Victoria researchers to uncover the secret life of cats

Whether domestic cats living around Zealandia are preying on native birds, lizards and insects will be clearer as a result of a study being carried out by Victoria University researchers this summer.

The secret life of cats
From left to right, Masters student Mya Gaby, Pancho Villa, modelling one of the small cat cameras and Dr Heidy Kikillus.
How much hunting pet cats are doing is one aspect of the project, which is funded by Victoria and the Wellington City Council and is believed to be the first study of its kind in New Zealand.

The research project is a partnership with the community with cats taking part having been volunteered by their owners. They will wear a small video camera clipped to their collar for several hours twice a week to record what they get up to when no one is looking.

The researchers—postdoctoral research fellow Dr Heidy Kikillus and Masters student Mya Gaby—will analyse footage captured by the cameras to find out more about the animals’ behaviour and activities.

Dr Kikillus’ work is part of a three-year collaboration between the Wellington City Council and Victoria University which is designed to explore issues around the city’s resilience, ecology and urban environment while Ms Gaby is employed on the project as part of Victoria’s summer research scholarship programme

Dr Kikillus says the idea for the study came from attending a public meeting held by Gareth Morgan earlier this year where he called for Karori, where Zealandia is located, to become the first ‘confined cat only’ suburb.

 “One of the things a lot of Gareth’s opponents were saying is that there is little New Zealand research on cat behaviour—this project may provide information on the impact cats are having on native wildlife but it will also give cat owners insights into what their pets are doing.

“The results from similar research overseas have sometimes amazed pet owners who’ve discovered that their cats are running under cars, getting down sewers, fighting and travelling quite long distances,” she says.

Only cats that are used to wearing collars are being used in the study says Dr Kikillus.

“The cameras are tiny, weighing just 32 grams. Providing the cat normally wears a collar, carrying a camera around too doesn’t seem to bother them.”

She says confidentiality is guaranteed to pet owners taking part.

“They get to keep a copy of the footage but for the purposes of the study, individual cats won’t be identified and there is no punishment if they do happen to catch native wildlife.”

At the end of the summer, the results will be collated and, says Dr Kikillus, could be used to design a larger and more comprehensive study of cat behaviour in the wider Wellington region.

Each summer, Victoria University partners with businesses and organisations in the capital city, with the two parties sharing the costs of employing top performing students to carry out research projects. Now in its fifth year, a total of 252 Victoria students are employed this year under the University’s Summer Research Scholarship Programme with 15 of those working at the Wellington City Council.