Billi is a 13-year-old cat whose owner taught her how to speak! Billi’s owner Kendra is a veterinarian who specializes in zoo, aquatic, and wildlife species.
She rescued Billi from the streets back when she was an undergraduate at college and after trying to find her a home with no luck, she decided to keep her.
After Billi had settled in, Kendra started to realize that Billi was very food motivated, she taught her how to sit and shake hands quite easily with positive reinforcement. Speaking of Billi Kendra said:
She really wants that food that you’re gonna give her and she’s extremely excited about it and so she’s like “whatever you want I’m gonna figure it out”
If cats could talk
Kendra was inspired by the work of Christina Hunger, a speech-language pathologist who “trained a dog to talk” using Augmentative and Alternative Communication (ACE).
ACE is a device that is used by speech pathologists to help children with speech issues communicate. The device is made up of buttons that sound off recorded words when pressed.
Following the success Christina had in training her dog to communicate with this device, Kendra decided to see if Billi could use it.
It all began in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 when Kendra was spending more time at home. She soon proved that you can indeed teach an old cat new tricks!
A talkative feline
The first set of words that Billi had at her disposal were; food, pets, mad, water, want, catnip, later, and outside.
Her method of teaching was through simple word association – if Billi presses a button, Kendra reacts accordingly. It soon became apparent that “mad” was her favorite button to press!
As Billi got used to the setup, Kendra began adding more words to see how she got on.
According to Kendra, Billi doesn’t meow as much since she got her buttons, and only really meows now when she’s not near them, which suggests she really is using them to communicate.
A year later after Kendra began, she upgraded Billi’s button system to add even more words, including ones to help Billi tell her owner when she’s not well.
Although it’s hard to determine the depth of understanding that Billi has for the words she presses, Kendra reports that she does press the right button for the context the majority of the time.
Even if Billi isn’t as aware of what she’s doing as it might seem, Kendra knows that it’s great enrichment for her, and that’s all that matters in the end.
It’s clear that Billi likes using her buttons to communicate.