Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency reversed its approval of a weekly unemployment benefit of $360 for a German shepherd named Ryder after learning that Ryder had not been laid off from his job at a restaurant chain but was in fact a dog. Ryder’s owner Michael Haddock said he wasn’t sure what Ryder would do with the money, but that it should be interesting. “I knew he was clever, but he surprised me on this one,” Haddock said.
The agency found out fairly quickly that a man named Michael Ryder, who had worked for a chain of upscale seafood restaurants, had filed a police report that claimed possible identity theft. How the theft of Michael Ryder’s identity resulted in a letter received by Ryder the dog approving him for 20 weeks of unemployment benefits at $360 per week is a mystery that remains to be untangled.
When Haddock, was asked what he thought would be a suitable restaurant job for Ryder, he said he’d be a very good greeter or host.
Have you ever wanted to have a heart to heart with your dog or just wondered what the pooch is barking about? Soon, maybe, thanks to the miracle of algorithms, you could be having that conversation. And when you do, you can thank Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, professor emeritus of biology at Northern Arizona University, who has made a lifelong study of prairie dog communication. In order to understand their complex vocalizations, which vary to warn other prairie dogs of different types of predators, Slobodchikoff developed an algorithm that can translate prairie dog chirps into English. Now his company Zoolingua is developing technology that will translate not only sounds but also facial expressions and body movements of all sorts of animals. This is interesting and we wish Slobodchikoff the best. We also recall a Japanese cat translator that popped up on the market around Christmas time a few years ago. It comes with the Brooklyn Bridge as a bonus.
While you’re waiting for the Zoolingua device to be available on Amazon, one non-pet translator that’s already in operation is artist Nina Katchadourian’s talking popcorn. Custom software translates the sounds of corn popping based on the “language,” or patterns, of Morse Code. A computer-generated voice provides a simultaneous spoken translation. The only shortcoming is that you can’t talk back to the popcorn; you can only listen to what it has to say.
Good news for world peace and social and economic justice–Axiom Zen has introduced CryptoKitties. These are not particularly cute cats (they look like cartoon squirrels with exophthalmic eyes and inadequate tails) made of code that let you invest your imaginary bitcoins in digital collectibles. Sort of like monetizing intangible Tamagotchis with a currency backed by the full faith and credit of the internet. Be the first in your ethertown to collect the whole set, and watch your portfolio grow.
But are they really entirely different? A Connecticut state court judge says they are in a decision to deny a legal request made by the Nonhuman Rights Project to grant elephants personhood. The group’s lawsuit against the Commerford Zoo, a traveling petting zoo based in Goshen, Connecticut, claims that elephants “have a sense of self, remember the past and plan for the future, engage in complex communication, show empathy, and mourn their dead.” The lawsuit asked the judge to release the elephants to a natural habitat sanctuary.
While it’s true that most of us wouldn’t ask an elephant to dinner outside of a children’s book, there’s a strong case to be made for their sentience. Maybe an intermediate step to personhood would be to designate elephants and other captive zoo animals–primates, for example–as employees, with the rights that accompany that status.
Fans of robot dogs will be thrilled to know that SONY has revived AIBO (Artificial Intelligence Robot, homonymous with aibō (相棒), “pal” or “partner” in Japanese). After 11 years on the bardo, AIBO is back and is cuter and has more AI than ever. AIBO redux is poised not only to puppy-love his way into your heart, but also to compete with Amazon and Google by interacting with your smart home hub. He–or she–will also learn its human’s behaviors and respond accordingly. This should be a caveat not to kick your AIBO.
Loyal, courageous . . . cat? Surely a misapprehension, if not a screaming oxymoron. But here’s the headline: “‘Little protector’ cat takes rattlesnake bite to save Florida family.” At least that’s how the Peterson family of Lake County, Florida sees it. Their cat Oreo put himself between them and an attacking rattlesnake in their yard to protect them and took a bite in the leg for his brave act of self-sacrifice. Others may question that interpretation and believe instead that an ancestral wild cat gene switched on and prompted Oreo’s confrontation with the snake. That is, Oreo wasn’t protecting the Petersons so much as defending himself. But that’s not what quirky local news stories are made of, so let’s go with 10-year-old Jaiden Peterson’s version and give Oreo a medal for heroism.
By the way, Oreo was rushed to the vet in time to administer the anti-venom.
It would be kinky to call them “relationships,” but here they are, in a Washington Post photo-essay, friendships with llamas, tortoises, and praying mantises. Plus a few creatures you’d expect, although maybe not living indoors, like goats, donkeys and pigs. Maine Coon cats also make the list, but there’s not a dog to be seen.
More and more, animals and therapy go together. We’ve written about dogs and cats in prisons that give inmates something to care for and love–and also help train for adoption. And now there’s a new therapy animal on the block–goats. A farm in South Carolina has donated five goats to an addiction rehab center to see if interacting with goats and caring for them benefits addicts at the residential center. The theory, which seems to work well (although as yet there are no statistics to back up the efficacy of animal therapy), is that the unconditional love, companionship and sense of purpose goats–and other animals–provide encourage the ability to bond and to re-learn trust in people who have hit the bottom. Another benefit is developing the sense of responsibility that comes with taking care of an animal and understanding its needs. Goats are lovely, affectionate and funny, which is why we think this idea is a winner and hope it’s widely adopted.
Is that dog smiling? Maybe. But if he is, why? Because he’s interacting with you. You’re looking at him and he’s looking right back at you. With a cocked head, a raised eyebrow, with, you know–an expression. Yes, a new study authored by Bridget Waller, professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Portsmouth, England, shows that dogs have facial expressions. You already knew that, right? You’ve observed it in your own pet. But you probably thought he was just signalling you to throw a tennis ball or give him a treat. In fact, your pooch may be demonstrating his sensitivity to your attention, without expecting anything else in return. Saying something like, just you and me, bro, forever. Further studies are needed, however, to unpack the exact meanings of canine facial expressions. Stand by.
Training prisoners to train shelter and rescue dogs (and cats, and even horses) is a program for two-way rehabilitation whose time has arrived. The trained animals become more adoptable, and some programs also train them as service animals. A Vietnam vets’ group in one Ohio prison generously pays the adoption fees for two exceptional dogs each year that receive additional training for placement with vets who suffer from PTSD or mild traumatic brain injuries.
Meanwhile, the training programs give inmates a connection to the outside community they would not otherwise have, while allowing them to learn a skill that transfers to life after jail and to enjoy the temporary companionship of a pet.
If the program has a downside, it’s that prisoners can’t keep dogs they become attached to.