Atlantic writer attempts to demystify why some cats purr and others do not — and what purrs mean, exactly

Exactly how and why cats purr is still mostly a mystery. The cats I’ve loved have done it when they’re happy. But that’s not the only time domesticated cats do it, according to this informative article in The Atlantic by Katherine J. Wu.

On the not-so-infrequent nights when I’m plagued by insomnia, no combination of melatonin, weighted blankets, and white noise will do. Just one cure for my affliction exists: my cat Calvin, lying atop my shoulder, lulling me to sleep with his purrs.

For veteran members of Club Purr, the reasons are clear. A purr is warm tea, a roaring fire, and fresh-out-of-the-oven cookies, all rolled into a fleece-lined hug; it is the auditory salve of a babbling brook; it is coffee brewing at dawn. It is emotional gratification incarnate—a sign that “we’ve made our pets happy,” which just feels darn good, says Wailani Sung, a veterinary behaviorist at the San Francisco SPCA.

But purrs—one of the most recognizable sounds in the animal kingdom—are also one of the most mysterious. “No one, still, knows how purring is actually done,” says Robert Eklund, a phonetician and linguist at Linköping University, in Sweden. Nor can experts say, exactly, what purring means. Cats purr when they’re happy—but also sometimes when they’re anxious or afraid, when they’re in labor, even when they’re about to die. Cats are perhaps the most inscrutable creatures humans welcome into our homes, and purring might be the most inscrutable sound they make.

There is, at least, some consensus on what purring is. In the strictest sense, the sound is a rhythmic, rumbly percolation that’s produced during both exhales—as is the case with most typical animal vocalizations—and inhales, with no interruptions between. Purrers also run their motor with their mouths entirely closed, like little feline ventriloquists; the sound simply springs out of the body at a frequency that roughly spans the range between 20 and 150 Hertz. Back in the 1960s, one scientist posited that purring was the product of blood percolating through the vena cava, a vessel that returns the body’s blood to the heart; that notion was later disproved. Now it’s generally understood that the source is the voice box: The brain pings electric signals to the vocal folds, prompting them to flutter open and shut like little muscular doors.

I did not know that there have also been some efforts toward trying to find out if the specific sounds produced by purring cats might have healing properties. After all, many of us have been sick and have discovered the sound of our purring cat next to us actually made us feel and sleep better.

Wu notes in this article that there have been no breakthroughs in research on whether purring has palliative properties based on the tone, resonance, etc. of cat purrs. It might be simply that cat purring makes us feel loved, and in doing so has positive psychosomatic effects that are still difficult to quantify — i.e., to be able to say, as one scientist puts it in the article, “I sat with a purring cat on my broken leg for 15 minutes a day; I healed more rapidly than someone else.”

Are we moving closer to understanding some animals’ languages?

If you watch and love (as much as I do) the Amazon production of “The Boys,” the series about a world populated with deeply flawed superheroes, you’re no doubt familiar with the character called The Deep, the underwater-breathing, talk-to-the-fishies, self-involved numbskull who is pretty, but dim-witted.

The Deep is also wracked by self-doubt, as in this S1E4 exchange with his therapist:

The Deep: I mean, yeah, I can talk to fish. So what? How often do you need to be saved by a school of salmon?

Psychiatrist: Kevin, that’s just not true. Where would that Carnival cruise ship be without you?

The Deep: Yeah, I know.

Deep’s ability to talk to the animals presents him as a sort of perverted aquatic Dr. Doolittle.

That kind of animal-to-human two-way communication may never happen. But thanks to machine learning, we might not be that far off from understanding what some animals are saying to each other, as this New York Times article by Emily Anthes explains:

Machine-learning systems, which use algorithms to detect patterns in large collections of data, have excelled at analyzing human language, giving rise to voice assistants that recognize speech, transcription software that converts speech to text and digital tools that translate between human languages.

In recent years, scientists have begun deploying this technology to decode animal communication, using machine-learning algorithms to identify when squeaking mice are stressed or why fruit bats are shouting. Even more ambitious projects are underway — to create a comprehensive catalog of crow calls, map the syntax of sperm whales and even to build technologies that allow humans to talk back.

“Let’s try to find a Google Translate for animals,” said Diana Reiss, an expert on dolphin cognition and communication at Hunter College and co-founder of Interspecies Internet, a think tank devoted to facilitating cross-species communication.

The field is young and many projects are still in their infancy; humanity is not on the verge of having a Rosetta Stone for whale songs or the ability to chew the fat with cats. But the work is already revealing that animal communication is far more complex than it sounds to the human ear, and the chatter is providing a richer view of the world beyond our own species.

I find it really intriguing that machines might help us to feel closer to animate life, that artificial intelligences might help us to notice biological intelligences,” said Tom Mustill, a wildlife and science filmmaker and the author of the forthcoming book, “How to Speak Whale.” “This is like we’ve invented a telescope — a new tool that allows us to perceive what was already there but we couldn’t see before.”

Studies of animal communication are not new, but machine-learning algorithms can spot subtle patterns that might elude human listeners. For instance, scientists have shown that these programs can tell apart the voices of individual animals, distinguish between sounds that animals make in different circumstances and break their vocalizations down into smaller parts, a crucial step in deciphering meaning.

Interesting article that you can read in its entirety here.

The Deep, who is paradoxically not very deep.

It’s National Dog Day

I know some people are annoyed at the prevalence of dog pictures and videos on social media, and I get it. I used to be one of them.

But now that I have a dog and truly understand what the fuss is all about, I think dog pictures and videos are among the highest best uses of the internet. Dogs make the world a better, bearable place for too many people to ever discount their place in the world.

Anyway, I’m marking National Dog Day with Otto the Rescue Pittie, my special needs guy whose only trick is that he soaks up hugs, kisses and cuddles in whatever amounts you are willing to give him.

Otto the Rescue Pittie, looking for love in all the right places.

Endangered gorilla gives birth on-camera

From the good folks at ZooBorns:

The ABQ BioPark has more exciting great ape news! Samantha the gorilla gave birth yesterday at 10:29 a.m. Mom and baby are doing well, and have started nursing.

ABQ BioPark caregivers were present during the birth, but watched remotely via camera in order to avoid disturbing the natural process. At 15 years old, Samantha is a first time mom, so staff were ready to intervene for the health and safety of mom and baby. Luckily, this was unnecessary! Samantha did great!

Mom and baby will have access to their outside yard today. Guests should be prepared for the Ape Walk to be intermittently closed to allow for privacy and a quiet environment while baby and mom bond.

The father is 20-year-old Kojo, who came to the BioPark in early 2021. This is the first time the ABQ BioPark has welcomed a baby gorilla since 2004. We do not yet know the baby’s sex. We look forward to sharing more photos and footage in the coming days and weeks!

Simply wonderful!

The false promise of pet cloning

I didn’t know it had gotten so easy to clone your dog, but apparently it’s becoming quite common.

Companies such as ViaGen now do it all the time, apparently for people who want to “resurrect” a beloved dog — or, less altruistically, champion race horses.

It’s not always successful. A large number of cloned pregnancies result in miscarriages, and some of the animals who do progress as far as live birth do not thrive and eventually die.

But some clonings are successful in terms of the cloned version being healthy. But many owners of cloned pets report that the living copies of the pet they sought to replace are not as much like the original as they had hoped.

I get why someone might want to try to re-create the relationship they had with a pet who died.

But I also can’t get past the nagging feeling that doing so, when there are so many shelter animals in need of good homes, seems less than ideal in today’s world.

And if you aren’t going to get an exact copy in terms of appearance and behavior, the whole enterprise is a bit of a waste of money.

PBS’s NOVA has a newly released short video about the topic below.

The squirrels have gone from just mocking my dog to mocking me, too

My dog (Otto the Rescue Pittie) barks at squirrels and the squirrels sit just out of his reach in my backyard trees, chittering and mocking him. Which makes him bark even more wildly.

To keep him from barking, I usually go out and grab low-hanging branches and shake them vigorously, chasing the squirrel off. No squirrel. No barking. Happy neighbors.

But it’s reached the point where the squirrels are onto my game and now they just sit there with whatever nut they have in their mouth, looking at me, chittering and not moving.

The squirrels have won, finally. As they always do eventually.

Unsanctioned and deadly horse racing is flourishing in parts of the U.S., often with cartel drug money

This article by Gus Garcia-Roberts is a horror show, detailing illegal horse racing in Georgia and elsewhere, with horses dying from drugs, shock devices and being pushed past their physical limits. One of these “bush tracks,” Rancho El Centenario, operates mostly with impunity:

For years, there have been hints that the horsemen of Rancho El Centenario are utilizing practices that would incur serious discipline at a regulated track. For instance: After deputies pulled over a horseman on his way to the track in 2019, a police report shows, they discovered boxes of amphetamine and anabolic steroids in the back of his Mazda.

Other times it’s more than a hint. On a visit to the races last month, during which journalists for The Post witnessed horses being injected before races, they also observed the day’s winningest jockey wearing a shock device of the sort banned in mainstream racing.

And though betting on horses is illegal in Georgia, apparent bookies ambled along the track, calling out bets before races and distributing the winnings from stacks of cash afterward.

Unbeknown to English and his Mexican cowboy clientele, however, there has been since last year a third party to the culture clash: animal rights activists.

Over eight visits to Rancho El Centenario between June 2021 and April 2022, undercover investigators for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals collected hidden-camera footage of all of this conduct and more: gambling, injections, shock devices, repeated whipping and horses dying on the track.

The group’s investigators collected syringes following injections around the track and had them tested at the horse racing laboratory at University of California, Davis, another of the nine facilities accredited by Kentucky’s Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (RMTC). Some of them tested positive for cocaine, methamphetamine and methylphenidate, according to a letter that PETA’s lawyers sent this week, along with 17 pages of supporting materials, to the Lamar County Sheriff Sheriff’s Office and the local district attorney’s office.

In the letter, PETA general counsel Jared Goodman alleged “systemic and repeated animal abuse, including whipping, electric-shocking, and drugging horses to push them past their natural limits, leading several horses to break down and be killed on the track, as well as extensive commercial gambling on every race.” He called for a criminal investigation of the ranch’s activities and some of its horsemen.

Add to this the fact that horses are dying from fatal diseases that are endemic in Mexico and, subsequently, spreading to horses in America.

Angela Pelzel-McCluskey’s first encounter with the bush circuit came in the form of a bony 7-year-old quarter horse brought to a veterinarian in Ocala, Fla., in 2008.

Pelzel-McCluskey is an equine epidemiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture charged with keeping disease from spreading through the American horse industry. The horse in Ocala, lethargic and refusing to eat or drink, tested positive for piroplasmosis, an infectious blood disease rare in the U.S. but endemic in Mexico that typically dooms its carriers to euthanasia or lifelong isolation.

Investigators traced the infection and found a cluster of 20 other quarter horses with the disease — all of them participants in unsanctioned racing, according to a study Pelzel-McCluskey co-authored.

Piroplasmosis typically spreads via ticks. In this case, though, investigators found the disease’s vector was unlicensed handlers using contaminated needles and other equipment to inject or blood-dope the horses. A year later in Missouri, another dying horse brought to a veterinary hospital led to a similar story, with investigators discovering a cluster of eight quarter horses connected to the same trainer who raced them on unsanctioned tracks.

Those cases led Pelzel-McCluskey to become the USDA’s sole expert on unsanctioned racing. She has watched with alarm, she said, as the phenomenon has steadily grown — and as the diseases she tracks have spread.

It’s a heart-breaking, infuriating article.

As is the video below, provided by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

I know. PETA can be its own worst enemy with some of its leaders’ more extreme views. But most of its work is laudable, including this investigation trying to expose the barbaric practices of this sport.

Warning: the video below is hard to watch.

You can read the rest of the article here.