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 final installment of my three-part series based on my experience caring for the campus cats at San Diego State University. Click here to read Part One: The Mad Dash and Part Two: Orion is Missing.
Is a campus a university without students?
As our Spring Semester ended and students “walked” through Zoom graduations, the reality of our crisis deepens. Summers in San Diego are glorious: warm sunny days, ocean fun and cool nights. At this time, our SDSU campus is quiet but not completely deserted. As a regional university, many students stay and take summer school classes, work on campus or in research labs.
Sadly, we never saw Orion again. This morning, as I took my turn feeding our remaining three cats, the abnormal silence, broken only by leaf blowers and mowers, was disquieting.
Recently the Chancellor of the entire CSU system announced that all 23 campuses will be virtual-only come fall. No students will be returning. There will be no band music heard in the distance. There will be no face-to-face connections. For me, the last remaining remnants of vibrant campus life are our SDSU Aztec Cats.
Campus cat colonies across the country
During the course of my writing, I researched other campus cat management programs across the country and found some amazing success.
Cats seem to like higher education. I’d like to think it’s because they are noble, intelligent and independent thinkers, but probably it’s because of the high volume of tossed out food, dark hiding spots under old buildings and plenty of open space with limited traffic typical for campuses. As the number of universities increased after World War II, cats followed close behind, forming colonies and taking advantage of the proximity to urban and suburban human life.
Feline-loving scholars across the country have developed programs to manage their colonies successfully. At SDSU, we have John Denune to thank for his tireless dedication. Our once thriving colony is down to three cats.
Trap-neuter-release (TNR) campaigns have seen success in all the campus groups I talked to, including our own. “We are down to seven cats from 30,” explains Karen Smith of the University of West Florida. “Through our program, we have adopted out 15 kittens and two highly socialized adults.” The University of Georgia in Athens has seen their original estimated population of 189 cats dwindle to the current count of 40-50 regularly fed cats.
Campus Cat life during lockdown
I was not alone in my moments of panic about campus access once the chaos of lockdowns became reality. Kelly Bettinger of the UGA Cat Zip Alliance was watching her local mayor’s and commission meeting via Facebook Live when they enacted the lockdown in March and, like me, immediately knew that her cat colony was “essential”. She received written permission directly from the mayor that all feeders would have campus access seven days a week. “We continue caring for our cats no matter the what kind of weather, holidays or pandemics, 365 days a year,” Kelly told me.
Kim Pierce, of the Feral Cat Group at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas proactively wrote to her campus liaison explaining exactly where the feeders would be each day and what safe practices they would follow. “Our cats will die if we don’t feed them. They depend on us.” Kim also expressed another commonality between these successful campus programs: the support and cooperation of campus/community police and university facility managers.
Gratitude for the support of campus police and campus facilities departments
Support from law enforcement and the people who maintain campus infrastructure is crucial for the protection of campus colonies.
I’ve had the privilege of getting to know many of our SDSU facility employees under good circumstances, such as the renovation of my lab suite, and less than good conditions, such as unscheduled power outages, floods and pest control. They are professional, caring and skilled. This pandemic has allowed me the opportunity to meet many more during my brief feeding trips. Long-time employees have gotten to know our cats and have been asking about how they are doing and whether we need help. They’re telling me stories about their encounters with the cats. All were deeply troubled by the loss of Orion in April.
Solano Community College’s campus cat feeder, Karen Larkin, waves to the county Sheriff each morning. They have a remarkable relationship in maintaining the natural campus preserve. “We have an App that links us to the Sheriff’s Office directly so we can immediately report issues,” reports Karen.
At SMU, the cat program actually shares storage space with the campus police.
Moving to Phase 2 of reopening
As we are moving forward, we have set up a revised feeding schedule. Instead of weekly assigned duties, several feeders are now going into their offices once or twice a week. Thus, we are now limiting extra people on campus. The hope is to return to our usual schedule once the campus is repopulated, but there is no solid plan for that to occur right now.
Until that time, our cats remain the symbol of what a college should be: a safe and caring academic environment. Kim Pierce expresses this best. “I love these cats. I love caring for them and being there for them. It gets me out of the house during this crisis.”
I concur with Kim. Whereas I can’t take care of my students this fall, I can continue to keep one aspect of campus life as it was before the pandemic by caring for our cats. I am confident our students will appreciate the efforts.
Feral Cat Research Resource: National Feline Research Council (NFRC)
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 of Aztec Cats via Aztec Cats Facebook page, photos of SMU cats courtesy of Kim Pierce, used with permission