Bluff The Listener

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Our panelists tell three stories about a surprising alternative use for cats, only one of which is true.

CARL KASELL: From NPR and WBEZ Chicago, this is WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME! the NPR news quiz. I'm Carl Kasell. We're playing his week with Paula Poundstone, Charlie Pierce, and Cindy Shupack. And here again is your host, at the Chase Bank Auditorium in downtown Chicago, Peter Sagal.



Thank you, Carl. Thanks everybody. Thank you so much. Right now it's time to play the WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME! Bluff the Listener game. Call 1-888-WAIT-WAIT to play our game on air. Hi, you're on WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!

ANTHONY WRIGHT: Hi Peter; hi Carl. This is Anthony from the state of California, near Sacramento.

SAGAL: Near Sacramento. Great, and what do you do there?

WRIGHT: I run a nonprofit organization called Health Access that does consumer advocacy on health care issues.

SAGAL: Oh really? Well nobody's having any problem with health care these days. So that's...


WRIGHT: It's an exciting time. All your jokes about Obamacare, they make me laugh, but, you know, a little like a punch to the gut.

SAGAL: Really?


PAULA POUNDSTONE: So it's sort of like ha-ha, ugh.


SAGAL: We can get you some help with that. You just have to fill out this form.

WRIGHT: There's a website, I hear.

POUNDSTONE: First make a password and a user name. That kills me. I can't - I can't come up with one more password. I don't know about the rest of you. Honestly, that's why I have 16 cats.



CHARLIE PIERCE: Each of your cats is one of your passwords?

POUNDSTONE: That's exactly right because Fluffy1, Fluffy2 and Fluffy3 is a hacker's delight.

PIERCE: What is really scaring me is I understood that immediately.

SAGAL: Actually, what occurred me is the statement and that's why I have 16 cats can be said with just as much logic after anything.


SAGAL: Somebody who has 16 cats doesn't need a reason.

POUNDSTONE: Not true, Peter. There was that very clear reason that I expressed.

SAGAL: No, I understand. Meanwhile, Anthony has called in all the way from Davis to play our games.

POUNDSTONE: Sorry, Anthony, I didn't mean to cut you off. Go ahead.

SAGAL: Anthony, it's nice to have you with us. You're going to play our game in which you must try to tell truth from fiction. What is the topic, Carl?




POUNDSTONE: Carl Kasell, bringing it.

SAGAL: Bring in the cat. People have been petting and hoarding cats since ancient times.


SAGAL: But this week we read a story about a surprising alternative use for cats. Guess the real feline innovation, and you'll win Carl Cat-sell's voice on your home voicemail. Ready to play?

WRIGHT: Absolutely.

SAGAL: First let's hear from Paula Poundstone.

POUNDSTONE: As the weather warms, many shelters put their cat populations in screened common rooms to enjoy the sun, which is where the bizarre game of cat chess is played. Played with 40 cats on a large chess board, the game was invented at the Nancy Griffith-Ross Animal Friend Center(ph) in San Diego, California, by volunteer Georgia Trestor(ph).

Someone happened to donate a big run with a chessboard pattern on it, and we had over 100 cats in our shelter, which is why it's so important to spay and neuter. So I was like whoa, we could totally play chess with these cats. Cat chess was an instant hit with the visitors to the shelter, where it gathered big crowds of spectators and increased pet adoptions by 15 percent in the first tw months.

And after being featured in Cat Fancy magazine, it spread like feral cats to shelters across the country. Here's how it works, says Trestor. Cats are pretty lazy in the afternoon sun. So it's not that hard to place them in regular chess positions on the board. Once you have all 40 cats set, the game begins.

You move your cats just like in chess. You can pick a cat up and place it on a square or lure it with a treat or a cat toy. If it leaves the board, you lose that piece. And you can't hold it in place, but you can pet it or play with it to try to keep it there. Although feline obesity is a serious problem, the truth is the fatter cats mostly just lay there, so when you're placing them, it's best to make the fatter cats the more valuable pieces.

My king is a giant Persian I named King. He barely moves. I use a boy tabby I call Joey for my bishop. If a cat throws up or pees or in any way soils the rug during the game, it's a forfeit.

SAGAL: Cat chess, the gaming craze sweeping the cat shelters.


SAGAL: Your next story of putting one of your cat's nine lives to good use comes from Charlie Pierce.

PIERCE: Recently a medieval scholar at the University of Pennsylvania uncovered a brilliant idea from the 16th century for the use of cats in warfare: rocket cats. A medieval military manual seems to argue for weaponizing cats as aerial bombs or hand grenades or simply as projectiles.

The book has illustrations of cats with what appear to be jet packs on their backs and suggesting that they be used to, quote, set fire to a castle or a city you can't get to otherwise. I really didn't know what to make of it, said Mitch Fraas, the researcher at Penn. It clearly looks as though there is some sort of jet of fire coming out of a device strapped to these animals.

Alas for that ancient aliens guy on History Channel, according to Fraas, these were not rocket cats. They were simply cat grenades. The manual was written by Franz Helm, an artillery master from Cologne. Fraas has translated it. He explains that Helm was recommending using the animals to deliver incendiary devices.

Create a small sack, like a fire arrow, Helm advised. If you would like to get at a town or castle, seek to obtain a cat from that place and bind the sack to the back of the cat, ignite it, let it glow well and thereafter let the cat go so it runs to the nearest castle or town. How this handles the problem of the cat bomb simply running up the arm of the guy who set it on fire is not explained.


SAGAL: Rocket cats of the 16th century, discovered in a medieval manuscript.


SAGAL: Your last story of off-label use of a cat comes from Cindy Shupack.

CINDY SHUPACK: A common cliché of failed romance is the single woman surrounded by cats. But a recent study shows cats could teach a woman a thing or two about how to get a man. The study, conducted by Johns Hopkins Veterinary School, showed 85 percent of men were more attracted to women who display the I-could-care-less attitude of cats as opposed to the love-me-love-me-love-me neediness of dogs.


SHUPACK: Single women are taking note, and classes, said Catherine Seday(ph), author of "Cat Women: How to Cat Up and Find the Perfect Man."


SHUPACK: She says her teaching assistant, a tabby rescue named Catnip, inspired the workshop, the book and her marriage to a successful real estate mogul. Thanks to the Johns Hopkins study, the demand for her workshop is so high she recently started, where certified in your zip code can be contracted out as dating coaches.


SHUPACK: For $500, single women can spend a day one on one with a personal cat coach, learning skills like good grooming habits, how to feign disinterest and how to rub up suggestively against a man's leg.



SAGAL: Allrighty then. Somewhere or in some time, a cat is being used for one of these purposes. Is it, from Paula Poundstone, cat shelters and animal shelters using their cats as chess pieces; from Charlie Pierce, a medieval artillery expert suggesting using cats as weapons; or from Cindy Shupack, cats as dating coaches? Which of these is the real story of cats in the news?

WRIGHT: So I've got to go with Charlie because the only way you get a cat to do something is to strap something on them like a rocket.


SAGAL: All right, well, you chose Charlie's story of the artillery rocket cats of the 16th century. Well, we spoke to someone intimately familiar with this new use of cats.

MITCH FRAAS: This is an illustration of a cat with a satchel of explosives tied to its back. The satchels do really look like jets.


SAGAL: That was Mitch Fraas, a University of Pennsylvania researcher who uncovered the mystery of the rocket cat. Congratulations Anthony, you got it right. Well done. You were correct. Charlie had the real story, and you have won a point for Charlie and of course won for yourself Carl's voice on your voicemail. Well done, sir.

POUNDSTONE: Nice job, Anthony.


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