The Secret Life of Cats: What You Can Learn by Putting a GPS on Your Kitty

A new book documents one family's quest to understand their pet with the aid of technology.
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The cat came back. 

But why? And what was he doing while he was gone?

These questions plague cat owners across the world, and they form the backbone of the new book, Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology. As author Caroline Paul and illustrator Wendy MacNaughton chart their discoveries in the feline world, they unfurl an uncommonly charming and wise tale. 

The narrative centers on Paul's two cats, Fibula and Tibia, and what happens when the latter mysteriously leaves home for six weeks -- and then returns. Paul becomes fixated on discovering where he'd gone (and where she suspects he continues to go) with the aid of technology. MacNaughton, Paul's partner, rides shotgun on the quest, documenting the trip in a series of improbably hilarious and profound drawings. There are so many good jokes and cute kitties, you can almost miss the terror of loving something (or someone) that provides the book's depth. 

There are twists and turns along the way (including a brilliant setpiece in an animal communication class), but a sly allegory emerges from all the drawing and writing: Technology can do many amazing things, but no GPS unit or CatCam can tell us what questions we should be asking in the first place. 

To be optimistic, though, the human process of piecing together the tech's failures and successes can build towards the kind of realization that Paul comes to at the end of the book. "I didn't need to turn on the computer and re-analyze the maps. I didn't need to scour the photos. I didn't need to have an animal-human conversation," Paul writes. "Clear and bright as the pink of a kitty trail on a satellite map was this final truth: Tibby had just not wanted to be at home."

I exchanged some emails with the duo to find out more about how they used technology to understand their pet, and to finally decide who is more of a crazy cat lady, me or Paul.

So let's review the basic story. Caroline, you get in a very gnarly (homemade?!) airplane crash, which puts you in the hospital for a while and then the couch for a while longer. What happened to Tibby during that time?

Paul: I crashed my experimental plane. A month into my recuperation, my beloved, shy, skittish cat Tibby disappeared. Weeks went by, no sign of him. We were sure he was dead. Then five and a half weeks after he went missing, he returned. He was fine! I was so relieved he was home. But I also wanted to find out where he had gone. He was cheating on me. So Wendy and I decided to follow him using GPS.

MacNaughton: No, you decided to follow him using GPS.

Paul: Okay, true. I became obsessed with discovering his secret life. Partly this was the vast amount of painkillers I was on. Partly this was a normal cat owner reaction.

MacNaughton (using exaggerated air quotes): "Normal Cat Owner Reaction."

Seems right to me. but does using GPS to track your cat actually work? This seems like something cat owners everywhere would like to know.

Paul: GPS works great. I recommend it for all cat owners who want to know what their cats do when they're not there, if you can stand the ridicule from your friends. But interpreting the maps was the bigger challenge. You think a cat sleeps all day. Not true! We contacted a department at Stanford University that studies GPS to help us. They were as stumped as we were.

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Maybe you can describe the process you used to clean up the noisy GPS data. You know, like go into greater technical depth in case someone (like myself, say) were to want to follow your lead.

MacNaughton: We used the best technical program i knew how to use: Photoshop. We had a total of 22 maps. i created layers out of each one, placed them on top of each other, and decreased the transparency so you could see them all at the same time. That revealed the most frequented areas (aka the most pink lines) and the obvious outliers. We were able to narrow down the area he was hanging out to an area of about three houses.

You stuck a camera on Tibby, but say in the book that he did not return many interesting pictures. Tell me you got at least one great photograph from the CatCam.

MacNaughton: We thought tibby was going to come home with a photo of a scary catnapper. What we got were some great photos of him staring at himself in the window.

Since you started talking about this book, have you heard any really awesome Found Cat stories? Like, what actually works if your cat is lost?

Paul: Microchips and Hope. There are stories of cats who travel 200 miles to get home or are reunited after 7 years.

Why does the Internet love cats?

Paul: What is there not to love?

Caroline, you depict yourself as the ultimate crazy cat lady in this book. Which is incorrect: I am the ultimate crazy cat lady. If there were a crazy cat lady tournament, or like a videogame where crazy cat ladies fought it out, what would your special cat lady move be? (And it can't be attaching GPS to your cat; I tried to follow mine with a drone, so it'd be a wash.)

Paul: I went to an animal communications class to try to ask Tibby where he had gone. I learned how to Animal Mind Meld. I got you beat, Madrigal.

MacNaughton: But Caroline, you got a drone AFTER you heard Alexis got a drone.

Paul: That's true. It's a draw.

This book seems to indicate that kitty lovers are made, not born. I, myself, converted from a dog person into a cat person in early 2012. Do you have any advice for cat people who might be in a relationship with non-cat people and want to catalyze the transformation process?

Paul: Maybe you should answer this one.

MacNaughton: Well, speaking from a previously non-pet person's point of view, if you're going to get into bed with a crazy cat person you're going to get into bed with their cat. Literally. Every time you pretend to love the cat in order to impress your potential mate, you are in fact falling a little more in love - with their cat. And soon, you will care more about sleeping with the cat than the person you now call "babe."

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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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