A Reddit post with almost 30,000 upvotes claims a cat took it upon himself to learn sign language after realizing his human is deaf.
You don’t need me to tell you it’s nonsense, do you? It’s interesting how we’re willing to believe a cat can endeavor to learn sign language, but we — the supposedly more intelligent species — can’t be bothered to watch for emotions conveyed by the curl of a tail or a twitch of the whiskers.
Cats are incredibly smart little furballs, but just like the people who claim their cats are meaningfully communicating via talking boards with 100 buttons, this is just social media fodder for the credulous.
Unfortunately the credulous are numerous, although a few Redditors had a good time at their expense. One user complimented the addition of a VHS-like filter over the video clip, giving it a vintage quality.
“Not a filter. It’s been around for a while,” another Redditor responded. “The cat now knows ASL, English, French, Spanish, and is working on its doctoral thesis.”
A cat in a backpack? No, a cat backpack
In a reminder that the Japanese have an endless appetite for all things cat-related, the newest hot item among the Land of the Rising Sun’s neko-infatuated is a bespoke cat backpack hand-sewn by a housewife in Fukui prefecture.
The bags don’t come cheap. It takes Miho Katsumi between one and three months to make each one, and they’ll set you back about $1,000 each via Katsumi’s site. Check out her Instagram for more images.
How quickly do you think Bud would murder me if I came home with one of these in his image one day? 🙂
As readers of PITB know, I have first-hand experience with taking care of a massive beast of a cat, with Buddy weighing in at a jaw-dropping 10 pounds, most of it pure meowscle of course.
That means I can sympathize with Russian one-percenter Yulia Minina, who bought a Maine Coon kitten less than two years ago only to see him balloon into an almost 30-pound behemoth — and he’s still growing!
Visitors often mistake Kefir for a large dog at first, Minina said, but the Maine Coon is the kind of gentle giant typical of his species and acts more like “a very affectionate and modest child.”
“When friends and acquaintances come to the house, all the attention is on him and he willingly allows himself to be stroked,” Minina told the UK’s South West News Service.
While most cats are just about their full size after a year, Maine Coons can continue to grow until after their second birthdays. (There’s no evidence that they continue to grow until they’re 5 years old despite claims online, mostly from breeder sites.) That means Kefir, who already looks like a robust lynx, could end up challenging domestic cat size records if he enjoys another growth spurt.
Kefir is just starting to go viral within the past day or two, and as his Instagram follower count (7,288 as of this post) continues to tick up, so do the enquiries from people who want to buy the big guy.
“To everyone who wants to buy my cat, I answer: NOT FOR SALE!” Minina wrote in an Instagram post on Monday. “But I can give all the information about the breeder that many have asked! At the moment, 3 gorgeous snow-white blue eyes are available in the nursery age 1 month. I think you don’t need to praise their beautiful and big parents, you already know everything!”
No word yet if Minina gets a commission on successful referrals to the breeder.
In the meantime, Buddy can rest easy knowing that even if another cat rivals his huge and intimidating presence, he’s all the way in Stary Oskol, a safe 4,873 miles away.
She’s a cute tabby with bright green eyes and an expressive face, but what sets her apart from the thousands of felines on Instagram isn’t her looks — it’s the fact that she communicates with her human using a talking board.
In her videos, the 13-year-old domestic shorthair pads over to a setup on the floor and presses buttons that trigger audio clips of words and short phrases: “Dog,” “Food,” “Tummy,” “All done” and many others.
“I started with a word that I’d really not recommend that you start with, which is ‘food,’ because it becomes very motivating for them. And Billi loves food,” Billi’s human, Kendra Baker, told Salon.
Starting with food “kind of backfired on me,” Baker admitted, “but it definitely got the ball rolling.”
Baker enrolled Billi in an informal online research group called TheyCanTalk comprised of pet owners who try to teach their animals to communicate using talking boards. Ninety five percent of the animals involved in the program are dogs, but TheyCanTalk founder Leo Trottier, a cognitive scientist, told Salon he was “pleasantly surprised” when people began signing their cats up as “learners.”
He’s not the only professional keeping tabs on the progress of felines using talking boards.
“I’m very intrigued by the cats that are using the boards, because there’s really a dearth in cat cognition studies, particularly those that happen in the home,” cognitive scientist Gabriella Smith said. “Cats are really kind of overlooked in the companion animal cognition world. I’ve been a big fan of Billi, and my animal cognition scientist brain just lights up because I see these behaviors that I know from my own cat — but now I’m able to look at it from a cognition lens.”
We had fun with the idea here on the blog exactly one year ago when we wrote about Kristiina Wilson, an animal behaviorist who battled the boredom of lockdown by constructing a DIY talking board for her cat, who is naturally communicative and “very clear about his needs and wants” even without the board.
We imagined Buddy taking to a talking board with gusto, sparking an arms race in which he rapidly educates himself, expands his talking board, hooks it up to the internet and builds himself a prosthetic opposable thumb as part of his evil plans to take over the world.
Watching clips of Baker’s cat, Billi, I really want to believe she’s learning rudimentary language, and that I’m seeing a cat pause thoughtfully after her human poses a question, thinking over her answer before deliberately pressing a button of her choosing. I want to believe our cats can process words and simple phrases, even if syntax is beyond them. I’d like to believe my cat, like Billi, would tap out a plea for me to stay at home and hang out instead of running out to do errands.
But I don’t.
There are a few things that stretch credibility as far as the videos go, starting with the fact that Billi’s communication array has more than 50 buttons and many of them represent abstract concepts like “before,” “want,” and “later” as well as mental states or reactions like “mad” and “ouch.”
At times Baker reminds me of Penny Patterson, the animal psychologist famous for teaching Koko the gorilla to “use” sign language. There are plenty of videos of Koko throughout the years on Youtube and one constant, as different visitors, celebrities and kittens interact with her, is Patterson’s trinary role as surrogate mother, scientist and interpreter.
Koko would sign a seemingly random assortment of words, and Patterson would explain to her befuddled guests that “play nipple eat” meant Koko wanted to play, examine their nipples, and then have lunch. (Koko was obsessed with nipples for unknown reasons, to the point where media reports described her obsession as a “fetish.” It even resulted in a lawsuit in which two female employees claimed Patterson threatened to fire them if they “did not indulge Koko’s nipple fetish” and expose their breasts to the gorilla. The parties eventually settled for an undisclosed sum.)
Koko’s communications were filtered through Patterson, and her antics — whether pretending to blow her nose, feeding her kitten or signing — were done at the behest, and urging of, Patterson.
Likewise, Baker praises Billi like any loving cat caretaker would do, but does a lot of interpreting. Billi hits the button for “bird” after sundown and Baker compliments the tabby on her ability to peer into the dark outside. Then Billi pads back over to her board and presses a button for “before,” and Baker decides her cat isn’t saying she sees a bird out there now, but that she saw one earlier in the day.
When Billi presses the buttons for “mom” and “settle,” Baker interprets it as a request to lay down and cuddle. But the buttons are right next to each other, and Billi doesn’t so much press them as she stands on them the way cats do when they rest their front paws on a surface.
When Baker prompts Billi to look for her toy mouse, she presses the buttons for “where,” “mousey” and “hmmm?” Billi looks around, scratches herself for a few seconds and looks around some more before Baker picks up the toy and gives it to her. Then Baker tries again, pressing the buttons in the same order.
Billi idles, glances at Baker and finally pads over to her toy. Baker sees it as confirmation that her cat understood the words, was able to string them together, understood the sequence was a request for information, and responded appropriately.
It’s a fun informal experiment, it’s neat to see a cat using a talking board, but I think there’s a significant burden of proof for anyone claiming it qualifies as science. Even the seemingly straightforward words and phrases — “food,” “catnip” and “love you” — are more likely conditioning than understanding.
Is Billi really saying she loves Baker when she presses the button for “love you,” or has she learned that pressing that particular button always rewards acknowledgment and attention? Does Billi know “love” corresponds to the feelings of affection she has for Baker? Does Billi understand that “food” means food, or does she know pressing that button results in Baker giving her a tasty snack?
Those of us in the audience aren’t watching in real time. Videos of Billi, like videos of “talking dogs” like Bunny the sheepadoodle, are heavily edited. Long stretches of inactivity are clipped or condensed. While almost all online influencers (Bunny has a million followers on Instagram alone) make heavy use of edits to satisfy the short attention spans of their viewers, communication has a crucial temporal context. There’s a chasm of difference between someone answering a question with “no” within a second, and an animal pressing a “no” button after three minutes have passed.
The videos also constitute editing by omission. Instagrammers who upload videos of their pets using talking boards are choosing the best ones, those that confirm their belief that their cats and dogs are genuinely learning human language. We don’t see the footage of pets banging on buttons randomly or activating them accidentally as they walk over the talking boards.
That’s not to say Billi doesn’t experience the emotions associated with her talking board buttons. Behaviorism fell out of favor in 1959 with the advent of the cognitive revolution, and experiments in recent years have removed any lingering doubt behaviorist diehards may have had about animals.
Animals think and feel
Our furry friends experience the full range of primary and secondary emotions. They feel pain, depression, excitement and joy just as acutely as humans do, and well-designed experiments — like the neurologist Gregory Berns training dogs to sit still in fMRI machines so their brains can be scanned — have confirmed animals have internal thought processes and rich cognitive lives. (Like all good science, Berns’ work is repeatable.)
The question isn’t whether animals think and feel, it’s whether we’re expecting them to do something they aren’t meant to do — and anthropomorphizing them in the process — by pushing them to learn human language.
They already meet us halfway, and in the case of cats in particular, more than halfway: The little ones communicate by scent and body language, but they’re smart enough to realize we humans are hopeless at learning those subtle languages, so when they communicate with us, they vocalize as we do.
We know that even great apes, our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, and dogs — who were the first animals to be domesticated and are born with the ability to parse human facial expressions — can’t get a handle on human language.
With Koko’s passing in 2018, the sun has set on the age of primate language experiments partly because funding has dried up, partly because the undertaking involves becoming a parent in a very real sense to an animal that can live for half a century or more, and mostly because it turns out gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos weren’t really learning language at all.
Nim with Bill Tynan and Joyce Butler.
Nim Chimpsky as a baby.
Nim and Joyce Butler, working on communication.
Herbert Terrace, the scientist behind the infamous “Nim Chimpsky” experiment of the 1970s, set out to prove behaviorist B.F. Skinner right — and linguist Noam Chomsky wrong — and ended up admitting failure in a book that explains how he came to realize ape language experiments were unintentional exercises in the Clever Hans Phenomenon.
“Careful examination of videotapes revealed that the human trainers had inadvertently been cuing the chimp in advance of his signing,” the Wall Street Journal wrote of the Chimsky experiment. “To Mr. Terrace’s great credit, he acknowledged his error, and then went on to discover similar mistakes had been made in most—perhaps all—prior and subsequent claims of apes acquiring human-type language. He has, to some extent, been actively engaged as an animal-language myth-buster ever since.”
The horse who changed science
If a horse can pick up on unintentional body language cues, and fool tens of thousands of people into believing it can answer questions and perform calculations as a result, then it’s a certainty that primates and cats — our closest genetic relatives and domesticated animals who live with us as members of our family, respectively — can easily pick up on cues, especially when there are rewards involved.
“Clever Hans was hailed as the first and most famous ‘thinking’ animal,” the authors of a 2013 paper on the phenomenon wrote. “Except a few skeptics, the majority of biologists, psychologists, and medical doctors, experts of all kind, and laymen were rather convinced by this example that animals are able to think in a human way and to express human ideas in non-verbal human language. In 1904, the German board of education even set up a commission to determine if the claims made about Hans were genuine. After an extended period—a year and a half of study—they concluded that there was no hoax involved.”
Clever Hans fooled lay people, scientists and animal behaviorists alike until finally, “by the meticulous examination of Professor Oscar Pfungst, a biologist and psychologist,” Pfungst realized Hans couldn’t answer correctly if the person asking him the question did not know the answer either.
In other words, Hans was reading the answers off the faces and via the body language of the people around him. In the end it turned out Hans wasn’t a math genius or a connoisseur of the arts, but he was clever. Hans showed the world just how closely attuned animals can be to human behavior.
The fact that a horse, and not a primate or a dog, revealed such an ability reflects the thousands of years horses have been taking subtle cues from their trainers and riders. An experienced horse can determine a rider’s intent by the slightest tension on the reins or shift in weight.
In fact, it was the Clever Hans Phenomenon that led to innovations like double blind studies and forced scientists to really think about how they design their studies, as even the most careful and well intentioned researcher can unconsciously convey information to study participants. When we’re close to our subjects, as pet caretakers are, it’s almost a guarantee that we’re giving our pets cues without awareness of what we’re doing.
Animals like cats and dogs may not think like people do — and it’s a mistake to expect that of them — but that doesn’t mean they’re not experts at gleaning information from our body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. In fact, that’s their natural way of communicating information.
Even though I can’t bring myself to believe Billi, or any other cat, is learning to use human language, there’s value because failure tells us just as much as success does. Any attempt to better understand cats is a worthy pursuit.
Regardless, it’s clear Billi likes pressing the buttons on her talking board, and the entire exercise is a stimulating game for her. Cats may not have the ability to use human language, but they do like to play, and they like anything that results in interaction and attention.
Maybe that’s the most important takeaway.
“I really believe that the majority of house cats are bored and depressed,” Baker said. “We don’t give them any stimulation . . . and if this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that staying inside your house all day is terrible. So you know, anything that we can do for them that gives them a better life, I’m for it.”
All photos credit Wikimedia Commons and Pexels unless otherwise noted.
The playful cat with a permanently surprised look on his face was just a week old when he was separated from his mom last year. Natalia Zhdanova heard his cries and found him alone, hungry and sick in her backyard in Rostov, Russia.
With help from her neighbor’s cat, Handsome, Zhdanova nursed Fedya back to health, and now the little guy is up to a healthy weight and thriving at 18 months old.
“He was very weak and was dying,” Zhdanova told the UK’s SWNS wire. “Handsome cleaned and licked Fedya and became like a father figure to him.”
The two cats are now “the best of friends,” and Zhdanova said Fedya “purrs very loudly” for her and Handsome.
“He is a very sweet, gentle, playful, and intelligent cat,” she said.
You can see more photos and videos of Kedya on Instagram @fedja_kot, where he’s accumulated more than 36,000 followers.
A woman involved in a brutal attack that led to the death of a well-known cat — and emergency surgery for one of his owners — faces assault charges after she was identified and arrested, the NYPD said.
Evelyn Serrano, 42, was caught on video tackling and beating Chanan Aksornnan, a 34-year-old woman who had been walking her cat, Ponzu, on a lead in Brooklyn’s McCarren park.
Aksornnan suffered minor injuries, her boyfriend suffered a broken nose and had to undergo emergency surgery, and Ponzu lost his life in the chain of events that lead to the beat-down.
Bystanders say the incident began when a 12-year-old boy, who may be related to Serrano, either tripped over or tugged on the lead Aksornnan was using to walk Ponzu. The three-year-old cat was launched in the air and hit the ground hard, losing all his claws. He died of a heart attack shortly after a horrified Aksornnan scooped him up in her arms.
Serrano and her alleged accomplices showed “no remorse,” Aksornnan told Brooklyn news site Greenpointers, and acted as if Aksornnan was being unreasonable by being upset about the cat.
“That’s what you get for walking your —ing cat, b—,” a woman with Serrano said.
When Aksornnan referred to Ponzu as her “child,” the women mocked her, yelling “That’s why you got no kids.”
Video shows Serrano — who at 5’7″ and 200 pounds is considerably larger than Aksornnan — launch herself at the grieving victim and tackle her to the ground.
Two other women with Serrano joined in, kicking and punching the victim while Serrano had her pinned down, video shows.
One of those women, identified as Julie Yvette Rodriguez, mean-mugs a bystander who was recording the incident, yelling “B–, I’ll f– you up” toward the end of the video.
“English please ching ching,” she allegedly wrote, according to a screenshot shared on Twitter, before following it up with a meme of a stereotypical Asian man.
The worst take on the incident goes to Jezebel’s Megan Reynolds, who imagined a bizarre economic disparity justification for the attack, noting the “park is full of picnicking gentrifiers.” Serrano and her cohort, Reynolds wrote, were seemingly incensed “about the fact that [Ponzu] was a cat on a leash, walking as if he owned the place.”
“Ponzu was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and something about the temerity of walking an Instagram-influencer cat on a leash was a larger symbol of economic disparity,” Reynolds wrote.
While she does acknowledge that she “can’t imagine a circumstance where I’d be so upset about it that I’d provoke an attack,” she alternately proposes the attack could have been prompted by “collective pandemic fatigue, shared by all of us in different ways, that manifested in violence and ended in tragedy.”
While the incident brought out a lot of ugliness, it also brought at least three communities together to console the victims and seek justice — neighbors and friends of the victim, the Asian-American community in Brooklyn, and local restaurant owners.
Aksornnan, who owns a Brooklyn restaurant called Baoburg and is known locally as Chef Bao Bao, received an outpouring of support from customers, neighbors and fellow restaurant owners. Owners of nearby Chinese and Japanese restaurants lent their support, and donors raised more than $65,000.
The money will be used for “the legal fight that is ahead of us,” according to the GoFundMe, as well as a legislative push for more severe animal abuse laws. In New York, pets are considered property and harming an animal results in — at most — a misdemeanor under the state’s Agriculture and Markets law.
Feline humor, news and stories about the ongoing adventures of Buddy the Cat.