In November 2013 as part of Tiny Stadiums Festival, Imogen Semmler led the public on tours of Erskineville: revealing the initial findings from her cat study collaboration with vets from Sydney University, meeting some of the cats involved and talking to their owners.
For 3 weeks I studied the outdoor behaviour of the cats of Erskineville with vets from Sydney University’s Valentine Charlton Cat Centre. Attaching GPS tracking collars and small night vision cameras to 18 cats we tracked them for approximately three days each, collecting footage and GPS data. While I turned the study into an art project, working with filmmaker Matt Woodham to present videos and taking the public on tours as part of Tiny Stadiums Festival; lead vet Vanessa Barrs is now working with vet students to analyse the data collected towards a report which will be published in 2014.
The cat study was devised to examine the risks to cats when outdoors. Vets generally recommend that owners keep their cats inside at night-time, but they don’t have much data to back this up. Are cats also in danger in the day-time? What kind of risks are involved? The study aimed to help us find out by comparing daytime and night-time urban feline behaviour and examining the levels of risk. This includes transmitting and catching diseases, trauma from accidents, being poisoned by dangerous substances, and risks to wildlife. This last risk was noted by vet Vanessa as the ‘most emotive issue' when it comes to cats being outdoors.
I read a lot about cats in preparation for this project. During my research I came across this quote:
Throughout history cats have been either greatly persecuted or greatly admired. (1)
Keep those words with you. Think about where you sit on that divide...
There are approximately 2.36 million pet cats in Australia, that's around 1 in every 5 households. (source: Australian Companion Animal Council).
In Erskineville, postcode 2043, there are 1500 cats registered with the local vet. Census data from 2011 lists the Erskineville to Eveleigh region as 3770 dwellings. So we could estimate that there is at least 1 cat per 2.5 houses in this area. I say this because the actual number of houses in Erskineville is less than the number provided by the census data which covers a larger area, and the number of cats in Erskineville is likely more: as some might not be registered to the local vet, and some might not be registered at all…
So that gives you an idea of the kind of cat population we’re looking at in Erskineville. Maybe 1 in every 2 houses. That’s a lot of cats.
Of the 18 cats tracked, 3 cats chose to stay at home. Two for territorial reasons, and then there was Tony Soprano. Tony is owned by Asya Vaughn and her family. They live close to Erskineville’s main village street, a cute little cottage with a big verandah out front.
Tony Soprano: the name is deceiving for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Tony is actually a girl. And secondly, despite her namesake suggesting that she is a street-wise and ruthless kitty, our data showed that she spent the majority of her days and nights inside. Tony ventured outside just once over 24 hours. A little trip to a nearby street and back. Asya explained to me that Tony loves being around people, even their one year old toddler. She had a pretty good hunch that Tony stays around the house, but volunteered for the study to confirm her suspicions. Nature or nurture, we’re not sure, but it seems that some cats like Tony prefer the security and the lifestyle of the great indoors even when given the choice.
Of the 18 cats we studied, 6 were known hunters (in that they present their kill to their owner, usually on the front or back doorstep, sometimes in the house, sometimes in the bedroom)… Top of the hunting menu in Erskineville? Mice and mynor birds.
No cats were caught hunting on camera, but that’s not to say that no cats hunted during the study. The camera batteries would only last for 3 hours at a time so there were large chunks of outdoor cat action (particularly in the late night and early morning) when cats weren’t being spied on.
No cats were caught hunting and none presented kills… except for Suki.
Suki hunts. Yet she hunts inanimate objects: specifically, mens underwear and socks. Suki shot to fame during the cat study, her photo sprawled across the Daily Telegraph much to owner Erin’s delight. Her antics of bringing socks and underwear home, leaving them by the doorstep and mieowing until Erin comes to look is a very cute story. Yet this also tells us a great deal about the behavioural adaptations of urban cats.
In presenting socks and underwear to her owner Erin, Suki is playing out her innate hunting instincts. Regularly. There is a basket on the front porch where Erin collects Suki’s victims… often 2 or 3 over the course of a single night.
Is this behaviour a slight re-wiring of Suki’s brain, perhaps the human equivalent of a strange fetish played out around base instincts? Or is it indicative of the kinds of hunters that urban cats are becoming on the evolutionary timeline of domestication? In this urban jungle, socks and mens underwear are in abundance and easy reach. For a well fed domestic cat like Suki, the act of catching inanimate objects is adequate when survival does not depend on hunting for food.
We didn't manage to catch Suki stealing on camera. The forgotten or misplaced detritus of Erskineville life continue to wind up on Erin's doorstep. Suki's proud hunting trophies...
Of the 18 cats studied, 4 of them adventured onto the local train lines, some repeatedly.
Billy, Midnight, Eduardo, Hagrid: I’m talking about you.
Billy & Midnight live right near to the train line. Midnight in particular seemed to love it there. She even lost her GPS collar there during the study. Right on the railway tracks.
When we talk about trauma risks to cats, roaming along the train lines is a pretty high one. Vet Vanessa explained to me that the train tracks are a popular place for cats to visit: full of rubbish, rodents and best of all, no humans. For cats who like a bit of 'non-people' time, the train line becomes a getaway wonderland. As a cat owner it’s something that you hope your pet doesn’t do, and finding out that it is true can be as much a blessing as a curse. Owners who saw the data of their cats on the train lines were shocked. But would they keep their cat indoors to avoid the risk? None directly changed their cat’s access outside. The findings did make me think that people who let their cats outdoors are aware of the risks, and in the simple act of opening that cat flap they have already pondered the what ifs and in many ways are prepared for the worst. Cats are regularly flattened on roads, under trains. In fact Benson, one of the cats in the study sadly passed away a few weeks later, run over by a 4WD on his own street. It's a dangerous life out there, and one that we willingly choose for our precious kitties.
When you study a map of Erskineville the train lines form a very distinct feature of the suburb. They act as man-made boundaries to the north, east and south. To the west lies King St, a busy artery pumping traffic from Newtown to the southern suburbs. Quiet Erskineville is literally boxed in. Its dead ends and one-way streets create a maze-like atmosphere. Only those who know how to get out the other side ever venture in. This leads to a quiet, leafy atmosphere. A mostly traffic free environment. Great for kids. And so it seems for cats. It’s no wonder there are so many of them on Erko's quiet streets.
In fact from first glimpse of the GPS data collected over 24 hours, it seems that no cats left Erskineville. But on closer inspection, noticing the train lines and main arterial roads forming distinct boundaries it actually comes as no surprise. We’ve essentially locked these cats in their own suburb. The cats of Erskineville are trapped in Erskineville. All 1500 plus of them.
So how do the cats live together in this relatively small geographical area?
We weren’t the first people to put GPS devices and cameras on cats. New inroads into technology for tracking animals is inspiring vets and researchers around the world to adopt these gadgets and domestic cats are the perfect target because of their unknown lives. Earlier in 2013 as we were developing this project, we came across an amazing study in the UK. A collaboration between scientists and the BBC saw 50 cats tracked in a small rural village and BBC’s Horizon filmed a one hour documentary. We were in awe and a little bit jealous at the size of the budget. But in the end, this BBC study threw up so many great ideas around how cats navigate and share territory that it was both an inspiration and a wonderful building block for our own study.
Billy, Hagrid, Princess Mononoke, Mitzy and Eduardo all live within a few blocks of each other. A point central to all of their houses is the rather pleasant dead end of Pleasant Avenue. Yes, this quaint little street lives up to its namesake so damn well that it starts feeling just a little too twee. But I digress.
It seems the cats like Pleasant Ave as much as we do. In 24 hours all five of these cats visited its green shrubby street end: crossing over the same footpath, peeing on the same plants, resting and rolling in the same gutter. So how did they share this small piece of prized land?
Eduardo popped by at 5.15pm, Billy at 10pm. At 5.15am Mitzy travelled all the way down from Prospect St (about 3 blocks, much to her owners Melissa and Rob’s surprise). Hagrid graced Pleasant Ave with his presence at 6.15am. And Princess, who lives right across the road, only visited when Billy was there… and according to her owner Nicole and Billy’s owner Kate: those cats are friends. So what is this telling us?
Vet Vanessa explained to me that it has long been hypothesised that urban cats share their territory by visiting at different times of the day to avoid each other. When they spray their urine, they are putting their own little time stamp on the location which tells other cats when they were there. As the Horizon documentary discovered, large numbers of cats are creating extremely complex navigational and social systems to live together in small areas. GPS devices are helping us understand how this happens. Our study is only in its early days of analysis but we hope to make more interesting discoveries to those described above and those discovered by the BBC.
Scientists can use this data to map the extent of a cat’s territory and to analyse how they are sharing it. Whether they are avoiding each other, tolerating each other, or fighting with each other.
The time-sharing cats are possibly doing it to avoid other cats (and avoid the impending cat scrap that would occur if they both turned up at the same time).
The cats that aren’t time-sharing might be tolerating other cats in the same area, or forming alliances – even friendships. Kristina Vesk the Director of the Cat Protection Society of NSW reminded me that cats do make friends, even desexed cats. This shows that cats have motives for socialisation other than simply mating. For example in our footage we saw Louis meeting a secret friend at night in a nearby abandoned lot. And I have spent so many nights walking through the streets of Erskineville watching little gangs of cats just hanging out in laneways together. Cats can be friends but they are obviously very picky about who they mess with.
In the footage we witnessed a lot of surprises and scares when cats unexpectedly came across each other which often leads to cat fights; particularly from cats who are defending their territory rather than sharing it. Cats like Kiki.
Kiki, a sweet looking tortoiseshell, spends her days and nights defending her rooftop. Her owner Ida talks about how she puffs herself up to look as big as she can to scare off other cats. We watched footage of her screaming across her rooftop attacking an intruder cat and chasing it into a hole in the brickwork. Kiki's cat fight was a stark reminder of how vicious these fights can be.
The vets will average out the number of aggressive interactions between cats in the study as part of their research. Cat fighting leads to spread of disease and lots of visits to the vets for antibiotics. It's in the vets' interest to make sure owners are aware of the dangers of fighting. Oska who took part in the study makes regular trips to the vet for shots, and I overheard some neighbours commenting that Jeff bullies their cat, his thick fur acting as the perfect impenetrable shield against his helpless victim. Cats with longer hair like Kiki and Jeff certainly have the 'fighting' advantage.
So there are the cats who are more territorial, dominant and aggressive and those who seem to try to keep out of trouble using their time sharing techniques. I did wonder about the less aggressive cat and when it is scratching at the door to be let out if there was some sort of internal alarm clock going off in its head telling it to get to Pleasant Ave before 8pm otherwise it will run into the mean tabby from down the road....
I have often wondered how many cats could patrol the same area over and over and over again in an urban environment such as Erskineville with its high feline population, dense housing, and a limited land area. When does it reach critical mass? Do cats keep adapting, as populations increase and land access decreases, by creating even more complex social systems and relationships? Could the system ever collapse? Indeed, I pondered if cats could in fact develop a type of urban over-population fatigue and, like Tony Soprano, retreat indoors for a more comfortable and less stressful lifestyle. Will it be the cats who eventually tell us enough is enough?
The domestication of cats traces back nearly 8000 years. Its spread through Europe was very closely linked with the development of agriculture. Cats were used as biological agents of pest control: protecting stored grain from rodents and the farming fields from rabbits. Cats were companions and tools. Pets and pest control. Their relationship with humans has led to their proliferation all over the world.
Here in Australia, as pioneers forged farms through the distant rural landscape in the 1800s they took cats with them, releasing them into the outback to deal with rabbit and rodent populations. Today in Australia, feral cats live on 99% of the continent and the population is approximately 18 million (Source: Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre). These feral cats span generations of over 150 years. They are the super-cats, the largest and most powerful gingers and tabbies evolved into mega-hunting machines.
And thus cats have now also been classified as pests due their impact on populations of native animals, many of which have become extinct. From pets, to pest control and finally as pests themselves.
Yet, during the study a number of cats seemed to bring this journey full circle. Cats who started their lives classified as pests, but have now become pets. Jeff, owned by Betsey and Willy Brister is one of those.
Jeff started out life as a feral kitten, living with his litter in the hollow of a log on a farm. Betsey's daughter passed by one day, saw the kittens, reached down and Jeff was the only one she could get hold of. His fate was sealed and he became Jeff of Rochford St, Erskineville. Jeff isn't quite the domestic pet, because he spends most of his life outdoors. Occasionally he will come through Betsey's window in winter to sleep on her bed at night. Or he might pop in when Betsey's son Willy comes home with meat from the butcher giving Willy 'the look' for a cut of the action. But mostly Jeff spends his days out on the street, sleeping in a neighbour's front yard, befriending locals, and generally playing out his role as the very well known neighbourhood cat. Everyone knows Jeff. People feed him, pat him, talk to him. He seems to have spent time in a lot of people's houses. Once he went missing and was found in Maroubra, someone had most likely picked him up and taken him home thinking he was a stray and he had escaped. Luckily somewhere under that thick ginger fur there was a microchip to send him back to Betsey. Another time Betsey received an anonymous envelope containing photos of Jeff curled up on someone else's couch. He seems to be a cat who feels at home in a whole suburb rather than just one house.
Jeff is there for you, in your time of need. Willy tells the story of a night when he heard a voice outside on the street in the early hours of the morning. He looked out and saw Jeff and a bloke sitting on the park bench. The guy was weeping, sobbing, pouring his heart out to Jeff telling him how his girlfriend had broken up with him.
I thought a lot about Jeff and his role as the neighbourhood cat. I thought about the way he reinforced themes of community, of familiarity, of friendship, of change over time. I thought about how many residents would be pleased to know that Jeff was plucked from a life of rural feral-ness to become one of Erskineville's community ambassadors.
In fact, 10 of the 18 cats in the study came from feral or stray homes. Seven were brought to organisations such as the Cat Protection Society or other rescue groups and re-homed. While Jeff, along with Fish (who was a starving kitten lured by a piece of bacon into a trap on a farm and brought to live with Nyree and her daugher Tahi); and Kiki (a stray kitten living in a Western Sydney warehouse) were all kittens removed from feral or stray colonies. 10 out of 18 is a pretty good statistic, and it made me realise that there are a lot of people out there ensuring that cats do continue through this cycle from pest to pet. It's a vital role because there are a hell of a lot of cats out there who could be re-homed.
Jeff's story touched on another theme of cats in urban areas. Cats who often roam into other people's houses. Cats who find adventure in a backyard rather than an urban wasteland or on train tracks. One cat in particular, Jewels, demonstrated a high degree of covert behaviour when it came to roaming in neighbouring houses. Jewels used to visit the neighbours and their cat during the day, but after peeing on their couch she wasn't as welcome to pop by anymore. So instead, at night she would wait for her owners' lights to go off. Then she would sneak to the neighbour's house, straight through the cat flap, head upstairs and into the spare room where she would meet the cat. They were clearly friends, and it's a very sweet story. But what stunned me was the extent to which Jewels was sneaking around behind everyone's backs.
Cats are very clever creatures. They are constantly tricking us and one thing I learnt from doing this study was how many cat owners assumed they knew what their cat was getting up to, and how wrong they were... even when it was right in front of their eyes.
My favourite example of a cat's devious nature comes not from a cat owner, but from Vanessa the vet. When we first decided to use cameras to film the cats' behaviour, she bought one online and decided to test it on Bob, a cat she was looking after.
Now Vanessa's backdoor has a cat flap which opens onto a cat-proofed courtyard. A cat can go outside but it can't leave the back garden. It seemed that Bob didn't know how to use the cat flap. Repeatedly Vanessa would show him but instead he would sit by the back door and mieow to go out. And then sit outside the door and mieow to come back in. Vanessa attached the cat cam to Bob's collar and went out for lunch with her partner. When she came home there was Bob, sitting on the couch, just where she'd left him.
Then Vanessa looked at the footage on the camera. As soon as she had left the house Bob was straight out the cat flap and into the garden, scaling each of the three walls looking for weaknesses in the cat proof fence, holes, any kind of escape route. When he had painstakingly canvassed the backyard, he settled down for a nice little sleep in the sun. Upon hearing the key in the front door Bob is straight back through the cat flap and onto the couch to greet Vanessa, just as she had left him.
Vanessa is the Head of Small Animal Medicine at Sydney University and she co-runs the Valentine Charlton Cat Centre, a world renowned feline clinical research facility and hospital. Vanessa is a cat expert and Bob managed the pull the proverbial wool right over her eyes. If a cat can fool Vanessa, it can fool anyone.
There is so much that we don't know about cats, and for cat owners it all starts when we make assumptions about what we think they are doing, thinking, feeling. Some cats were less surprising than others, and for many owners I'm sure it was a relief to know that their cat actually does nothing. But it was only the process of wanting to find out that gave us the answer. I have no doubt that as the hours and hours of data and footage is analysed over the coming months that more and more secrets will be revealed and more expectations will shift. It's a complex 8000 year old relationship that we have going on. Here's that quote again:
Throughout history cats have been either greatly persecuted or greatly admired.
Do you greatly admire or greatly persecute cats? Because if you admire them, then it's unlikely that you will persecute them, and if you persecute them it's unlikely that you will admire them.
I think it's important that we all start to move past this dichotomy. Because when we deal with polarity, we don't actually go anywhere. Let's move away from the black and white and towards the grey fluffy stuff: where cat owners and vets can work together in finding out where cats go and learning about their behaviour, whatever each other's agenda might be. Let's allow the public to be a part of that conversation. Let's have some fun with it. Let's share the stories. Let's be shocked and surprised and have a laugh and consider the serious side. Because cats are all of that. And it's the only way that we will come close to understanding them.
If you are interested in exploring these ideas further check out the BBC Horizon Documentary 'The Secret Life of the Cats'
And there was also a great Insight episode about cats earlier in 2013 called 'Eradicat'
1. Denny, Dr Elizabeth A & Dickman, Professor Christopher R; Review of cat ecology and management strategies in Australia: a report for the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre, Institute of Wildlife Research School of Biological Sciences, University of Sydney, 2010
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