Teacher Kim Silva and her husband are hearing impaired. Both are animal lovers who always had a few pet cats running around the house. In 2009, they already had two cats, Bear and Bobcat. But soon, a new cat would join the household, changing it forever.
15. A Cat on Petfinder
However, while browsing Petfinder, the couple saw Bambi, a deaf cat. The little cat’s deafness had made her unadoptable, but Silva knew a thing or two about sign language, and she thought she could help.
14. Teaching Cats Sign Language
Bambi lived in Texas, so special arrangements had to be made to get Bambii to Silva’s home in Connecticut. Kim had been a teacher of American Sign Language, so while she waited on her new addition, she decided to teach Bear and Bobcat sign language. Although Bobcat figured it out quickly, Bear was old and set in his ways, and he passed up on learning ASL.
13. The Trio
When Bambi finally arrived, Bobcat knew his stuff. She picked up on the signs and communication styles from her new brother, and she was very adept at it. Unfortunately, Bear died shortly after Bambi’s adoption.
12. Thomasina Joins the Fun
In 2013, the Silva family welcomed another cat, Thomasina, into the fold. Bobcat and Bambi helped Kim teach Thomasina sign language.
11. Communicating with Cats
A video from 2014 shows how remarkable Silva’s ability to communicate with her cats truly is. The cats know around 12 words, like “play,” “shake, “come,” “stay,” “sit,” and even “high five.” The video shows that cats know what the signs mean and that they seem to enjoy having their say, too.
10. Dancing on Command
Bobcat, the eldest of the felines, even understands the word “dance” – and will dance on command!
9. Cats Love the Language
According to Silva, “cats become much more interactive with people because they want to communicate. Bobcat was a ‘pillow that ate’ before he learned to sign. He interacted with other cats but ignored people. After he learned to sign at age 7 years, he became the extroverted show cat!”
Cats aren’t the only animals who have learned to understand or use sign language. The most famous communicator was late chimpanzee Koko. Born in 1971, Koko was malnourished in the San Francisco Zoo. Francine Patterson, a linguist, convinced the zoo to let her take care of Koko. She eventually taught her to use more than 1,000 signs and understand around 2,000 human words.
7. Nimp Chimsky
Chimpanzees and bonobos have also successfully learned signs. Nimp Chimpsky – who was named after famous linguist Noam Chomsky – eventually lived with a woman named Stephanie LaFarge, who raised him with her children. LaFarge even breastfed the chimp. During the day, he trained with Columbia researchers in the use of ASL.
Non-primates are also able to learn sign. Dolphins are well known for their intelligence. Phoenix and Akeakamai learned what signs meant during their studies at the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory.
5. Phoenix and Akeakamai
These two smart dolphins learned to understand sentence structure along with words – meaning they could understand why “Frisbee hoop in” meant something different than “hoop in frisbee.”
Parrots are also adept at communicating, but mostly they just mimic. Alex, an African Gray Parrot, proved that it was possible for the birds to understand as well.
His trainer said he knew a two-way communication code and could understand around 150 words, numbers 1 through 7 and the names of 50 objects.
The special bird passed away in 2007. The night before his death, he “spoke” last words to his trainer: “You be good. I love you. See you tomorrow.”
The amazing Kanzi is a bonobo who picked up on lexigrams without even being taught. His mother Matata was in a language program while Kanzi played nearby. One day, the bonobo started using lexigrams spontaneously. He learned 10 words, then 200 more. Kanzi learned just like any normal two years old, without formal training. In fact, when tested against a two-year-old human, Kanzi did great. He even learned ASL from watching videos of Koko.
1. Silva’s Amazing Cats Continue to Learn
Silva is still training the cats. Bambi attempts to sign back to her human mom, actually tapping her hands when she wants to play with a ball.
Of course, the cats can understand what signs mean, but they haven’t been able to sign themselves. (But if they ever develop the ability, watch out!)