Would You Track Your Cat Using a GPS Device?


EDITOR’S NOTE: Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton kindly sent us two copies of Lost Cat to give away to Catster readers! Enjoy the book excerpt below and find out how you could win one.

I was recovering from a bad accident when my shy and skittish cat, Tibia, disappeared. My new girlfriend of six months, Wendy, was taking care of me heroically, and now she postered, flyered, Craigslisted, and visited the pound. Weeks passed. No sign. Then, late one night, five and a half weeks after his disappearance, Tibby sauntered back home. Not only was he unharmed, he was fat and a little smug.

I was overjoyed he was home but I was also a little … jealous. Where had he gone? Did he love someone more than me? And why had he left me in my hour of need? As any cat owner — especially one addled by painkillers and spiraling into depression — understands, these were questions that had to be answered. And so I began a quest to uncover my cat’s secret life, a quest I called Operation Chasing Tibby.

The following is an excerpt from the book Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Depression, and GPS Technology, illustrated by Wendy, written by me, about this adventure. The chapter details the first step in a journey that involved cat cameras, pet detectives, animal communications class, and psychics, among other things. In the end, we did figure out where Tibby had been for those long weeks (but you have to read the whole book for that). More importantly, we discovered much about ourselves, our neighborhood, our love for our animals, and the crazy things humans will do for love.

The first and most obvious step in Operation Chasing Tibby was to follow Tibby to his den of iniquity

"DEN of inIquity," I said with clenched teeth. I could see it: Tibby asleep on a golden pillow, empty tuna cans scattered like rum bottles, young cats lounging nearby. Every so often a palm frond fan of enormous proportions appeared in my mind’s eye, floating up and down in considered waves, sending a light breeze across his sun-dappled fur.

"DEN of iNIquity," I said again, re-syllabizing, as if by doing so I was saying something fresh and startling.

"Um," said Wendy. "You mean the place he was for five weeks? But how do you know he’s going back?"

I didn’t know. Not for sure. But there were signs. He wasn’t eating at home, for one. Yet his fur was shiny and his pantherlike girth remained. For two, he had the smug, self-satisfied look of a husband who was getting away with something on the side. I had never experienced that look before, because I’d never had a husband, but I had seen it enough on One Life to Live and As the World Turns to recognize it immediately.

"Look," I said, pointing. "See?"

Wendy peered at him, but she didn’t see. Then again, she wasn’t a veteran cat owner. Of course she would be in the dark.

"Trust me," I told her. "He’s enjoying a little hunka-hunka-hunka."

Hunka-hunka-hunka? her face said. But she just nodded, cast surreptitious glances at my med list, and said no more.

Wendy wasn’t completely on board with the quest, but she wasn’t going to fight it. She had grown fond of Tibby and Fibby. Not fond enough to speak to them in baby talk. Not fond enough to substitute the word "kitty" for the word "cat" in every feline-related sentence. Not fond enough to perseverate over where Tibby might have gone and why. But still, fond. So she wanted to help. But how do you follow a cat? Cats are the slipperiest of domestic animals. Thousands of years of genetic coding has taught them to melt into azaleas, lie motionless behind garden gnomes, glide along fence tops, and slink under benches. Meanwhile, I was on crutches and painkillers.

"We can’t go where he goes," she mused. "But technology can."

Which was why I soon found myself at a "spy store," hobbling past shelves of tissue boxes that were really video cameras, past pens that were really tape recorders, past brass knuckles and stun guns and large serrated combat knives. At another time I would have been intrigued by the whiz-bang gadgets. But not today. Today I had a mission.

"I need a tracking device," I said to the young and pimply employee. "You know, something that follows."

"We got that," he said lazily, as if a million betrayed wives had been here before me. "You’re going to want a Global Positioning System, also known as GPS." He pointed to a cabinet on the far wall and motioned for me to follow.

The glass case we approached was lit like an aquarium. Inside swam GPS devices of every size and shape, bristling with antennae, magnets, screens, and straps. There were GPS units that could be slipped into a spouse’s purse, GPS units that could be affixed to the underside of a car, GPS units that could be placed in money bags in the event of an armored car robbery. Informational labels offered long model numbers and promised "one-click satellite overlay" and "integrated antennae" and "flash storage." The young employee lifted a large and heavy-looking box from its shelf and held it toward me with reverence.

"Seventy-two hours of battery life, live tracking through a website, and magnetic mounts," he explained. I looked at the price tag: $1,500.

"I want something a little cheaper," I said and doddered closer to the cabinet. All the units looked much too cumbersome and heavy for a cat to carry. "And it has to be small. Very small."

But each GPS unit he showed me was much too big.

"I can help you better if I know what you need it for," the employee said as he put the last contraption away. His voice maintained the neutral tone of someone who has been coached about sensitive situations. But his eyes gave him away. They swiveled up my crutches, over to the head wound, and back down to the large contraption on my leg. I knew what he was thinking. Bad boyfriend? Abusive husband? A confrontation with a mistress?

I cleared my throat. "Um," I said. "Well," I said. "You see," I finally managed, "I need to follow my cat."

He didn’t understand at first, probably because I was whispering.

"Cat," I said. "C-A-T." Blank look.

"Consider it a quest to track a very short, very hairy husband," I said.

Then his eyes lit up. "A cat!" He’d heard a lot of stories here at the spy store, but he’d never heard this one. "Wow! Oh, yeah! Well, go on the Internet!" he cried. "There’s so much there. There’s definitely going to be something for a cat, I promise."

Sure enough, my new friend was right. On a strange website full of crude drawings and stiff English, I finally found a very small GPS device. It was made by one man, in his garage, for cats. Which meant that he was not only a determined engineer; but also a soulmate. I ordered it.

The Cat Tracker arrived. A sturdy, white cube of plastic encased in a blue rubber membrane, it was a little bigger than a Halloween chocolate and about twice as thick, with the same neatness and simplicity. It weighed .75 ounces, at least a third less than any GPS unit at the spy store. There was a button on the front and two lights — one red, one blue — that blinked in various ways, assuring us that what we had was a complicated device that could outwit any medium-size mammalian brain. We went looking for Tibby.

He was sprawled on the rug, snoring. He lifted his head when Wendy and I appeared, not suspicious of our large fake smiles and our slow-motion approach, our murmured nonsense words, the way we looked upward at the ceiling, over at the wall, anywhere but at him. I told him what a pretty kitty, what a smart kitty, what a perfect kitty he was. The unit went on his collar without a hitch.

Tibby was transformed. He was now half cat, half astronaut, with a control panel hanging from his neck, blinking red and blue, lighting up his whiskers. Wendy and I looked at each other, mimed silent congratulatory speeches, and then peered at Tibby. Would he realize something strange had occurred? But he gazed at us with fondness, unperturbed.

I took some pictures to record the momentous occasion. He got up and stretched. He walked toward the door. He paused at the threshold, then made his way across the hall and sauntered down the stairs.

"Okay," I said. We stood there like parents sending their child off to the first day of kindergarten, proud and forlorn.

"What do we do now?" I said, as his tail disappeared below.

"We wait," Wendy replied.

Want to know the rest? You can buy Lost Cat here and follow Tibby and other (not) lost cats on Facebook and Twitter. Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton live in San Francisco.

And now, the contest part!

To be eligible to win a copy of Lost Cat, simply use your Disqus account to comment below and tell us how you’ve helped or tried to find a lost kitty. Creating a profile and avatar takes just a minute, and is a great way to participate in Catster’s community of people who are passionate about cats. (And note that if your Disqus account doesn’t contain a valid email address, you can’t win because we can’t contact you. Boo! So please check your account.)

Entries can be from anywhere in the world and must be received by noon Pacific time on Tuesday, July 23, 2013. We’ll choose our favorite commenters and contact you via email. You’ll have two days to respond or we’ll pick someone else. Sorry, that’s just how it goes.

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