Scientist's GPS to let the cat out of the bag

CLAWS OUT: The cat cams caught several of Wellington’s pets in cat fights and stand-offs.
CLAWS OUT: The cat cams caught several of Wellington’s pets in cat fights and stand-offs.

Ever wonder where your moggy spends its day? New research from Victoria University is delving into the secret life of cats.

Gareth Morgan's Cats to Go campaign, which aimed to restrict Karori's kitties to the indoors, threw up several questions for cat owners, university post-doctorate fellow Heidy Kikillus says.

One was that no-one had any idea where New Zealand's cats went or what they ate when on their own. But with an upcoming "citizen science" project, we might soon know.

CATS'-EYE-VIEW: Biologist Heidy Kikillus plans to fit 500 Wellington cats with GPS trackers to discover the unknown world of the capital’s felines, including her own Pancho Villa.
CATS'-EYE-VIEW: Biologist Heidy Kikillus plans to fit 500 Wellington cats with GPS trackers to discover the unknown world of the capital’s felines, including her own Pancho Villa.

"One of the arguments that kept coming up from cat lovers was that all of these examples that Gareth was using were from overseas," Kikillus said.

New Zealand moggies, being top of the food chain, could have a very different life from, for example, American cats, who had predators such as coyotes to worry about, she said.

So Kikillus, with funding from Wellington City Council, decided to answer this question by putting cat cams on 10 volunteered pets living close to the Zealandia sanctuary during the summer.

"We were inundated with people who were curious about their cats."

The cameras, fitted on the cats' collars by their owners during the day or night, lasted for about 2 hours.

Kikillus and intern Mya Gaby found from the hours of footage that, unsurprisingly, cats do a lot of nothing - time inside and time exploring took up most of their days.

Although the cats spent an extraordinary amount of time watching birds, none of the devices captured a successful bird or rodent hunt. Still, four lizards and 11 invertebrates were nabbed on-cam. "Everyone's birds, birds, birds - we do forget about the hidden fauna being chomped upon."

Most interesting was how much the individual cats differed, Kikillus said.

"Some were incredibly boring homebodies while others were prolific lizard-hunters."

One issue that remained was that, from the footage alone, it was hard to keep track of how far the cats had travelled from their homes, so the follow-up study aimed to put GPS trackers on about 500 cats this summer.

Kikillus was hoping to get owners from both near Zealandia in Karori and in Wellington's wider suburbs to volunteer their cats for the project.

Pets would have to wear the tracker, which attached to a cat harness, for about a week.

The results, which owners will be able to view, would be compared with the GPS patterns of cats being tracked in the United States and Australia, yielding a unique insight into the inner world of New Zealand's felines.

"They have a very independent, very aloof nature. It's funny that they've lived alongside us for so long yet they still are very secretive."

- To participate in the GPS study, email Heidy Kikillus, cattracker.nz@gmail.com

The Dominion Post