'Lost Cat': Do we ever really know our pets?

Caroline Paul thought she knew her cats inside out – until one went missing and came back revitalized. She and illustrator (and partner) Wendy MacNaughton tell the story of their journey into the life of their cat.

Since writing "Lost Cat," says Caroline Paul, many readers have come up to her and Wendy MacNaughton telling them "how important their cats are to them.”

Caroline Paul's life was turned upside down when she was involved in a plane crash. But then, while she was recovering, there was a further shock: One of her two beloved pet cats went missing. Caroline grieved, fretted, and fussed for five weeks until suddenly Tibby came back – fat, happy, and full of a bravado never seen before.

What had happened? Where had Tibby been? Who was this strange new Tibby?

Hoping to get some answers, Caroline enlisted the help of her friend (now her partner) Wendy MacNaughton. Using GPS technology, cat cameras, and psychics, they did their best to decode Tibby's secret life. They tell the story of their quest in Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology, written by Caroline and illustrated by Wendy.

Monitor books editor Marjorie Kehe recently talked with both Caroline and Wendy about their book and their experiences.

Q. You wrote a book about an obsession with a lost cat. Are people starting to treat you like crazy cat ladies?

Caroline: Mostly – unless I’m reading them wrong – I don't think people think that I’m crazy. But we’ve had a lot of people come up to us and tell us how important their cats are to them and many have used the phrase, “My cat saved my life.” So I think there’s a lot of people out there who have the same bond with their animals as we did throughout this story.

Sure, let’s be honest, we have gotten a couple of crazy-cat-people comments. But even people who are dog lovers are saying that they were really touched by [the book] because they had a similar feeling  about their animals. And the truth is, this story is called "Lost Cat" but it is really lost humans and it’s about the way our animals can bring us back into the world.

Q. There's been a lot of debate in recent years about whether or not domestic cats should be allowed outdoors. You do allow your cats outdoors. As a result, you lost one – but he came back better than before. Has this experience changed your thoughts on the indoor/outdoor car question?

Caroline: I always have had cats [that were both] indoor and outdoor cats. I grew up in the country. It was just, I never even heard of anything called an indoor cat. But I definitely understand both sides of the issue. I understand that people keep their cats inside because they don’t want them harmed and because there are concerns about the wildlife that cats hunt, like songbirds.

Wendy: When we started this whole thing, as you know, I wasn’t much of a cat person at all and now I’ve become as crazy as Carolyn. Maybe even crazier. And so I’m terrified that something is going to happen to my babies. But I also see how happy and full their lives are out there. So we make sure to bring them in every night.

I don’t think that we expected this. This conversation has become one of the most heated debates around the book. So it’s good that this conversation is being had.

Q. For me, the central question of your book is an unsettling one. What do you think: Can we ever really know our pets?

Caroline: I’m very clear about that by the end [of the book]. I’ve been an animal lover and owner all my life. I’ve always had this bond and it was my instinct that I knew [my animals] very well.

And then Tibby disappeared. He was, as I say in the book, the shy and skittish one who couldn’t survive the urban jungle. And he didn’t like people and was not food-motivated and loved only me. And when he came back after five and a half weeks fat and happy I was disoriented.

I was already disoriented obviously from my accident and being on painkillers. But this turmoil rolled me upside down again. This relationship, that I was so sure of, turned out to be so different. So he was now the swashbuckling adventurer. I really did think I would find out more about him through this quest, that by putting on all this technology and searching, that somehow that would answer who he really was. But of course in the end it doesn’t. 

I don't think that we really know our animals. We think we do because we’re humans and we think we can control things like that. We don’t know anybody that we love. It could be a girlfriend or a cat. I think we just have to be at peace with that.

Q. Wendy, was there a point when you became a cat person? Were you calmer about the search for Tibby or was there a point at which you became as deeply invested as was Caroline?

Wendy: To be blunt I think that there were times when I was MUCH calmer. I think toward the beginning of this whole adventure, to be honest, it was more about my caring about what Caroline was going through and her recovery. The cats were a little bit secondary. But they definitely grew on me and then of course I became more involved in the investigation. When Caroline sent me out to walk all over the neighborhood [to look for Tibby], I became more invested. Then when he came back, with every little piece of information we gathered I guess that I fell deeper and deeper in love with cats.

Q. Tibby and Fibby have since passed on and you now have two new cats. Is it a different experience?

Wendy: It is for me, because they are my babies. I love these cats so much. The whole experience with Tibby kind of cracked my heart open to loving animals.

Caroline: These cats have very different personalities. That’s another thing I learned, that each animal has a very distinct personality. [The new cats] wander the neighborhood night and day but they love me when they come back. I’m sure of that. I’m less certain about the uncertainties and I’m okay with that.

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