RALEIGH — The sneaky stuff that house cats get up to while skulking around outside is about to get the WikiLeaks treatment.
A group of researchers at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and N.C. State University has launched perhaps the most ambitious effort ever to understand the secret lives of outdoor cats with the help of tiny satellite tracking harnesses, a 3-D printer and perhaps eventually miniature cat-mounted video cameras to detail behavior as kitty roams the neighborhood.
And daily feces analysis.
“We view cats through the lens of how we see them culturally, but seldom do we view their actual behavior,” said Rob Dunn, one of the scientists involved and an associate professor in biology at NCSU whose lab specializes in “citizen science.” “We want to change that.”
Also involved are several researchers from the Earth Observation and Biodiversity Lab at the Museum of Natural Sciences and from the NCSU veterinary school.
This feline answer to the NSA, which calls itself the Cat Tracker project, is already following dozens of cats fitted with GPS devices. Most of the tracked cats are in the Triangle, but several are in Charlotte, elsewhere in the state and as far as away as California, Australia and Germany.
Eventually the scientists hope to persuade cat owners to enroll more than 1,000 felines. That would allow the project to collect vast amounts of data on cat behavior, said Troi Perkins, a zoology and fisheries science student at NCSU who works on the project.
Cat vs. bird debate needs real data
No matter whether you love cats or hate them, their behavior has important implications, Dunn said. They may – or may not – eat significant numbers of birds and other wild animals, and may wander in ways that could affect the spread of microbes.
The researchers started the project in response to a 2012 study that contended outdoor cats annually kill between 1.4 million and 3.7 million birds and 6.9 million to 20.7 million small mammals.
The numbers of bird and animal deaths mentioned in the earlier study are far from precise, and the researchers wanted to know more, Perkins said.
That study and others estimating large numbers of wild animal kills by cats have led to bitter arguments between cat and bird advocates.
Data about cat roaming patterns and feces analysis should yield more information about the real impact of cats on wildlife, Perkins said.
Perkins’ job includes fitting local cats with GPS harnesses, then retrieving the instruments and downloading data. She came up with a way to make more robust housings for the satellite tracking devices on a 3-D printer in a lab at the museum.
The tracks of each cat – which can be put under a cat alias to protect owners’ privacy – are posted on the Cat Tracker website and also on Movebank.org, an international website that collects tracking information on thousands of animals of different species all over the world.
The feces collection and analysis part of the project is voluntary; cat owners can sign up for just the GPS tracking.
The tracks already up on the website make it clear that many cats actually do have interesting behavior to hide. Dunn’s own cat, Chicha, mainly stayed within a few blocks of home but took one much longer jaunt for at least a mile, traveling back to the family’s previous home.
“We would have thought she would never leave our backyard,” he said. “She’s old, and all her parts don’t work well, but she walked back all that distance, which suggests cats are doing all these things we don’t know about.”
Another interesting case involved two cats, Oatmeal and Tiger, who were from different litters but adopted at the same time into a Durham home. Tiger, the male, stayed close, while Oatmeal, a female, rambled widely.
Why are they wandering?
The scientists want to add video, too, because that could add significantly to the understanding of the data. For now, they know where a cat goes, but not why.
First they must work through various legal, ethical and practical issues, Perkins said.
Cameras would in a way turn cats into tiny ground-level drones, sneaking around private property and potentially catching people on camera unawares. But they believe they can solve those things and have already done limited testing on one cat.
The video showed that the cat stalked a lizard but failed badly in its hunt. What really caught the scientists’ attention was that the cat went on a particularly long jaunt just to meet up with another cat, apparently not for mating or rivalry.
“There was no fighting or anything, they kind of stood around, sunbathed a little, and then the cat just came home,” Perkins said. “That was pretty interesting.
“We’re hoping to find out more about whether cats are cosmically inclined to other cats outside,” she said. “Do they have little cat games, or group buddies, or whether they’re just solo creatures out there.”
The scientists are particularly interested in developing solid data on cats’ reasons for moving around, whether it’s to hunt, get food at a neighbor’s house or hang out with other cats. And the case of Oatmeal and Tiger raises the question of whether and how gender might affect roaming, Perkins said.
There are also apparently reasons for not roaming. For example, Dunn said, early data suggest that cats don’t go into the woods as much in areas with coyotes.
Also the scientists are keen to enroll cats in as many places as possible, said Dunn, to help them probe differences between, say, cats in Alaska and cats in tropical locales, and things like seasonal patterns, or urban and rural differences in roaming.
“Ideally, we will be able to build this global picture of cats,” he said.