In the Future, Cats Still Won’t Listen to Us

Over on the tech blog at the Atlantic, underneath that photograph that looks like a bunch of prairie dogs humping, is an article titled “We’ll Soon Have Devices That Let Us Talk With Our Pets.”  The animal behavior researcher interviewed in the article, Con Slobodchikoff, is finding out some interesting stuff about animal communication and it appears far more complex than merely primal grunts and whistles. He even believes conversations between humans and animals are not too far off into the future.  From the interview:

I have a feeling we're going to regret finding out what animals talk about.

“And then she said, I can’t date someone whose mother was a horse and father was a donkey! And then she called me sterile!”

So I think we have the technology now to be able to develop the devices that are, say, the size of a cellphone, that would allow us to talk to our dogs and cats. So the dog says “bark!” and the device analyzes it and says, “I want to eat chicken tonight.” Or the cat can say “meow,” and it can say, “You haven’t cleaned my litterbox recently.”

But if we’re going to get to that technology, it’s going to take some research. And it’s probably five to 10 years out. But I think we can get to the point where we can actually communicate back and forth in basic animal languages to dogs, cats, maybe farm animals — and, who knows, maybe lions and tigers.

It all seems fascinating to me, and also a bit fantastic, in the meaning of the word that conjures up “fantasy.”  Slobodchikoff has been able to decode communication between prairie dogs that involves mostly one prairie dog warning another prairie dog about approaching predators, using a series of vocalizations that he quite generously compares to “sentences.”  There are other noises the prairie dogs make that Slobodchikoff has not been able to decipher yet, and he’s thinking the prairie dogs could be discussing the weather, or even whether or not that cute prairie dog who lives in the other hole in the ground over there is single.

Given that prairie dogs only live a few (4-7) years, inhabit mostly arid wasteland, and are prey to a whole host of creatures (badgers, foxes, bobcats, weasels and humans, to name a few) I’m not sure how much time they have for idle conversation.

On the other hand, domestic animals, at least those who are not ultimately bound for the slaughterhouse, probably do have time to chit chat since they don’t have to worry about coyotes (they live safely under human protection) or passing on their genetic material (Prevent a litter! Neuter your critter!) and mostly sit around longing for us to return from work (if they are a dog) or waiting for their food bowl to be refilled (if they are a cat).

I won't rest until those guinea pigs are cold and dead and in the ground.

To me, everything is prey, including your shoelace and that dirty bottle cap I got out of the trash.

Which brings me to the new addition to our family, Bella.  Before this kitten joined our household, my husband and I lived with our two daughters, an anxious 8-year-old cat named Noodles, and two equally anxious guinea pig sisters, Lulubelle and Nibbles.  A delicate peace existed between humans and animals.  Now Bella has come and chaos reigns.  After reading about Professor Slobodchikoff’s research, I’m wondering if one of those cell phone-like translator devices he described in his interview with the Atlantic would help me restore harmony.

Me: (screaming)  Bella!  The guinea pigs are not food!  Get away from their cage!

Bella:  (to Noodles) What did she say?

Noodles:  Who knows?  This translator is a piece of crap.  Every time she talks all I hear is the “wah-wah-wah” voice of the adults in the Charlie Brown cartoons.

Lulubelle and Nibbles: (speaking together) She said we are not food.

Bella: Oh, that can’t be right.  You look like food.  She must have said something else.  Maybe she said you are food.  Maybe your translator is a piece of crap, too.

Lulubelle and Nibbles: (pushing the translator out of their cage with their noses) Made in China piece of crap.

Bella: (to Noodles)  Don’t they look like food to you?

Noodles: They do look like food to me, but they also look scary, with those long rat teeth.  I’m staying away.

Bella: Oh, you’re such a pussy. (She sticks her paw into the guinea pig cage again)

Me: Bella!!!!!!

Royalty free stock photos including the images in this post can be found at Stock.XCHNG, except for the photo of Bella, which I took with my crappy Made in China cellphone.

8 thoughts on “In the Future, Cats Still Won’t Listen to Us

  1. boondocksbrainwork says:

    This translator really would be awesome. Just imagine knowing that your cat is ignoring you, not because they don’t understand, but because they’ve just turned down the volume on the device.
    The translator described is very similar to an idea for a communicator *i’m* working on. In my iteration, the animals will be able to communicate with each other, but not with humans. I wonder if I can get a lucrative crowd-funding campaign started?


    • Karen says:

      I’m sure you’ll be able to raise plenty of money, since people will give to any stupid idea, see my previous post on Soylent, or that Zach Braff film project.

      I think it’s a fine idea for pets and prairie dogs, but do we really want to know what cows and pigs are saying before we turn them into hamburgers and pork chops? I’m sure they’ll all be begging for their lives. Or maybe not. Maybe they’ll be thinking, “What a fine day it is today! The sun is shining, the hay/slop” (depending on whether it’s a cow or a pig talking) “tastes especially delicious today! What a great day to be alive!” right before we hit the animal with a bolt gun.


  2. redfern77 says:

    I don’t think I want to know what my birds think about me beyond what they already tell me. Mojo says African Grey says he is a sad bird because I won’t let him out of his cage in the morning to bite the rest of the family. And Casey my Moluccan Cockatoo gives me an evil grin and tells me “Hello” every time she gets in trouble as though that will distract me. And according to my mother my African Grey Maxine crossed the veil to tell the medium that she is fine and dandy on the other side. So who needs more input than that.


    • Karen says:

      I know. I was talking to a friend about whether or not we really need translators to communicate with our pets and we wound up agreeing that our pets already manage to communicate with us pretty well without translators. Don’t they already know how to tell us they’re hungry merely by winding themselves through our legs whenever we walk by their empty food bowls and almost tripping us? Don’t they tell us the litter box needs to be scooped by pooping on the floor right next to the litter box?


  3. Madame Weebles says:

    Yup. In the future, cats still won’t listen to us, and they’ll still be saying, “My human is an idiot.” I guess some animals in the wild probably have conversations that involve stuff like, “Hey, that hawk is flying awfully low…” Also, I love guinea pigs! Lulubelle and Nibbles are perfect guinea pig names.


    • Karen says:

      Yes, do I really need another voice, now coming from my cat, telling me how inadequate I am every day? I already have two kids and a mother in law who do that.


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