My latest YouTube rabbit hole is talking cats. I can’t get enough of Billispeaks, a channel featuring Billi the cat and her human. Billi is an eleven-year-old cat who has learned to use a system of push buttons on a soundboard to communicate. Each button plays a word or phrase. “Billi.” “Mom.” “Mad.” “Pets.” “Food.” “Love you.” “Noise.” “Play.” “Outside.”
The buttons and board currently used in Billispeaks are from FluentPet. The board’s made of interlocking, honeycomb-shaped HexTiles, each with room for up to six buttons. The FluentPet system was originally designed with dogs in mind, but Billi has adapted to it beautifully. (Probably it helps that, according to one source I found, “Mom” is a speech pathologist.) Billie asks for food, pets, catnip, and play. She complains about noisy neighbors. Her favorite word is “mad.”
I showed my husband Dave some of the videos. “Maybe we should get this for Capone.”
Capone flicked an ear in my direction. He’d followed Dave into the bedroom a few minutes before and made himself quite comfortable on a black sweater that I’d left on the bedspread.
“Are you sure?” said Dave. “He’s already a bossy cat.” He pitched his voice up into the range where we all address Capone—it warbles around from approximately the F to the A above middle C—and scratched Capone’s chin. “Yes, you’re a bossy cat, aren’t you.” Capone closed his golden eyes and purred.
I thought about it. Did I want to know what Capone was thinking as he shed on my sweater? When he sat on the piano bench in my studio and stared at me? I recognized that my speculations—maybe he thinks my hair looks pretty today?—were comforting fictions. What if Capone was happily pondering whether to start gnawing at my flabby upper arms or meaty thighs in case of an unfortunate fall down the stairs? There had been no way to know for certain…until now. While we wouldn’t be discussing Spinoza or tax reform with Capone, maybe the buttons could help with the mystery meows that he emits sometimes. He sounds distressed, maybe “mad,” but his food bowl is full, he doesn’t want to play, and all the humans are in the house.
Billi starts many of her communications by pressing the “mom” button. Mom comes over to the soundboard area, which seems to be set up in the middle of the apartment, and taps the Billi button. In one of my favorites, Billi responds “Outside.” Billi follows Mom to a door that open onto a deck or patio area, but it’s covered with snow. Billi takes one look and walks away. A few minutes later, she presses the “outside” button again.
Capone would love that button. He’s an indoor cat, but he seems to enjoy it when Dave or I carry him around the front yard or sit with him on the front stoop. He’d also favor an “open” button—like many cats, he despises a closed door.
Leaving the bedroom door open (Capone has us well-trained), Dave went downstairs. I clicked onto another cat video. Capone jumped off my sweater and nosed the lid of the ottoman where I store his mice, birds, feathers, balls, etc. I opened it, and he started digging at the contents.
“Billi can tell her mom what toy she wants,” I said. “A mouse, or a bunny, or a worm.”
Capone, now fully inside the ottoman, paid me no mind. He clawed with abandon. Bells jingled; paper crumpled; a felt mouse landed near my foot. A ball with a jingle bell hit the floor and headed towards the space beneath the radiator.
It would be hard to figure out where in our house to put a set of HexTiles. Capone is king of all three levels and issues commands throughout his domain. Over time, we’ve constructed a sort of language. We humans pitch our voices up, and Capone uses various mrrrwls and mrwaaaps with us. We take them to mean things like hello; time to get up, dammit; time to snuggle; or someone has left the house. There are areas of uncertainty (mystery meows), and a fair amount of our interactions are nonverbal. He claws at sheets of paper when he wants to play catch, paws at the window shade when he wants to look outside. When he wants his food bowl filled, he heads for the top of the basement stairs and gives a piteous. This dates back to when Capone’s food bowl lived on a card table in the basement so that our golden retriever couldn’t get to it. Long after the dog passed and we moved the food bowl to a spot on the sunroom floor, Capone uses the same sign.
I wonder whether the FluentPet system could constrict the range of human-feline communication in the house. Because we have so many obstacles to clarity, maybe we pay closer attention to Capone. If he could just press the “mad” and “food” buttons at 4:30 every morning, when he starts getting hungry for breakfast, that would be fairly straightforward. Lacking buttons, he conveys this desire by pulling the sheet off of Dave’s head and licking Dave’s biceps. Creative and effective!
I’m probably mistaken. Billi talks to her mom with cat vocalizations as well as the buttons. And the buttons do seem to allow for fascinating talks. In one video Billi calls Mom over. Mom gives Billi some pets, and then Billi presses the “love you” button. I’m envious. Maybe envious enough to order a set and learn what Capone really thinks.