Granite Geek: Put a GPS Tracker on Your Cat - For Research

Mar 31, 2015

You want to put WHAT on me?
Credit Werner via Flickr/CC - http://ow.ly/L36Ox

It’s time to talk about cats.

Yes, it’s hard to believe that in the internet era, where Grumpy Cat and Keyboard Cat have become celebrities, and seemingly every third item we see on Facebook is a cat video, that we’d need to spend more time on felines.

And yet there is a research project, known as Cat Tracker, which aims to do just that. David Brooks writes the weekly Granite Geek science column for the Nashua Telegraph and Granite Geek.org. He joined All Things Considered to explain the research.

Cat Tracker may sound like an internet meme, but there are actually some important research questions relating to cats.

There are, and I speak, by the way, as a longtime owner of cats. Cats, of course, are hunting machines, and the question's always been, what kind of effect do domestic cats in the wild on the environment? The answer is, they have a heck of an effect on the environment. They kill a staggering number of birds, in particular, but also small rodents, reptiles and amphibians. There was one study several years ago that estimated they killed between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion birds a year in the United States. That's an extensive effect - it'd be good to have a sense of it.

But nobody's really studied what domestic cats do. Research knows more about feral cats. So that's where this rather interesting Cat Tracker program developed.

People can participate themselves. How does this work?

It sounds kind of funny if you own a cat when you first hear this, but basically you buy or make a little harness, and put a tiny GPS unit in it, and stick it on your cat. The cat wanders around all day and then, after a certain period of time, you take the GPS unit off and upload the data. You can see the maps of where they've gone, you get a sense as to how far they travel, where they travel and when they travel there.

Now this is pretty limited data - there's no camera to show whether they've made kills or anything along those lines. Down in North Carolina, the researchers [organizing the project] are doing some follow-up studies of correlating tracking with food and age and the health of the cat. But the idea is just to get a better sense as to what effect they might have.

I talked to Tim Walsh, who's the citizen science coordinator for the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut about it. And he admitted that part of the desire for the program from their point of view was to let people see where their cats go and maybe convince them subtly to keep their cats indoors.

My cats have always been indoors only, even though they'd like to go outside sometimes and it's kind of annoying. I keep them indoors because I don't want them killing the birds and chipmunks that I like outside. But perhaps as compared to the environmental argument, another argument for keeping your cat indoors is that it's better for the cat. The argue these pathways show people where their cats go - some of them are out wandering on major highways and whatnot. People will realize how very dangerous it is to let Tiger and Fluffy go wandering off all day, and not just dangerous for songbirds but dangerous for Tiger and Fluffy, particularly now that coyotes are pretty well established and a few other larger predators, including the famous red-tailed hawk.

Cats have already basically taken over the internet. Now they're expanding their reach into the world of research. Is there going to be anything left in a few years that cats don't control.

No. I think the addition of funny cat videos to scientific research would be a valuable thing to happen for our country. Because if nothing else, it will lure lots of kids into STEM classes. If you have the chance to make a funny cat video for credit, that's even better than learning the periodic table.