Book chronicles cat's secret life

Where do cats go when they roam? Author Caroline Paul and illustrator Wendy MacNaughton used GPS and video cameras to get answers.

Four years ago, while San Francisco-based writer Caroline Paul was recuperating from an accident, one of her beloved cats, Tibby (short for Tibia), went missing. Paul presumed Tibby had gone to kitty heaven. But five weeks later, Tibby reappeared no worse for the wear.

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Paul, who during the interview reminds me that she was heavily medicated at the time, was over the moon that her cat had returned. That is, she was happy until the questions arose.

"It was a celebration until the bliss wore off," Paul said. "And then I was, like, where were you? Why did you go?"

Not only was Tibby in fine form, he had even put on weight. In other words, he had cheated. So Paul and her partner, illustrator Wendy MacNaughton, launched Operation Chasing Tibby to find out where he had been.

They recounted the adventures that followed in their new book "Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology."

Paul started her mission by grabbing her crutches and heading to a spy shop. Keep in mind, this was 2009, before GoPros were popular. Paul explained to the spy shop salesperson that she needed "something that follows."

MacNaughton elaborated: "I think it took Caroline a little while to explain that she was talking about a cat, as opposed to a human being. [The sales clerk] didn't have anything in the store that was small enough or that was inexpensive enough, so then she went online."

Paul cited this as evidence of how crazy cat ladies are ahead of the technology curve: "We basically invented this and then Silicon Valley got on board."

A few Google searches later, Paul found what she needed: a guy making cat-tracking GPS devices and CatCams out of his garage (like all successful start-ups). Over the next few months, Tibby was the most tricked-out tabby on the block. Paul and MacNaughton outfitted their cat with a GPS logger, digital camera, and miniature video camera. They downloaded data from the devices, analyzed it, adjusted the settings on the devices, and then gathered more data. Paul even turned to academia for advice.

"When we originally downloaded the first couple of GPS maps, they were so chaotic that we couldn't even make heads or tails of them," Paul said. "Sometimes you have too much information, and so I went online and I typed in a search and the keywords were: who understands GPS."

Her online search turned up a GPS lab at Stanford University, which she contacted. They recommended she analyze the GPS data for time stamps, but Paul says her GPS device was too rudimentary.

Caroline Paul

Ultimately, MacNaughton used her Adobe Photoshop skills to manipulate the previously undecipherable GPS maps and determine where Tibby had been. Because I promised the authors that this article wouldn't reveal any spoilers, that's all you're getting.

Looking back on Operation Chasing Tibby, Paul did share this nugget: "You think you know the animal -- or the person -- you love, but you really don't. I had no idea that my shy cat would have a whole secret life that didn't include me. But he did, and you just have to accept that kind of thing."

After all, you know what curiosity did to the cat.

About the author

    Sumi Das has been covering technology since the original dot-com boom. She was hired by cable network TechTV in 1998 to produce and host a half-hour program devoted to new and future technologies. Prior to CNET, Sumi served as a Washington DC-based correspondent, covering breaking news for CNN. She reported live from New Orleans and contributed to CNN's coverage of Hurricane Katrina, which earned the network a Peabody Award. She also files in-depth tech stories for BBC News which are seen by a primarily international audience.

     

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