.

I also saw him spinning in a circle repeatedly, a sign of zoochosis. I’m not an animal behaviorist and I’m not qualified to judge the work of the Bronx Zoo’s keepers, who obviously care a great deal for their animals. It’s just a reminder that even the best zoos in the world — with entire teams dedicated to things like enrichment and enclosure design — struggle to keep animals healthy and happy in captivity.

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Even though the name of their species sounds like an Italian dessert and they’re often mistaken for baboons, Gelada are old-world monkeys native to the grasslands of Ethiopia.

Geladas are the only primate species that are grazers: Up to 90 percent of their diet consists of grass and grass seeds. They’re easily recognizable by the hourglass-shaped furless patches on their chests, and they’re the only monkeys to form “herds” instead of troops, with an individual herd’s size swelling to more than 1,000 at a time.

When Geladas aren’t eating they’re grooming each other. Allogrooming, or social grooming, doesn’t just help monkeys keep their fur neat and free of parasitic bugs — it’s also a way of maintaining social bonds and reducing tension.

When I visited, I saw a male Gelada grooming a female. Female “heart patches” are usually more pale than their male counterparts, except when they’re in heat. So it’s probable that this scene is a bit of foreplay during mating season:

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A female on the rocks nearby. The enclosure features a series of cliffs surrounding central grassland, closely mimicking the species’ native habitat:

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This bird got within feet of the path adjacent to its exhibit, and its kind seem to have free reign within the park, as I saw another one hanging out in a wooded area earlier.

I have no idea what kind of bird this is, but he was very vocal and insistent about something:

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A group of zebras. I think they were sleeping. These four didn’t move a muscle, and zebras are one of a handful of species who can sleep while standing upright.

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A brown bear enjoys the warm weather, which topped out at almost 80 degrees. Another bear was nearby, taking a dip in the pool.

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And finally, a friendly reminder to the zoo’s visitors: Wear your masks! The zoo enforces an always-on policy for masks, which I think is a reasonable precaution. While masks may not be strictly necessary while strolling down the wide visitor paths of the zoo, viewing spots at popular exhibits can get crowded, and some of them are partially-enclosed.

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Utah Couple Drops $15k To Save Beloved Cat

There are so many stories about people surrendering their cats to shelters, abandoning them when they move house and generally treating them like disposable creatures that it’s refreshing to read about people who wouldn’t part with their cats unless someone pried them from their cold, dead hands.

The story of a Utah couple who didn’t balk at a massive vet bill to save their cat’s life isn’t just uplifting because of the cat’s amazing recovery, but also because of their commitment to the little guy.

Golden Gibson and Lianna Warden adopted Lilou two years ago. His kittenhood sounds a lot like Bud’s: He was the runtiest of his litter and the last to be adopted out, yet he’s got a huge personality and he’s well-loved by his humans.

Warden describes him as “the cutest, happiest soul.”

Unfortunately, three weeks ago Lilou was hit by a car. Gibson and Warden didn’t know what happened to their cat until they got a call from a veterinarian telling them a Good Samaritan brought the badly-injured Lilou in.

Things looked grim: Lilou suffered multiple fractures of the skull and jaw, his hip was shattered, and he had dozens of lesser injuries. The veterinarian, Dr. Jennifer Alterman, told Gibson and Warden she wasn’t sure if Lilou would live, or if he’d be able to walk again.

The couple told Alterman to do all she could anyway, and paid the initial $5,000 for the cat’s care, despite Gibson losing his job due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Since then the bill has climbed to $15,000, and Lilou’s not done: He will need “multiple surgeries and intensive home care” to continue his recovery, the veterinarian said.

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When Lilou came to at the veterinary hospital and saw Gibson beside him, Gibson put his hand nearby — careful not to touch Lilou’s broken body — and the badly injured cat reached out, touching Gibson’s hand with his paw.

After several surgeries at the veterinary hospital, Lilou went home with his people, but he’s still got many more vet visits to go, local CBS affiliate KUTV reported. Gibson and Warden have to feed him through a tube, which takes about 45 minutes per meal, and they have to administer timed dosages of antibiotics, painkillers and anti-nausea medication.

“We sleep in shifts,” Warden said. “It’s kind of like having a newborn.”

Asked why she believes Lilou has been able to pull through such serious injuries, Warden said it’s because he loves his family, and knows they love him.

“I believe in my heart of hearts that it’s the love we’ve been giving him,” she said.

Their veterinarian agrees.

“This is a pretty rare case,” Alterman said, “in terms of that kind of commitment from an owner.”

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Lilou’s recovery has also surprised Alterman.

“It’s pretty incredible to see,” she said, “considering I thought this cat was never going to be able to walk again.”

Three weeks later he was back for an appointment “walking around like he owned the place,” Alterman said. “He was like a totally different cat and I’m totally falling in love with him.”

As for Warden and Gibson, they say they’re overcome with gratitude for kind-hearted cat lovers who donated more than $6,000 to help cover Lilou’s veterinary bills, and the still-anonymous Good Samaritan who brought the ailing cat to the veterinary hospital.

“We would love to be able to find that person and show them how well [Lilou’s] doing,” Warden said, “and have them be part of this story, because they are a huge part of it.”

Note: Because we know the images might be upsetting to some of our readers, we did not include photos of Lilou after the accident and during recovery. You can help contribute to Lilou’s medical bills by visiting Lilou’s Lifesavers on Facebook, or the GoFundMe page.