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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