Tag: New York City

TSA Baggage Scan Reveals Kitty Stowaway In Luggage

It was a tuft of orange hair poking out from the zipper of a carry-on suitcase that first alerted a TSA agent that something weird was going on.

The agent, who was processing a traveler departing from New York’s JFK airport on Tuesday morning, then consulted an x-ray scan, confirming the suitcase contained some unusual cargo — a ginger tabby cat tucked in among toiletries, snug and napping comfortably in the enclosed space.

X-Ray TSA scan
An x-ray scan revealed Smells tucked snugly into the suitcase. Credit: TSA
tsasmellycat
The incriminatory tuft of orange hair that gave away Smells’ hiding spot. Credit: TSA

As for the traveler, the cat didn’t belong to him, nor was he aware kitty had climbed inside. It turned out he had been a house guest of friends living in Brooklyn, and the cat named Smells had slipped into the luggage before he left for home, for what is a suitcase if not just another box?

The TSA confirmed the story with the cat’s owner before letting the traveler board his Florida-bound flight.

“An officer called and asked if I wanted to press charges” said Alix, Smells’ 37-year-old human. “He wanted to know if there was any reason [the passenger] was trying to steal my cat and go to Florida.”

Smells the Cat
A TSA security agent opens the suitcase to reveal its unauthorized would-be stowaway. Credit: TSA

After Alix assured the TSA agent that Smells “really likes to check out boxes” and definitely would have climbed in on his own, she hired a driver to retrieve the kitty, who was unperturbed by the adventure.

“I was worried he’d be freaked out but he wasn’t even meowing on the way back,” Alix told the New York Post. “I went to give him some extra treats and he acted like nothing had happened.”

As for the TSA — which often deals with more serious finds like guns and drugs secreted into passengers’ luggage — the saga of Smells was a welcome change that gave them a good story and some laughs.

“On the bright side,” TSA spokesman Lisa Farbstein wrote on Twitter, “the cat’s out of the bag and safely back home.”

Smells the Cat
Smells the cat. Credit: His humans
“I was worried he’d be freaked out but he wasn’t even meowing on the way back,” she said. “I went to give him some extra treats and he acted like nothing had happened.”

Every Attempt To Translate Meows Has Failed. Why?

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.

John Cusack and Buddy the Cat
Buddy the Director.

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.

buddytranslations
Accurate translations of Buddy’s meows.

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.

Bud
“I’m thinking deep thoughts about turkey.”

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.

Bodega Cat’s Back To Business After Abduction

A beloved bodega cat is back where he belongs a week after a thief snatched him from the store.

The cat, Boka, is actually a kitten. Majeed Albahri, owner of Green Olives Deli in Brooklyn, adopted the little guy in January and in seven months the all-gray feline has become a familiar face in the neighborhood, where people are used to seeing him sitting on Albahri’s shoulder as he works the register, or napping on the nearest convenient pile of newspapers.

Boka “brings life to the store,” Albahri said, noting people stop by just to give Boka a head scratch.

But on July 29 a guy “skulking around” outside the store took a liking to the neighborhood mascot and swooped him up. Albahri didn’t know what happened until he checked the store’s surveillance feeds and saw the thief in action.

Boka’s abduction mobilized an entire neighborhood, generated headlines in the New York papers, segments on local TV news and posts on neighborhood blogs. The thief must have felt the heat, because he contacted the deli through an intermediary and returned Boka to Albahri safe and sound.

On Aug. 5, exactly a week since Park Slope’s favorite feline was filched, Albahri posted online to share the good news.

“Best news I’ve heard all week,” one neighbor wrote, while another one posted: “Yes Boka! We missed you!”

Others urged Albahri to invest in some AirTags, the Apple-made locators that were designed for keys, phones and other easy-to-lose items, but have been repurposed by some as pet trackers.

For those unfamiliar with city life, particularly in New York, bodegas (Spanish for wine cellar or warehouse) are corner stores that stock grocery staples, snacks, and usually some sort of combination deli/salad bar. They also sell everything you’d find in a convenience store, from newspapers, magazines and gum to cigarettes and cigars.

Because there are very few grocery stores in New York, and because suburban-style grocery shopping isn’t an option for millions of people who don’t own cars, bodegas are essential in neighborhoods that would otherwise be “food deserts.” (Some sociologists consider such neighborhoods food deserts anyway, especially if the local stores don’t offer fresh produce, dairy and meat. Most bodegas do.)

Bodega cat
“Bodega cat trainee reporting for duty, sir!”

Bodega cats occupy a legally precarious but widely loved position in the fabric of New York. They’re pets, but they also have primal jobs that call back to the original reason humans and felines began their partnership thousands of years ago: rodent control.

Technically they’re illegal according to the city’s Department of Health, but the New York Times estimates there are more than 10,000 bodega cats across all five boroughs. In a city that produces viral videos of rats dragging full slices of pizza down subway stairs, and rodents run rampant at night, bodega owners are faced with two choices: Accept the rodents and pay a fine, or get a cat and pay a fine, but have their stores free of rodents.

With the fines for rodent infestations and cats both around $300, bodega proprietors say the choice is easy, and cats have become ubiquitous. New Yorkers have created petitions to get the Department of Health to relax the rules on bodega cats, with no luck so far.

Who’s That Handsome Kitten?

I was digging through some old files when I found these photos of a young Buddy the Cat:

handsomebuddy
What a dapper fellow!
handsomebuddy2
“Hey, where’s that steak you promised?”

These were taken in my brother’s apartment on the Upper East Side. It was early summer, so Buddy was probably about four months old, give or take.

He spent almost the entire day in the yard where he made friends with Cosmo the Dog and had lots of fun chasing insects, running around and rolling in the grass. He made friends with every human there, of course. Then when he was tired out from all that playing, he had a super special treat: Steak from the BBQ.

I’d love to bring the little guy to more social events and barbecues, but alas, almost all of them involve dogs who are not Cosmo, and I’m not sure how Bud would do with three or four dogs running around, let alone 20+ people. Smaller gatherings sans pups are a better bet.

Got A Rat Problem? Get A Cat To…Befriend It And Groom It?

Cats and humans began their grand partnership some 10,000 years ago, when kitties handled humans’ pesky rodent problem and people repaid the felines with food, shelter and companionship.

Now the deal’s off, apparently.

Yesterday a Reddit user shared a video titled “When you get a cat hoping it will help you get rid of the big rat in your yard.”

The video shows the user’s new cat, a tortoiseshell/calico, “solving” the rat problem by befriending the rodent, playing with it and even grooming it.

The video has amassed almost 86,000 upvotes in 24 hours.

The odd friendship between feline and rodent is not without precedent. Studies have shown that cats are not effective rodent hunters in urban settings where rats have gone unchallenged for so long that they rival or exceed the size of most members of Felis catus.

In certain neighborhoods of New York City, for example, researchers observed cats essentially ignoring massive rats and in some cases eating trash side by side with them. The largest rats, apparently aware of the truce, are equally unconcerned by the presence of the cats. Other rats were more cautious around kitties.

The scene reminded me of the time my brother wanted me to bring Bud over to handle his rat problem. At the time he was living on 88th St. in Manhattan, less than a block from Gracie Mansion. His apartment had an unusual perk for Manhattan living — it was a spacious ground floor flat that opened up into a private, fenced-in backyard with grass and a few trees.

Mighty Bud
Tremble before him! Buddy the Mighty Slayer of Rodents!

In fact, it was one of the first places I took Buddy after adopting him. He was just a kitten, maybe 14 weeks old, and I brought him with me on a warm summer day when my brother had a few friends over for a barbecue.

Buddy made fast friends with my brother’s Chihuahua-terrier mix, Cosmo, and spent the day playing with his doggie cousin, frolicking in the grass and chasing bugs around the yard. Then he got a treat: Steak from the grill, chopped into tiny Buddy-size pieces.

Having a backyard in Manhattan was awesome, but there was a downside. At night the yard was like a stretch of highway for marauding rats who ran across it in numbers with impunity, probably en route to raiding the garbage bins of a bodega on the corner of 88th. The rats were so emboldened and so numerous, you could hear them scurrying across the yard at night.

My brother proposed bringing Buddy over and letting him loose in the yard after dark, letting his claws and predatorial instincts thin the rodential herd.

I declined, using the excuse that Bud could pick up diseases from going to war with the rats. That was true, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have come to that: At the first sign of those rats, Buddy would have run screaming!

(We don’t acknowledge that around him, of course. Officially, Buddy was not set loose upon the Manhattan rats because it would be grossly unfair to unleash such a meowscular, brave and battle-hardened feline warrior upon them.)

It’s one thing if Buddy won’t kill rats. He’s a wimp. But as the Reddit video illustrates, we are apparently closing the chapter on 10,000 glorious years of human-feline partnership, and officially entering the Era of Zero Reciprocity.

We do everything for our cats, and in return they nap, eat and allow us to serve them. From their point of view, it’s a fine deal.

Meowscular Buddy!
Just look at those meowscular guns and vicious claws!