People of a certain age may remember Prince the talking dog who appeared on the BBC show That’s Life in 1979 demonstrating his vocabulary. Prince would growl while his owner manipulated the dog’s jaw to produce just about discernible words, including what would become his catchphrase – ‘sausages!’
However, Prince’s feats pale when compared to those of some gifted felines.
How Many Lives Does a German Cat Have?
In 1912, Peter the talking cat made the headlines when he was exhibited in Hamburg. He apparently caused a sensation among the public and scientists alike by his ability to say ‘Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!’ as well as the names Anna and Helene.[i]
Peter was also able, we are told, to sing a few words from a popular song, though we are not informed what that was.
Peter’s owner, a dentist called Frau Sutoris, said that she became aware of Peter’s talents when she accidentally stood on his tail and he yelled ‘Nein!’
Another German speaking cat made an appearance at the Vienna Exhibition of Cats in 1932.[ii] This six year old tom cat named Murri could pronounce ‘ja’, ‘nein’, and the name Anna as well as sing two nursery rhymes to a piano accompaniment.
We are not told who played the piano, though I’m assuming it wasn’t the cat. However, for more on musical cats, see my post about the amazing cat orchestra here: https://paulweatherhead.com/2022/04/29/weird-musical-history-1-the-cat-orchestra/
Let Me Alone and Shut Up!
German is not the only language gifted cats can speak. Surgeon Vincente Quintana was one of over twenty witnesses to a talking cat in Santander, Spain in 1946.[iii] When the cat’s owner died, the surgeon and others present said the cat lamented her passing mournfully for ten minutes, repeatedly crying ‘Let me alone and shut up!’
The surgeon thought the cat was probably imitating something it had heard an old family servant say, though if most cats learned to speak I’ve no doubt this phrase would be heard pretty often.
Peter Pan Becomes Wendy
However, the prize for the best vocabulary of a supposed talking cat goes to a British moggy called Peter Pan who lived with his owners Major and Mrs Webber in the Wellington Hotel, Seaford, Sussex.
The story begins when two BBC employees, Stephen Grenfell and Bernard Lyons (appropriately enough) were sent to report on collapsed sea defences on the Hampshire coast in 1946.[iv] The two commentators were on the beach when they realised they had been cut off by the rising tide and had no option but to dive into the waves, whipped up by a 60mph wind, and swim for the shore, where two local journalists pulled them to safety.
The freezing and soaking BBC men were taken to the Wellington Hotel where they met the Webbers and Peter Pan their cat. Mrs Webber told the cat to ‘tell the gentlemen we are in great danger from the sea’ to which the cat replied (in an ‘unclear but rhythmical’ voice) ‘Wot! No sea wall, chum?’ I can’t help suspecting that what the cat actually said was something along the lines of ‘Meow meow meow meow meow’ with enough minor variations in the vocalisation to allow the humans to imagine they heard an English sentence.
However, Peter Pan gained a reputation as Britain’s only talking cat, and his cockney pronouncement about sea defences became his catch phrase, though it lacks the pith of Prince’s calling card ‘sausages’, it at least demonstrates a wider vocabulary.
Sadly, Britain’s only talking cat died the following year. Curiously, the cat’s obituary, which was widely reported, uses the name of Wendy rather than Peter Pan.[v] It’s not clear where the confusion over the cat’s name and sex came from, but somewhere along the line, Peter Pan the talking cat who uttered the immortal lines ‘Wot! No sea wall, chum?’ became Wendy.
Whatever the cat’s name and pronouns, it’s not recorded if the creature ever uttered anything other than the warning about Hampshire sea defences or whether he/she was just a one-trick pony…
[i] Hamilton Daily News, 16 February 1912
[ii] Nelson Leader, 3 June 1932
[iii] Dundee Evening Telegraph, 12 July 1946
[iv] Dundee Evening Telegraph, 21 September 1946
[v] Dundee Evening Telegraph, 20 June 1947