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 email@example.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.