Volume XI, Issue 38 ~ September 18-24, 2003

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Burton on the Bay

Your Animal Companion’s Voice
Dogs might say nice things about you, but what cats have to say — you probably don’t want to know.

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.
— Book of Matthew

Hopefully, Masahiko Kajita wasn’t making such promises when he got involved in the development and marketing of an electronic gadget aimed at closing a bit of the communications gap between humans and canines. As it already is, in many households when dogs ask it is given, and when they bark or paw at the door it is opened. Why can’t we leave it at that?

But along comes Masahiko and the Japanese toy company Takara with Bow-Lingual, an electronic gizmo intended to decode for the master the woof-woofs of his pet. We’re told a quarter of a million have already been sold in Japan, and they’re selling briskly in the USA.

The dog wears a microphone/transmitter on its collar, the owner holds a receiver, and on its digital screen five seconds after the bark — translation takes that long — appears what Rover is trying to say.

In all, there are 178 phrases that can pop up on the screen based on the Fido’s woofs, and we’re assured by Takara that this is no random interpretation process. No sir, there’s real science involved. A private research facility, Japan Acoustic Laboratory, grouped barks from more than 80 breeds into six moods based on digital voiceprints.

Then an eminent though unnamed veterinarian tied up the loose ends. Now, if you’re within 30 feet of your hound (in rural areas, you can be even farther away) you’ll be able to read on your hand-held receiver that vet’s interpretation of the barks and yelps of your best friend. And all in plain English.

Now comes the kicker. As with just about everything electronic, you’ve got to program your end of the Fido talk machine. You punch in the date, time, Fido’s breed and gender. If your pooch is of questionable parentage, you’re still In business. Bow-Lingual isn’t as snooty as the American Kennel Association.

All you need do is enter the pet’s size — small, medium or large — its snout type (long or short) and date, time and gender. Then it’s up to Fido to find reason to bark.

Hey, that’s not all. If you’re a master or mistress with a job and Rover is left home alone for the day, Bow-Lingual will pick up and store interpretations of barks for as long as 12 hours, affording you insight into Fido’s activities and thoughts during your absence. Maybe you’d prefer not to know — and maybe you won’t, seeing as how you’d be obliged to do a bit more programming.

I felt rather smug when first reading about Bow-Lingual in The Wall Street Journal because the Burton household is populated only by humans and felines. But near the end of the story there was the news that Meow-Lingual is already on the drawing boards.

With Cats, It’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
We all know that in the past 5,000 years or so, dogs have been bred and pampered to be faithful and obedient servants of man. So dogs probably only have nice things to say about their owners.

But cats are more independent, much more so, and who dares tune into the thoughts of their feline pets? Not me, even though 2-E, the resident white longhair at 178 Park Road, seems quite satisfied with her accommodations.

I’d prefer that relations — at least perceived relations — between 2-E and me remain as they now are: Visual and personal. When she purrs, she is content; when her tail wags slowly, she is content; when she gazes fondly at me, she is content; and she is content when she climbs into my lap and curls up. What else do I need to know that could be possible from Meow-Lingual?

The last thing I want from my cat is a lot of lip; I got my ration of that in fathering six kids through their teenage years. I knew what they were saying, but once they got past 11 or 12, they never seemed to know (or listen to) what I was saying. I don’t think a reverse Talk-Back Lingual would have been of any help.

I also know what 2-E thinks of any kind of collar, so I fear the digital printout of her message on the receiver in my hands wouldn’t be too complimentary. I can visualize it: “Get this damned thing off me.”

Of course, it would be nice to know what 2-E thinks of her food at a given meal. Some cats, usually big fat ones, gobble down everything in their dishes. It’s the other way around with 2-E. She’s thin, even thinner than a cat is supposed to be. She picks at what’s put in her dish, but after a minute or two if I’ve guessed right she gets down close to the floor and makes short work of her helping.

If I’m wrong, she just meows a time or two and departs the kitchen. Some days a shrimp and tuna mix are the ticket, other days it’s turkey and giblets, or chicken and liver and sometimes it’s people’s canned tuna. Might I say that 2-E is the only cat that I’ve ever had that at times turns her whiskered nose up at canned people-tuna.

If that vet in Japan who’s currently working on interpreting cat meows gets it right, I could in the course of a year save enough in wasted cat food to pay the suggested retail price of about $120 for a Meow-Lingual.

You Know Who’d Wear the Meow-Lingual in Our Family
But, methinks inventor Masahiko Kajita has got things backwards as far as cats are concerned. I think it would be more practical if the shoe were on the other foot. Does it not seem more practical that with felines, they should get the message, not give it? The transmitter would be on me, and 2-E would have the receiver.

Computers can do anything these days, so instead of a digital printout for 2-E, who can do anything but read, she’d get in cat language what I’m saying. An always-obliging dog will usually cock its head and wag its tail when spoken to, which is communication enough for mutts and their masters, but you know how cats are.

Once rigged with a reverse communications system, I could explain to 2-E why she must take medicine twice daily for her thyroid problem. Pharmacist Lee Vandenberg pulverizes her pills in liver flavored oil (fish oil was tried first), but getting one milliliter down her throat twice daily is akin to forcing cod liver oil down the throat of teenager. As I said, most cats aren’t as trusting as dogs.

I’d probably get more sleep, too, if 2-E wore the receiver, and I could make it plain that getting up at 4am in response to her meows for breakfast isn’t my cup of tea&Mac226; unless I’m going fishing. She’s relentless. If I chase her off and close the bedroom door, she howls loud enough to short circuit any transmitter on her collar.

If you’re wondering about the validity of battery-powered Bow-Lingual with its 178 phrases, let me remind you Takara is a toy company. But then what dog owner looks at a price tag for a pet’s toy?



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Last updated September 18, 2003 @ 2:30am