Guest post by Ingrid R. Niesman, MS PhD
Cats, including community cats, are daily reminders of the simple joy animals bring into our lives. In times of crisis, caring for our cats gives us purpose when the rest of the world is beyond our power to control. This is the second part in a three-part series based on my personal experience caring for the campus cats at San Diego State University. Click here to read Part One: The Mad Dash.
Biblical hail and rainbows
The period from late March to early April was one of the wettest and coldest periods I’ve experienced in my two decades of living in Southern California.
I was in charge of feeding the cats the last week of March. The campus was deathly quiet since even the landscapers couldn’t work in the rain. All four cats were anxious and ready for breakfast and human interaction every morning. On the last Thursday in March, I dragged my husband with me to meet the kitties. As we fed BJ, to the west a large and brilliant rainbow appeared, arching from one end of campus to the other. “The beginning of a brighter future,” I thought to myself. “Maybe we will all get though this by taking one day at a time.”
Overnight brought yet another out-of-the-ordinary storm with heavy rain, wind, cold, and snow, leaving piles of pea-sized hail on campus. In the morning, the sun was out and so were the cats, dry and eager to eat.
Orion could hardly wait and stretched as only sleepy cats can do as he waited for me to fill his bowl and open the can of wet food. I chatted to him and got almost close enough to pet him. Much of my anxiety about getting on campus and taking care of the cats for all of our SDSU community was easing. All was right with the world, until it wasn’t.
Where is our boy?
Sadly, that was the last time I got to see Orion. The next Friday, April 3rd, our weekly feeder reported seeing all four cats as usual. Saturday, no Orion. Sunday, no Orion.
John was uneasy. “I didn’t see Orion on Saturday which is unusual but it does happen sometimes,” he said. “I walked around the building to the little courtyard behind the Little Theater and Communications where he sometimes hangs out and noticed there were screens installed on some of the building ventilation holes near the Scene Shop,” he wrote in his usual weekend update. On Monday, our feeder reported, “even with baked chicken and canned food, no Orion this morning.”
The more experienced feeders offered John advice. “Just thinking about Orion since John’s message; is there a chance he could be shut in a building? Maybe he got in via an open window or door. Also, I haven’t seen Mama Calico’s newly renovated area but in the past I would 9 out of 10 times find him there,” suggested one long time Aztec feeder. Another feeder observed, “When I was feeding the cats yesterday in Darcy’s area there was a physical plant truck with a driver inside by the bench, he was watching me intently. As he drove away, he kept peering at the holes to see if she would come out.”
I walked through the nearby Physical Science Building since one set of windows was open. No Orion. John persisted and came to campus two more times to scour all the usual cat haunts for him. “I spent a lot of time peering into the building ventilation holes that had the screens, calling and looking for him, but didn’t see him. I took off one of the screens so if he is in there, he can get out,” The following day John came again in the evening when the cats usually come out. He called and called, to no avail.
We will probably never know what happened. As one feeder surmised, “if only Darcy could talk…” Whatever it was, it must have been sudden and dramatic. Both Darcy and BJ have become very wary of leaving their tunnels, even for food. I always have to wait for several minutes before they come out to gobble their breakfasts.
An orange cat for the ages
Orion was the poster boy for our campus cats. A brave, adventurous, yet protective cat, he was always standing guard each morning over the tunnels where he and his mother Darcy lived. Facility crews loved watching him roam in the early morning and late in the evenings. “I think the students really liked seeing him and taking his picture,” said one of the feeders. I’m glad so many phones will be filled with his joy of life.
Although he is my first loss, other beloved Aztec Cats have disappeared over the years. Last year, the mom cat with her trailing kittens that John originally spotted disappeared under similar circumstances. Hermione lived by the bookstore and was very social. Students would come by and pet her for good luck before finals. Thumper lived in the Mediterranean Garden area, begging for food from students eating lunch. Turkey pieces were her particular favorite treat.
Dozens of students have told John that the SDSU cats remind them of pets they have at home and help them relax during the sometimes stressful school environment. When I fed Raven in the mornings on the busy traffic area, many students, staff and faculty stopped to comment how much they loved seeing her everyday. They wrote down the Aztec Cat link, took her picture and expressed their gratitude that all the cats are well cared for and safe.
Our tribute to a special cat
“Orion was well loved and cared for, and as with any of our companion animals, we sadly have to say good bye at some point. We just do the best for them that we can, and love them an immense amount while they’re here. I’m completely and utterly heartbroken,” wrote one feeder in tribute to Orion.“ “When I first started feeding, Orion was the only one of the three cats by Hepner Hall that I saw consistently. He struck me as solid and unafraid, the king of all he surveyed,” wrote another.
For John, this loss cuts deep. “Orion’s disappearance is really hard for me. I still call for him and look for him when I’m on campus. I keep expecting him to come running out of the bushes. Orion would never leave Darcy, so I fear something must have happened to him.”
A silent victim of COVID-19
Although his disappearance will never be counted among the staggering fatalities caused by COVID-19, I can’t help but wonder if the campus lockdown and swift depopulation of campus left our cats vulnerable to predation by coyotes or owls, or worse by trapping or poison. I consider his loss to be attributable to the pandemic. He will be my silent victim, lost without the benefit of a human’s loving touch.
Continuing care for the Aztec cats
We will continue to care for the cats through this pandemic. None of us know what the future holds, but we will do whatever is in our power to ensure that these cats survive the pandemic and will be there for students and faculty when they return to the campus.
Coming later this year: Part Three: The Reunion
Ingrid R. Niesman MS PhD is the Director of the SDSU Electron Microscope Imaging Facility at San Diego State University. She graduated from Utah State University and received her MS from the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign. After 30 years of technical electron microscopy, cell biology, neuroscience and infectious disease research, Dr. Niesman completed her PhD in the UK at the University of Sunderland. Her work experience includes time at LSU Medical School, Washington University, UAMS in Little Rock, UCSD, TSRI and a postdoctoral year at CALIBR in La Jolla, CA. She has worked for at least two National Academy of Science members and is credited with over 50 publications. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos courtesy of Ingrid Niesman and the Aztec Cats Facebook page