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Culture+Society

I spied on my cat with a GPS tracker

The ups and downs of feline surveillance

By S.I. Rosenbaum

If you want to know where our cat, Timmy, is — right now, this very moment — my spouse and I can always tell you.

We love this party trick: pulling out a phone and opening an app called Tractive, which uses GPS for what was clearly its highest purpose: tracking feline travels. On the screen, an icon of Timmy’s fussy cat face hovers over a real-time map of our neighborhood. “See, here he is,” we like to say. “Exact coordinates.”

We’re entertaining our friends — and reassuring ourselves. Like Schrodinger’s cat, ours has to be observed to be known to exist.

Timmy was originally my partner’s cat: a glossy black-and-white shelter kitten who’d grown to resemble a prize steer. He had been raised in a series of tiny New York City apartments; chronically under-stimulated, he spent his days gnawing at electrical cables and creating elaborate art installations out of shredded toilet paper. He didn’t know what trees were, or stairs.

When COVID-19 came, we left the city and moved to a house on a leafy street in Rhode Island. My own cat, Dee — a seasoned outdoor operative, raised in the wilds of Florida — happily resumed his former lifestyle. Timmy hid in the attic at first, but eventually he began to insist that he, too, was an outdoor cat. He argued his case at the front door, emitting a plaintive mow-wow and pattering at the plate glass with his paws as if he could dig his way through.

We let him give it a try, and after a few bewildered trips to the front yard, he got used to moving through infinite space. As his world expanded, his indoor art projects decreased in scope. He stopped attacking the electrical cords.

Then, one night, he didn’t come home.

GPS trackers for cats have become a small piece of the overall domestication of the surveillance state.

We spent the next few days not just imagining him dead, but fearing we’d never know what happened to him. It was the uncertainty that was most excruciating. When Timmy turned up in a neighbor’s basement — he’d wandered in and gotten trapped — I knew what I had to do. I ordered him a tracker.

GPS trackers for cats (and dogs) have been on the market for a while — a small piece of the overall domestication of the surveillance state. The point of surveillance, of course, is to eliminate the unknown — to cheat-code the universe by gathering enough intelligence to predict it. That promise is appealing whether you’re a government or a cat owner.

Most industry reports estimate the “pet wearable devices” market at between $1 and $2 billion globally — and growing, with GPS trackers as the lion’s share (cat’s share?) of that market. At least one report sees the wave in pet adoptions driven by COVID-19 as a contributing factor in that growth. Why take in a pet as a hedge against the boredom and uncertainty of the pandemic, only to worry about it getting lost?

The tracker I settled on, made by the Austrian company Tractive, is about the size of one of those mini-soaps you get at a cheap hotel. It contains roughly the same technology as a mobile phone, without the phone part. It seemed a little bulky when I first threaded it onto Timmy’s collar, but he didn’t seem to mind.

The app that accompanies the tracker requires a subscription — about $12 a month — and contains a lot of features we don’t use: the equivalent of Cat Facebook, Cat Fitbit, etc. The actual tracking part, though, is gold. By sending and receiving pings, it can show me where Timmy has been over the previous 24 hours; I love moving the timelapse bar with my finger while I watch Timmy’s little photo avatar trundle around the landscape.

I can also check Timmy’s current position, and — if I activate an energy-draining “live” feature — I can watch him move around in real time. In the “live” feature I can also make the tracker’s LED light up, or get it to play a little beep-beep song, in case I’m trying to find him in the dark.

I’ve used the tracker to surprise him, around the corner from our house; I swear he looked astonished when I turned up at one of his private lounge spots in a neighbor’s yard. His territory, it turns out, is about a one-block radius around our house; he loves the wooded area behind the neighbor’s house across the street and the jungly lot behind the apartment building next door. He tends to make big loops in each direction, inspecting the neighborhood’s birds and smells.

The GPS can be a little buggy, a little laggy. It throws up artifacts, false negatives and positives. Ghosts. It sometimes shows Timmy on the wrong side of the house, the wrong side of the street. Other times the failure is not technological, but mechanical: once, Timmy’s collar somehow got loose and fell off. When he turned up at the house naked, I had to use the tracking app to find the lost collar.

But generally, the tracker is reassuring. It took away the stab of anxiety I’d felt whenever Timmy didn’t turn up on our porch in the evening; it gave us one less thing to worry about losing. As the pandemic ground on around us, as the politics of our country grew increasingly toxic, as the climate began to burn, at least I knew I could walk outside with my phone and know which direction Timmy had gone.

Then, on the Fourth of July, I couldn’t find him.

The tracker gave his location as outside, across the street, but the app kept losing connection — maybe it was all the fireworks smoke hanging over the neighborhood. As more and more fireworks went off all around me, I searched, increasingly frantic. I turned on the light-and-sound feature, but I couldn’t hear anything, and no telltale LED showed up in the shadows.

We had already lost a cat that year. Dee had died in April, at the age of 16. We didn’t see it coming; he’d always been a healthy, jaunty cat. He got sick on a Monday with what seemed like a cold, but it became pneumonia by Thursday, and on Friday he was gone.

Technology soothes us with data, but data is not always enough. It’s not just that technology can fail and data can be unreliable. It’s that there’s so much else that data can’t protect us from. The world around us, and the future ahead of us, remain terrifyingly unknowable — despite our best efforts.

Now, in the thickening smoke, fearing the loss of another cat, I had a hunch. I went back inside our house and opened our own basement door.

Timmy zoomed out, the LED on his tracker blinking, accompanied by a beep-beep fanfare. The app still told me he was outside. But as I scooped him up in my arms to turn off the tracker, I knew for sure, for now, he was safe.

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S.I. Rosenbaum is a writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Outside, The Guardian, Input, The Boston Globe, and Boston magazine.

Animation by Mar Hernandez 

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