Annie: The cat who didn't speak

Posted: Friday, November 02, 2007

Annie has started talking to me, and I don't know which of us is more pleased. At 4 years old, she is the younger of my two cats.

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The elder is Clementine, a dear old girl of 18. The two are inseparable. They cruise through the house like a motorcycle with sidecar, Clementine leading and Annie at her side. They sleep intertwined.

Clem was cranky with arthritis and advancing age when Annie arrived on the scene. She was a feral kitten, terrified of people. My job was to tame her. Clem intervened.

The grumpy old black shorthair took the kitten away from me. She hid her away in the attic where she soothed her fears. They emerged as an unlikely twosome, with Clementine doing all the mommy things. She'd try to pin down the youngster to wash her face and ears while the orange fluffball danced sideways and pounced on the old cat's tail.

Enlivened by the little one, Clem became more active and alert. Her life was suddenly so much more interesting! Golden-haired Annie brought sunshine into Clem's old age.

Annie still is not completely tame. Wild kittens taken gently into human hands before they are 12 weeks old turn readily to domesticity. Although Annie looked like an 8-week-old kitten when she came, she turned out to be at least twice that age.

Older ferals often can be socialized, at least to a degree. But for those "recovering ferals," as a friend calls them, the process is glacially slow.

There is no timeline for socializing. The individual cat and its experience with people sets the pace.

The defining line between feral and socialized is that the cat permits human touch. Annie does that, as do two littermates who are thriving in another home. Her brother and sister talked by the time they were a year old. Why didn't she?

Annie has impeccable house manners. She comes when called and knows her name. She'll rub against me, take treats from my fingers and stretch out, inviting me to stroke her velvet legs. She purrs and chirps and clucks as all cats do.

Yet, for 4 years, she didn't say a word to me.

Cats, as we know, do not talk to each other with word-like vocalizations. They hiss and growl, but don't say "meow." That's cat-to-human-speak.

And although Annie heard Clem talking to me and I talked to both of them, Annie didn't join in.

Meanwhile, the years have been catching up with Clementine. She does little now except doze on a heated bed. She's frequently grouchy with Annie, who still responds with head-butts and unrestrained love. I wonder what Annie will do when Clem is gone.

Recently, Annie sat down in front of an empty food bowl, looked straight at me and gave a kitten-like squeak. Startled, I noted the problem and refilled the bowl.

The look on her face was like nothing I've ever seen - stunned, amazed, delighted all in one. This had been Annie's first attempt at vocal communication with a human, and it worked!

Since then, there's been a whole lot of squeaking going on. She has been experimenting with varied requests to see how I respond. I think she's trying to teach me to come, sit and stay.

Yesterday, she spoke for the first time in an adult cat voice. She clearly articulated a two-syllable word she's heard Clementine use, but Annie had never tried. She looked me straight in the eye and said "meow."

Could it be that she knows she is going to have to start speaking for herself?

• Linda Daniel has spent her life in the company of cats, most of whom simply showed up at her door. She's a believer in spaying and neutering to reduce the number of homeless cats. She can be reached at

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