Group Cares for Campus Cats

July 1, 1998

Judith Zwolak

There is a community on the uptown campus whose members are marked by their graceful carriage, their territorial instincts and their tendency to flee when approached by a student. No, it's not the faculty; it's the society of feral cats that makes its home underneath buildings across campus, from Norman Mayer Hall to Irby House.

These campus cats, neither pets nor inherently wild, actually make up what is called a "feral colony." Feral cat colonies form, claim animal welfare groups, when abandoned domestic pets find an area with available shelter and food and then reproduce generations of cats.

Territory initially populated by only one female and one male cat producing eight kittens per year can potentially result in 174,760 cats in seven years, according to studies published by the American Veterinary Medicine Association. While no one knows how many feral cats live on the uptown campus, there could be as many as 100, says the felines' foremost friend, Valerie Greenberg, dean of Newcomb College.

"Why do we have so many?" prompts Greenberg. "The answer is very simple. People abandon pets that have never been spayed or neutered and the cycle starts. The problem is not animals; the problem is people, and the only long-term solution is education."

To educate the Tulane community about responsible pet ownership, Greenberg and colleagues on the uptown campus have formed the Feral Cat Initiative at Tulane, which will also organize volunteers to manage the cat population on campus. Managing a feral cat colony involves humanely trapping adult cats, testing them for feline leukemia and feline AIDS, vaccinating them, spaying or neutering them, marking their ears and returning them to their territory where volunteers will provide them with food.

Volunteers will also seek homes for any healthy and adoptable kittens captured on campus. This type of management program has worked on college campuses and municipalities across the country and is the most effective and humane way to reduce feral cat populations, says Paul Berry, director of the Southern Animal Foundation, a group that provides free and low-cost spaying and neutering to residents of southern Louisiana communities.

Berry, who has studied the situation in New Orleans over the past four years, met with concerned Tulane community members in April to discuss the feral cat situation on campus.

"A trap-neuter-and-release program is an ecological approach to the problem," Berry says. He cites one of the first such programs that emerged in Miami after the city failed to control feral cats by trapping and euthanizing them. Other cats soon moved into the area cleared of the original cats and repopulated it within a few months. "They found that when they neutered and released the cats, the colony's growth stabilized and eventually decreased," Berry says. "The cats also stopped all of the bad behaviors that come with reproduction, like fighting and territorial marking."

Since cats are territorial and keep other stray cats from infiltrating their colonies, managed populations ultimately result in fewer cats than a strict trap-and-euthanize program, where new cats simply move into vacated territory, Berry says. It's also less costly in the long run.

"It's not practical nor economically feasible to go out and trap every cat out there and euthanize it," he says. "And you won't find the volunteer labor force that you can with a trap-neuter-and-release effort."

The Southern Animal Foundation has approximately 400 volunteers managing colonies in a 10-parish area around New Orleans, he adds. Volunteers to help with the Feral Cat Initiative at Tulane shouldn't be hard to find, Greenberg says. After she was profiled as a champion of the campus cats in a Hullabaloo article and published an editorial on the issue in the Newcomber newsletter, numerous people have offered their assistance and praised her for addressing the problem.

"Of all the things I've done since I became dean, this has garnered the most attention," she says with a smile.

Greenberg says she wasn't fully aware of the campus cat problem until she became a campus resident herself when she moved into the Newcomb dean's residence on Newcomb Place last July. Under her patio lived a mother cat and four sickly kittens that tugged at the new dean's heartstrings. She began feeding them and became aware of a society of cats that lived around her house and the University Center. In total, the Greenbergs have trapped and altered 14 cats and kittens. They found another group of five kittens this spring under roofing tiles in the backyard of the dean's residence.

Feral Cat Initiative member Allison Raynor, director of alumni affairs for Newcomb College, tamed the kittens, who were placed for adoption at the Prytania Veterinary Hospital in early June. Greenberg hopes to enlist volunteers from the student body, faculty and staff to help trap cats, vaccinate and alter them, and then continue to feed them in their original territories.

The group also needs donations for traps and veterinary expenses and volunteers to adopt any kittens born on campus. To those who would argue that keeping cats on campus could lead to outbreaks of diseases like ringworm and rabies, Student Health Center Director Paul Dyment says the public health concerns are minimal.

"You are probably not going to get infected by touching a cat with ringworm once," Dyment says. "You get an infection like that only after living with a cat in close quarters."

Rabies is also rare in New Orleans, he adds. His only memory of a student receiving rabies shots was after a chipmunk bite in Audubon Park. "I have no overriding concerns about the health risks of cats on campus," Dyment says.

Tom Armitage, superintendent of grounds in the physical plant department, says the biggest problem the cats pose for his crews are the food cans left by those who feed the animals. The cats may also be the reason why some buildings are periodically infested with fleas, he adds.

As for keeping the rodent population in check, Armitage says that rats and mice were never a big problem on the uptown campus. Another member of the physical plant department heads the local chapter of a national bird-enthusiast group long considered adversaries of outdoor cats, both feral and domestic.

Yet Michael Crago, energy management control systems coordinator and president of the Orleans Audubon Society, says he believes that managing feral colonies on campus shouldn't negatively impact rare birds in the area.

"Most of the birds in the city are starlings and house sparrows, which are considered nuisance birds," he says. "There aren't many songbirds on campus."

Crago, however, agrees with the national Audubon Society's position that domestic cats should be kept indoors, although he concedes that a well-fed cat wearing a bell might cut down on bird predation. Students are some of the most vocal champions of the campus cats, says Rebecca Teagarden, resident director of Bruff Quad.

Residents of the dorms that line the quad donate food that is kept at the front desks of the dorms and bring the friendlier cats to the veterinary clinics. But students may be a big part of the problem, too, says Teagarden.

"A lot of these cats are house pets that students couldn't take with them when they left Tulane."

Greenberg says the Feral Cat Initiative will provide first-year students during orientation with information about responsible cat care. In the meantime, she will continue to care for the campus cats she has trapped and altered and hopes to educate campus citizens about the plight of the Tulane felines.

"The cats live pretty horrible lives of great suffering," she says. "They can starve to death. They can be run over. They can be killed by dogs and die of disease. They are plagued by parasites and fleas and they live in constant terror. It's one pretty awful life."

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