With minimal effort you can go online and find an array of feeding devices and toys for pets that require both acumen and agility before the animal is rewarded. Usually marketed as science toys, the gizmos give a whole new meaning to the expression work for your supper. Well, apparently Ben Millam, self-described “aspiring geek,” didn’t get the memo and decided to build an automated feeder based on a reward system for his cat, Monkey.
Feline Behavioral Instincts
Was Monkey bored, you wonder, or did the frisky feline need to drop a few pounds? Nope, Monkey just has a really cool dad. It seems Millam had read up on why cats routinely cover the same ground, and the explanation got him thinking. It was soon after that that he began the project in his spare time.
“This all started after I read an explanation of why cats go about repeatedly exploring the same areas: it’s partly to establish and survey their territory, but they’re also practicing ‘mobile’ hunting,” Millam explained of his reasoning and efforts. “So, what if my cat, while out on patrol, actually found prey? Surely this would bring him one step closer towards a more fulfilled and self-actualized indoor kitty existence.”
After whipping something together, as only an aspiring geek can, Millam had to go abut the task of training Monkey to find, fetch and return RFID-tagged balls to the machine. You see, once a ball is dropped into it, it is activated and a small amount of food comes out of a dispenser. Millam hid the balls all over his house and worked with Monkey using a training clicker. The premise is based on associating a desirable behavior with a distinctive clicking noise and a reward.
Sating the Hunting Instinct
With a little time and patience, Monkey was eventually able to pick up on what Millam was trying to achieve. The concept reminds me of the mini TVs at bus stations that you have to feed with quarters in order to watch, or stationary bicycling for generating power, or the meters you feed in cut-rate boarding houses in the U.K. if you want heat or hot water. The only difference is these inventions are for monetary reasons where as with Millam’s invention it is for the sake of his cat’s natural instincts.
Advice for Budding Engineers
If you’re interested in Benjamin Millam’s design concept and are considering emulating it, then you’ve got more ambition than most of us. But Ben’s got some advice for budding engineers, “Before you invest in building a feeder, I recommend you first train your cat.” Monkey’s clicker training included methods such as shaping or forward chaining. Millam recommends Googling “clicker training cats” for easy-to-follow tutorials on YouTube.
For more information on aspiring geek Ben Millan’s invention and his clicker training advice for pets, check out his website at benjaminmillam.com, where he lays everything out in terms anyone can understand.