5.17 — Pets: our closest companions

Host Walter Isaacson and guests discuss innovations that keep pets healthy and happy as they keep us healthy and happy.
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In this episode:

  • The first war decided by pets (0:00)
  • Pampered like no other time in history (3:05)
  • The perfect match (10:10)
  • Finding lost friends (13:55)
  • From DNA to doggies (17:32)
  • "Woof woof" means "how are you?" (22:27)
  • Part of the human experience (27:49)

Our basic relationship with pets is pretty simple. We give them food and shelter, and they, in return, offer us love and companionship. But could we do more? Could recent innovations help us find them when they’re lost, communicate with them and even bring them back from the great beyond? Hear the story about the wide world of pets on a new episode of Trailblazers.

Some would say the internet was made to see more about cats and dogs…

“It's about the human decision to make an animal a favorite, an animal whose life course is influenced or shaped by you.”

— Katherine Grier, author of Pets in America: A History

Guest List

  • Katherine Grier is a professor of history at the University of Delaware and author of “Pets in America: A History.”
  • Elizabeth Holmes is the founder of pet matchmaking service PawsLikeMe. PawsLike gathers information about your personality, lifestyle, likes and dislikes to find your ideal dog.
  • John Polimeno is the founder of Finding Rover. Finding Rover, now called Petco Love Lost, is facial recognition technology used by shelters and people across the U.S. to help reunite families with their lost pets.
  • Blake Russell is the president of ViaGen Pets and Equine, a company working to deliver genetic preservation and cloning services to pet and horse owners worldwide.
  • Con Slobodchikoff is Professor Emeritus of Biology at Northern Arizona University and founder of Zoolingua, a company that is using artificial intelligence technology to decode animal communication. His research involves the study of animal languages and communication. His book on animal languages, “Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals,” explores the issues of animal languages.

Walter Isaacson:

It’s 525 BC just outside the gates of Pelusium, a prosperous Egyptian city on the Eastern Nile Delta, and two imposing armies of preparing for battle. After years of conflict and bitter insults, two rival markers, Pharaoh Psamtik of Egypt and King Cambyses of Persia are finally going to war. This is the first time the armies of [inaudible 00:00:34] and this crucial battle will come to define the next few centuries of ancient Egyptian history.

Walter Isaacson:

Spears held high backed by expert archers, the Egyptian soldiers march forward. Then suddenly they stop in their tracks. They can’t believe what they see. The Persians are holding up something so powerful that even the willpower of the Pharaoh’s infantry crumbles before it. They aren’t holding formidable new weapons or impenetrable shields. The Persian soldiers are holding up cats.

Walter Isaacson:

Cats were sacred in ancient Egyptian culture and prized members of the household. When one died, its human family members would go into mourning. They were even mummified and adorned with precious gemstones so they could enter the afterlife with great ceremony. In fact, cats was so sacred to the Egyptians that killing one was punishable by death. Seeing the sanctified cats in the arms of their enemies, the Egyptian army hesitates. Their archers lower their bows. And then the Persian troops charge into battle.

Walter Isaacson:

When the dust settles 50,000 Egyptian soldiers are dead. Pelusium falls and soon after Cambyses becomes the first Persian Pharaoh of the Egyptian empire. It is the first war, and probably the last, decided by pets. I’m Walter Isaacson. And you’re listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.

Speaker 2:

I found this dog. Well, she sort of found me really.

Speaker 3:

Much maligned by some, for his backyard, vocalizing.

Speaker 4:

I bet she’d make a great pet.

Speaker 3:

Now the kittens are ready for a little frolic.

Speaker 5:

Clever bird, the parrot. He can actually talk, pronounce words.

Speaker 4:

Sometimes. I think you’re the only ones who can make me relax without even trying

Walter Isaacson:

Pets may not be worshiped as gods anymore, but you could argue that for many people, they’re almost as important. According to a recent survey, two thirds of American households own a pet, which collectively includes 90 million dogs, 94 million cats, and a whopping 160 million fish. And these pets are pampered like no other time in history.

Walter Isaacson:

In 2019, Americans spent more than $75 billion on their furry and scaled companions. And while our willingness to fork out big bucks on our pets might be a more recent habit, the battle of Pelusium shows us that humanities connection to our pets goes back thousands of years. But the pet industry, and even the term pet, is a much more recent development.

Katherine Grier:

The origin of the term pet, as a word, goes back to the French, peteau. And it appears in England by the 17th century. And it’s used to describe orphan lambs that were raised in the house.

Walter Isaacson:

Katherine Grier is the author of, “Pets in America: A History”

Katherine Grier:

And gradually it became a term that was adopted to describe animals that were kept for the purposes of private leisure. But the term that was used most commonly really until well into the 19th century was favorite. And that really tells you what pet keeping is about. It’s about the human decision to make an animal a favorite. An animal whose life course is influenced or shaped by you and is also dependent upon you for its welfare

Walter Isaacson:

Today dogs and cats are by far the average American’s favorite choice of pets. But that wasn’t always the case.

Katherine Grier:

In the 19th century where we have some people keeping caged birds, canaries for example, were a product of the Great Age of Exploration because the explorers picked up canaries in the Canary islands and they were little finches that could sing well. And then they became this craze.

Walter Isaacson:

And that’s a big reason why birds were the most popular pet in America during the 19th century. At the time, unless you or someone you lived with played music bird keeping was the only way to have music in the home.

Katherine Grier:

I tell people that they were the boombox or the radio of their day. And in fact, cages were designed to be easy to carry from room to room so that you could take along the music with you. And as early as the 1840s, you have the development of specialized stores that become one stop shopping, especially for bird keeping.

Walter Isaacson:

Thus a love of songbird hatched a mainstay of the American mall, the pet store. By the 1890s, aided by the rise of the railroad and mail order trade, full service pet stores provided pet owners with nearly everything they needed to care for their pets. Store owners and pet traders shipped to cats, dogs, songbird, and goldfish to all corners of the country. But pets weren’t just for entertainment and companionship. Some pets were also status symbols. It was common for upper class women to collect and breed show dogs. Other animal enthusiasts kept rare birds and even monkeys. For some however, pet keeping offered something else entirely.

Katherine Grier:

In the early 20th century you start to see the development of tropical fish as a hobby. And it requires a lot of expertise. People who keep tropical fish, especially saltwater aquariums, pride themselves on their skill at keeping animals alive. And it’s really a hobby that’s sort of natural history and that they really are amateur scientists when they have these kinds of aquariums. So, you know, that’s a really different kind of pet keeping.

Walter Isaacson:

But only wealthy pet owners could afford exotic fish and other unusual animals. In fact, most pet owners couldn’t even afford to buy pet food from stores. Most people who kept birds grew their own bird seed. And those with cats and dogs fed them a homemade stew of leftover dinner scraps. But oddly enough that changed when the automobile replaced an animal most city dwellers interacted with on a daily basis, the urban horse.

Katherine Grier:

And there were hundreds of thousands of animals that nobody wanted anymore. Really beginning in the 19 teens because of the rise of the model T and also trucking. Getting rid of horses in cities was regarded as a public health imperative because of the amount of waste that they left behind. And at that point factories begin to can horse meat. And they’re able to sell that as commercial dog food. Pet stores got into the act by acting as butcher shops in some instances.

Walter Isaacson:

By the 1960s, a few mom and pop stores grew into the industry’s first national pet store franchises. But as the industry grew and pet ownership became increasingly common, more and more animals ended up on the streets and in shelters. And by 1973 about 13 million dogs and cats, or 20% of the pet population, were euthanized. This did not sit well with Americans who saw their pets as members of the family. So in the late 1970s shelters and veterinary care programs across the country initiated pet sterilization policies. This helped control the pet population and drastically decreased the number of pets who were put down.

Walter Isaacson:

Today animal shelters are going through another transformation. But this time it’s digital.

Katherine Grier:

For the world of sheltering and rescues, the internet has changed the adoption process significantly. It’s allowed them to post a lot of information about animals. So it’s enabled them to connect adopters with dogs and cats in particular. So it’s really changed access to animals in some profound ways.

Walter Isaacson:

But even with this newfound access, finding the right pet may be tougher than it sounds. If you are looking to buy a dog, just pick a breed that appeals to you and visit a shelter or pet store. Easy enough, right? Well, not quite. In fact 10% of dogs adopted from shelters are returned within six months. The reason for giving up on a pet can be cost, circumstance, or in many cases, compatibility.

Elizabeth Holmes:

We noticed two major issues that would cause people to return pets to a shelter or to a rescue group, or for relationships between people and pets to fail.

Walter Isaacson:

Elizabeth Holmes is the founder of pet matchmaking service, PawsLikeMe.

Elizabeth Holmes:

One of those issues was a mismatch in terms of between the family and the pet. And the other issue was people not really thinking about a pet in terms of an individual or in terms of their personality, but thinking of the pet in terms of breed.

Walter Isaacson:

Before starting PawsLikeMe, Holmes ran a pet rescue group in Columbus, Ohio. She noticed that people who showed up to adopt were often so fixated on a dog’s breed that they tended to overlook its personality completely.

Elizabeth Holmes:

It rarely worked out for them because they had certain expectations based on the breed, but the animal has its own individual personality that maybe was difficult for them to hone into or understand how that might be a good match to their family. And then when it wasn’t a good match with the family, the pet would get returned to the shelter.

Walter Isaacson:

Recognizing this problem Holmes and her group decided to start talking to the potential adopters. They spent hours on the phone with them to get to know their own family and living situation. This personalized matchmaking produced much happier results. But it required hours of one-on-one communication. And it wasn’t very efficient.

Elizabeth Holmes:

And so I start to think about, “Well, how could we bring this to an online system that would do this job for us?” That would have the intelligence behind to be able to consult with people and help them get matched to their ideal pet

Walter Isaacson:

PawsLikeMe’s algorithm assesses pets based on descriptions provided by animal shelters and then compares it against the survey taken by potential adopters to make the perfect match.

Elizabeth Holmes:

So essentially what the algorithm is it is split into four quadrants, energy, independence, focus, and confidence. And we assess the pet against those four quadrants and then people’s needs against those four quadrants. And that’s how we ultimately create the match.

Walter Isaacson:

And to say that people were interested would be an understatement.

Elizabeth Holmes:

Our website crashed after the first month because we didn’t anticipate the number of visitors and the level of interest that we ultimately got. I think people were very attracted to the idea that it resembles a dating site, except that instead of creating a match between two people, it creates a match between a pet and an individual, a person.

Walter Isaacson:

More than five million people have used PawsLikeMe to find a dog or a cat. But PawsLikeMe isn’t the only pet tech company to take advantage of the data posted online by animal shelters across the nation. Adopting a pet can be a joyful experience, but more often than not shelters are a place of heartbreak. They house many people’s beloved lost animals. Research shows that one third of all pets in the United States will go missing at some point in their life. 80% of these pets are never found. Of those that end up in shelters a great number will be adopted by someone else. Or in the worst case, euthanized. But there’s a new piece of biometric technology being used to find all these missing pets.

John Polimeno:

The story of Finding Rover actually began in a coffee shop.

Walter Isaacson:

John Polimeno is the founder of Finding Rover. Now called Petco Love Lost.

John Polimeno:

I was sitting in a coffee shop with my wife and I saw a lost dog poster. And it brought back these terrible memories of this dog we had lost, Harley, who was a beautiful black lab who loved to jump fences. And he jumped our fence and we spent three days looking for him. And the kids crying in the backseat, driving all over the neighborhood. Luckily we got him back. Well that just triggered something in my head. And I said, “Wouldn’t it be great if they can identify dogs and cats like they identify humans, using facial recognition?”

Walter Isaacson:

Polimeno had no experience with facial recognition technology. So he partnered with a team of scientists at the University of Utah and got to work. And as it turns out developing facial recognition for animals is harder than it sounds

John Polimeno:

It’s counterintuitive. But if you think about it, our faces, human faces, are basically the same. Our noses are in the same spot, our ears, our eyes, our chins now think of a pug versus a German shepherd. There are so many more variables in an animal’s face that there are in a human’s face. So it’s actually more difficult to identify an animal than it is a human being. So working with the University of Utah that year, they figured it out. Which was amazing. We saw it working for the very first time. We were just in shock.

Walter Isaacson:

In fact, their algorithm can identify a dog or cat with 98% accuracy. When a pet goes missing, owners upload a head on image of the dog or cat using Petco Love Lost app. That gets compared with images from hundreds of shelters around the country and images users send in if they come across a lost animal. Not only that, the platform can cover a lot more ground than someone posting lost pet posters around their neighborhood.

John Polimeno:

The wonderful thing is it first searches your area. It searches an area within a hundred miles of where you’ve lost it, but you can expand that search throughout the whole country to try to find your pet.

Walter Isaacson:

With nearly 900 shelter partners and countless app users, Polimeno has seen thousands of owners reunited with pets that almost certainly would’ve been lost forever. But sadly not every pet who is lost can be found. It’s a tragic fact of life that our furry family members live relatively short lives and will one day pass into the great beyond.

Walter Isaacson:

However, there’s a solution for even that problem as well. July 5th, 1996 marked a monumental birthday for both pet lovers and the human race at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, a very special sheep was born. Her name was Dolly, and she was the first mammal to be cloned from adult cells. She made headlines around the world and today the very same technology has a slightly new adaptation.

Blake Russell:

So ViaGen began really, as in attempt to commercialize the technology that came about from the Roslin Institute’s successful cloning of Dolly the sheep.

Walter Isaacson:

Blake Russell is the president of ViaGen Pets and Equine.

Elizabeth Holmes:

And ViaGen really came about as, okay, this is amazing technology has an impact in a number of different places, both in the world of medicine, but also in the world of agriculture. We were working on how do we disseminate livestock genetics effectively around the world? And if you think about cloning, that’s a really interesting bio secure way to disseminate elite genetics, to places around the world. So that’s where it all began.

Walter Isaacson:

ViaGen has since expanded from agriculture to all sorts of arenas, where it might be desirable to clone animals. They’re involved in conservation efforts that sound like something out of Jurassic Park. They recently cloned a black footed ferret, an animal that had previously been thought to be extinct. But for clients with deep pockets who’ve lost a pet, ViaGen offers a way to get them back. The process, at least from the pet owner’s point of view, is surprisingly simple. If your pet is still alive, but you think you may want to clone it in the future, you can have your vet take a genetic sample and send it to ViaGen’s facility in Texas.

Blake Russell:

From that small sample, that’s half of the size of your pinky, we’re able to grow millions of somatic cells. And each one of those cells has all of the DNA necessary to create an identical twin of your beloved dog. So once that’s been successfully grown in our lab we then can protect and preserve those cells.

Walter Isaacson:

It’s a process they call, genetic preservation. Think of it as a bank vault for your pets DNA.

Blake Russell:

So we put this in very high security, high quality storage. It can sit there for decades without degradation. In fact, we’ve cloned horses now that have been stored even before we came along as a company that people like the San Diego zoo had the foresight to preserve a sample 40 years ago. And we’ve now produced healthy clones from that.

Walter Isaacson:

It’s always best to get a DNA sample while the pet is still alive, but they can be taken up to five days after a pet’s death. When the pet owner gives ViaGen the go ahead, that’s when the real magic happens. ViaGen takes an unfertilized egg from a different animal and removes its DNA. Leaving what they call a blank egg.

Blake Russell:

We insert genetic material that was cultured and grown from your dog into that egg. And as it starts to grow and develop, we then transfer that into a surrogate. And then she will gestate that for 65 days, which is normal gestation for a dog, and then give birth to this identical twin puppy.

Walter Isaacson:

When it’s born independent scientist, do a third party verification of the puppy’s DNA to verify that it’s genetically identical to the donor. Then, amazingly enough, a perfect identical twin to your lost pet is hand delivered to you. But perhaps what’s more astonishing than their appearance is how the cloned pets behave.

Blake Russell:

And maybe what’s more fascinating than the handoff are the calls that we get afterwards about, “Oh my gosh, you wouldn’t believe how he does this.” And, “I never ever dreamed that he might do this just like the original.” And the similarities are just pretty remarkable. And the client response makes this so worthwhile.

Walter Isaacson:

It might seem like cloning your pet is as futuristic as it gets, but if there’s one thing that sounds even more farfetched than bringing your pet back from the dead, it might be talking to them. Professor Con Slobodchikoff had a problem. He was studying beetles, looking at the defensive secretions the insects produce when something unexpected happened.

Professor Slobodchikoff:

I walked into my lab one day, took a deep breath and my lungs started filling up with fluid. And I realized that I had gotten allergic to the defensive secretions.

Walter Isaacson:

He had to find a new animal to study and fast.

Professor Slobodchikoff:

And as it happened, there were lots of prairie dogs around my university. And I thought, “Aha, prairie dogs. Not that much is known about them. How about if I study them?”

Walter Isaacson:

Slobodchikoff was examining the little mammals social behavior when he noticed something interesting about the way they expressed fear. They squeaked.

Professor Slobodchikoff:

And at the time everybody thought that a squeak was just a squeak. It was an expression of pure terror. There was nothing else in the squeak. And I started listening to them. And then I started wondering, “What if a squeak is not just a squeak? What if there’s some information in there?” And so I started recording these squeaks and setting up experiments to look at the different contexts in which these squeaks occur and found that sure enough, a squeak is not just a squeak, but there’s actually a lot of information in it.

Walter Isaacson:

As it turned out the prairie dog squeaks comprise an astonishingly complex system of communication. Slobodchikoff studied them for three decades and was able to translate, which seen more and more, like an actual language.

Professor Slobodchikoff:

They can describe the color of clothes that you’re wearing. They can describe your size and shape. They can even describe whether you’re carrying a gun or not. So all of this translates into being a very sophisticated language. They actually also can make up new words. So ultimately what that came down to is that we found that prairie dog language satisfied all of the criteria that linguists said have to be found in an animal communication system for it to be considered language.

Walter Isaacson:

If prairie dogs, chosen for their proximity to his lab, could exhibit such complex linguistic behavior, Slobodchikoff bet they weren’t unique in the animal kingdom.

Professor Slobodchikoff:

I think that prairie dogs are nowhere near unique. And I think that language is a much more ubiquitous property of animals. And probably has much deeper evolutionary roots than we tend to think of.

Walter Isaacson:

And that led to his next venture. He is the founder and CEO of Zoolingua, a company that aims to use AI to help us communicate with animals. To quite literally speak their language. Why is this important? Well, as it turns out our dogs are speaking to us all the time. We’re just not listening to them properly.

Professor Slobodchikoff:

Even though most people think that they understand their dog, 80% of them are wrong. They don’t. As a result of this misunderstanding, this leads to behavioral problems on the part of the dog. And the dog often ends up in a shelter because of these behavioral problems, which can be traced back to communication problems. So I thought, “Okay, if we can communicate somehow with dogs, then this might lead people to have a much greater appreciation of their dog’s needs.”

Walter Isaacson:

Zoolingua is currently working on an app to translate what dogs are trying to tell us through barks and body language into a message that humans can understand. Users will use the app to film a short video of their dog. Which is then uploaded to the Cloud where a machine learning powered algorithm will decode it.

Professor Slobodchikoff:

Something like, “I’m hungry, please feed me.” Or, “I’m bored. Can we go for a walk?” Or, “I’m afraid of the postman.” Or, “I’m afraid of you.” And things like that. And as we get more and more data, we can become much more sophisticated in terms of decoding what the dog is actually trying to convey to the people.

Walter Isaacson:

Slobodchikoff hopes Zoolingua will be up and running within a few years. When it is the app will be capable of one way dog to human communication. And once they’ve tackled dogs, they’re planning to move on to cats, horses, cows, sheep, and pigs.

Professor Slobodchikoff:

The ultimate long term goal, and my vision for all of this, is to show people that animals are sentient thinking beings. And that we need to take better care of our relationship with animals.

Walter Isaacson:

Pets are an integral part of the human experience. Evidence indicates we’ve been keeping cats for more than 9,000 years. And in 2018 archeologists unearthed the remains of a 14,000 year old prehistoric puppy. We love our animals and as far as we can tell they love us too. The technology we’ve developed to adopt, relocate, resurrect, and communicate with them is proof that the value of their companionship is immeasurable.

Walter Isaacson:

They say that, “A dog is man’s best friend,” but I guess that all depends on what pet you keep. Whether it’s tropical fish, an exotic bird, a sassy tabby, or a lovable mutt there’s no bond quite like the one between you and your pet.

Walter Isaacson:

I’m Walter Isaacson. And you’ve been listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. For more information about the guests on today’s show, please visit delltechnologies.com/trailblazers. Thanks for listening.