GONZO VISION

SEE LIFE THROUGH THE COLLAR CAM OF AN OUTDOOR CAT

Words by Chris Nelson | Images Courtesy: Gonzo's/Owners

When Gonzo’s owner, Derek, reviewed the first day of footage, he didn’t see much, as Gonzo just napped in a bush. On the second day, however, the camera was greeted with two friendly opossum friends.

Outdoor cats are some of the most fascinatingly furtive creatures. They leave for hours — sometimes days — and then return home, curl up on the couch for nap, and act like they didn’t have adventures or experience worlds that we humans can only imagine. They sleep soundly as questions clog our minds: Where did they go? What did they do? What did they see?
While this curiosity cannot be answered by cats, we now have the technology to peek into the lives of these rogue rovers; strap a camera to a cat’s collar, and their once-cloaked quests come to life in Technicolor and play out on our screens. This method, though, should not be pursued by every owner of an outdoor cat, according to the pioneering dad of the best-known collar-camera cat, Gonzo. “Documenting stuff from a cat’s perspective and getting to understand what’s going on with an outdoor cat is cool and interesting,” says Derek, Gonzo’s dad; he asked that his last name not be included in this article. “I think the downside is that if people are motivated to do it for internet content, eventually, somebody’s going to throw an indoor cat outside in hopes that they get some good videos, and it’s going to end badly.”
Derek is a documentary filmmaker based in Burbank, California, and in 2015 he and his wife adopted kitten Gonzo from the Pasadena Humane Society. For the first six months of the cat’s life, they kept the shorthair indoors, then slowly started letting him out into the nicely manicured patio of their apartment complex under strict supervision. “He handled himself pretty well out there, so we gradually started letting him out more and more, and when he was a year old, he started asking to go out,” Derek tells us. “So, we’d let him out, and if we called him from the porch, he’d come running back in. He seemed well-suited to the outdoors, so we installed a little cat door in our kitchen window so he could come and go as he pleased.”
After a few years of outdoor living, Gonzo brought home a small, still-alive bird, dropped it on the kitchen floor, and totally freaked out his family. The incident made Derek wonder: What is he doing when we’re not watching him? Is he getting into trouble? Is he going to run under a car? Curiosity collided with responsibility, and Derek decided that he needed to educate himself about what Gonzo got up to during his days out. In early 2019, Derek bought a small, cheap spy camera and attached it to Gonzo’s break-away collar; what else would you expect of a documentary filmmaker?
Derek says, “On the first day, Gonzo just slept in some bushes, but on the second day, I was scrubbing through the footage, and suddenly there’s an opossum face right in the lens. I thought I was about to watch a murder go down, but no. Another little possum buddy came down, and Gonzo sniffed them, and they all just chilled. And that was when we were like, ’Whoa, this has to go on the internet.’”
Gonzo never again brought home a half-dead animal after the bird in the kitchen, which seemed to deeply startle the cat, and instead he started bringing his parents “trash gifts.” Gonzo comes home with a discarded coffee cup lid or a decrepit centerfold from a vintage Playboy magazine and expects treats, pets, and affection. “The trash gifts are obviously one of the motifs that is most interesting and constant throughout these three years,” Derek says. “I’m pretty sure he wants to provide, and I think this documentary project offers some evidence of that.”
Once or twice a day, as Gonzo came and went as he pleased, Derek installed a freshly charged mini camera on the cat’s collar, which yielded about 90 minutes of relatively low-resolution footage; Derek has since upgraded to a trio of higher resolution Insta360 cameras, but the tradeoff is that each camera captures only about 30 minutes of footage. “I’ll film him 90 minutes a day,” Derek says, “and it’ll take me, like, five minutes to review it, and most of it ends up getting deleted because he is usually just napping somewhere.”

For the first two years of the project, Derek posted only on Instagram, but then he started posting on TikTok, and within a week he had gotten more views, follows, and likes than he had gotten over two years on Instagram. Now Gonzo (@gonzoisacat) has more than 600,000 followers across both social media platforms, with tens of millions of views and likes. Fame, though, is not always as sweet as it sounds, and Derek started receiving criticisms from people who believe that cats shouldn’t be let outside. “There are nut jobs who will make threatening comments about Gonzo or talk about how, in their neighborhoods, kids torture cats and stuff like that. But overall, I think the positives outweigh the negatives,” Derek tells us. “There are a lot of super fans that really love this, and we get a lot of comments from folks that tell us, ’I’ve been depressed lately, and this cat is the only thing keeping me from going off the deep end.’”

Soon, Derek will start work on a feature documentary that celebrates this project in its entirety. He’s currently planning an outline for the narrative, and he hopes that renowned film director Werner Herzog might be open to narrating Gonzo’s parts. As Derek turns his focus toward the documentary, he will likely post less and less on social media, because he isn’t interested in running the accounts through the end of Gonzo’s life. “It’s always sad when you see other pet accounts where the owners are like, ’Our guy crossed the rainbow bridge today,’ or something like that, and I’m hoping to never make that post,” Derek says. “I’m hoping to ride off into the sunset with a still-alive cat because we have so many parasocial relationships — the bonds you form with somebody that doesn’t know you, but you see on social media — and I don’t want to crush a bunch of people in six years’ time or whenever Gonzo dies.”
While it certainly brings a smile to many, it was never Derek’s intention to run a social media account for his cat, nor does he intend to keep it updated throughout Gonzo’s life. What’s next? Look out for a documentary about Gonzo’s adventures.
Since the beginning, having the right priorities has been core to this project, which came from a place of both curiosity and responsibility, and has continued as a way to gather as much knowledge about the enigmatic life of one charming outdoor cat. “This isn’t for everybody, and if you’re going to do it, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons,” Derek says. “We would’ve been willing, at the beginning of this project, to stop letting Gonzo outside if we had found that he was putting himself in danger or killing a bunch of things, but because we’re educated about what he’s doing out there, we feel confident and comfortable letting this continue.”
Gonzo has pulled back the curtains of the odd world of an outdoor cat and let us live in it vicariously through the camera hanging from his collar. “People make so many generalizations about cats in our comments, like, ’You should never do this,’ or, ’This should never happen,’ but then the footage contradicts all this dogma that people have about outdoor cats. It’s arguable that we know our cat better than most anybody knows their cat, because we see his private life even when we’re not looking. It has connected us in a unique way, and it’s interesting to now see my cat as an individual — like a person.

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