The Day My Cat Went Home

Photo credit: Megan Halpern

Recently, my friend Roland Kays, the Director of the Biodiversity Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences approached me with a proposition. As part of a new project at the museum, he wanted to put a GPS unit on my cat.  I, of course, said yes and then my wife and I spent the evening speculating about how ridiculous an idea this was. The debate revolved around whether or not the cat actually went anywhere. I thought she might go to the neighbor’s house, or perhaps even two houses down. My wife, always a bit more practical, reminded me that the cat was scared of squirrels, mice, and even camel crickets (true). My wife doubted the cat even left our driveway. We placed a bet and then put on the GPS unit, a device about the size of my big thumb. It would tell us exactly where the cat went in the neighborhood.

Our cat, I should tell you in advance, is old. When my wife and I lived in Connecticut, my then department head Greg Andersen found three kittens in the woods. They were all two or three inches long, scarcely big enough, it seemed, to be mammals.  Greg asked if anyone wanted one. Somehow it seemed like a good idea to take one.  A good friend, Jen Martin and I brought one home to my wife. She was delighted, but  at some point we noticed that the kitten didn’t look like other kittens. If this were a children’s book this would be where the cat proceeded to grow bigger and bigger and bigger until we finally realized she was a bobcat.

But it wasn’t a children’s book. It was graduate school and so she didn’t get that much bigger and instead turned into Manx cat. Manx cats are identifiable by their stubby tail (which flips back and forth in anger), raised rear end (as though the back legs were from a rabbit) and a tendency to jump-kick their back claws into anyone who causes offense (a tendency from which I bear scars).

Fast forward, ahem, thirteen years, and this cat, Chicha (named for the fermented Amazonian drink for reasons that now escape me) is still alive and well. She has lived in five states and, because of our propensity to leave the country for extended periods, the houses of my parents, Gregor Yanega, Pajaro Morales, Holly Menninger and a number of other kindly folks.

In the intervening years, Chicha has slowed down. She mostly ambles, except when afraid. If a car comes near or a butterfly approaches or a strange cloud comes overhead she run-hops straight back to (and sometimes into) the door. Knowing all this, I should have known better than to doubt my wife’s prediction that the GPS collar would tell us nothing more than that she was an old cat who sat at our door. And so when, after a week of having the GPS collar on, we dropped it of with Roland to download the data, I expected a defeat, which is what I found, mostly.

You can see Chicha’s track in the adjacent map to the left. Mostly she darted out from our house to the houses of friendly neighbors, and back. Out, and back. A starburst of activity. The trajectories are rough, at the margins of what the GPS can measure. But then there is one long trip, a trip across a major street, a trip that must have, I thought, been in error, until I realized that it was a trip back to where we used to live, to a spot across from our old house where she used to meander. Suddenly we realized that Chicha had, all these years, a secret life. It is hard to know just what to make of it other than to realize that Chicha remembers where she has been. Presumably, she has connected two maps in her head, two sets of trails.

This is, for now, all we know. On its own, the anecdote her trajectory offers will make me revisit the consequences of letting Chicha out. Meanwhile, Roland has bought some more GPS collars. The first ten people in the University Park neighborhood to send an email to us at  yourwildlife@gmail.com can get one put on their cat and be part of Roland’s project. If you don’t live in our neighborhood we can tell you where to pick up one of the units, and we will download your data for you so we know how cats around the world are moving. With all these cats tracked, we can start to see how cats are moving in general, whether they use green spaces or roads, how much they differ, how much they do or don’t interact and more. My sense is many surprises await, some good, some bad.

In the meantime, I have a new respect for Chicha as she lounges on the floor. Her world is more complicated than I imagined. I can’t help but wonder how much more she remembers of where we have been, how much further she walks in her mind when some scent or sound reminds her of where she has been.

By |2016-11-22T13:47:20+00:00July 26th, 2013|

About the Author:

Rob Dunn
Rob Dunn is a biologist and writer in the Department of Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University. Central to all of his work is the sense that big discoveries lurk not only in faraway tropical forests, but also in our backyards and even bedrooms. The unknown is large and wonderful and Dunn and his collaborators, students, and postdocs love to spend their days in it.

11 Comments

  1. Liz July 26, 2013 at 10:30 pm - Reply

    That is so funny. What a great cat.

  2. Dave Howe July 26, 2013 at 10:43 pm - Reply

    Wouldn’t it be interesting to put a tiny video camera on the cat to see what interests and what freaks her out?

  3. Mom July 27, 2013 at 3:37 pm - Reply

    MAYBE Chicha was beiing CHASED!

  4. Trish Parker July 27, 2013 at 3:54 pm - Reply

    Our rag doll Sasha is 13. Enjoyed your story. I live in Budleigh
    But she has removed numerous ID’s so probably can’t
    Work for me?

    • Lea Shell
      Lea Shell August 6, 2013 at 10:45 am - Reply

      Hi Trish! Could you send us an email at yourwildlife@gmail.com so we could get a little more information? Thanks! -Lea

  5. Jo July 27, 2013 at 4:08 pm - Reply

    Rob. Our patsy dog knows about your kitty who must come by our house frequently. Patsy can’t pass your house without seeking her out.

  6. Mark July 28, 2013 at 3:40 pm - Reply

    Dave, you can actually get a cat camera for less than $50 from http://www.mrpetcam.com/#!

    It would be great to be able to correlate the video with the GPS coordinates! I don’t have a cat (not allowed in my rental unit) or I’d sign up for both!

  7. David Kroll July 28, 2013 at 9:23 pm - Reply

    Wow! Chicha crossed Wade Ave?!?!? What an amazing story. I can’t wait to follow Roland’s project. Makes me wish I lived over there and had a cat.

  8. Eric Waite August 16, 2013 at 11:14 am - Reply

    If you’re still looking for cats to put GPS collars on, I have a few. Be curious to see just how far they roam.

    • Lea Shell
      Lea Shell August 19, 2013 at 11:13 am - Reply

      Hi Eric! We are currently compiling a list of interested participants as our project reaches testing phase. I’ll add you to our list of interested participants and send you an email if/when we’d need your participation! Thanks for volunteering your cats!

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