When English professor Sarah Tsiang isn’t teaching or in her office , she can be seen crawling under bushes to feed many of the campus’ feral cats.
“I think people don’t realize how much these cats eat,” Tsiang said. “It’s like six pounds per one day’s feeding.”
Acts of generosity towards EKU’s cats are nothing new, but for the Community Cats Volunteers, it’s a mission. Since 2013, the group of faculty, students, staff and outside community members have led an organized campaign to feed and manage Eastern’s feral cat population.
It started in the fall of 2013, when now-retired librarian and CCV spokesperson Nancy McKenney heard from another university employee that EKU’s cats may be in danger. She heard rumors from colleagues about how facilities personnel were trapping the cats and dumping them on the university farm, or even had plans to kill them if they couldn’t be trapped or dumped.
McKenney, already troubled by the sound of hungry cats crying by the library, decided enough was enough. She and fellow campus cat-lovers and feeders scheduled a meeting with President Michael Benson to discuss action towards dealing with the cats humanely.
McKenney said she figured at least a dozen people or so would show up to the meeting in Coates on Dec. 10, 2013. At least 50 showed, spilling out of the standing space in the Martin Room and into the hallway.
“I think it surprised the administration that there were that many people who were interested, said Ann Leslie Jones, a Richmond resident who has been involved with CCV from the start. Both Jones and her husband feed the cats daily; she feeds in the morning, while he feeds in the evening.
What came from that meeting was a program designated to feed the cats and employ a practice of “trap, neuter, return,” or TNR, to manage the population. Under TNR, the cats are trapped using humane live traps. From there, they’re brought to the Humane Society for spaying or neutering, an overall health assessment, treatment for parasites, a rabies vaccine and an ear tip mark to distinguish them from other cats, according to the organization’s flyer. The cats are given a brief recovery period before being returned to their original places on campus.
Since the introduction of TNR to campus, McKenney said, the cat population has decreased from over 150 to roughly 55. The goal is to reduce EKU’s feral cat population in a safe and humane way.
These days, the Community Cats Volunteers oversee seven to eight cat “colonies” across campus, Jones said. The cats are fed once a day in different shifts at several feeding stations, which at a time were labeled structures designed to keep the cats’ food dry.
These feeding stations have proven to be a challenge for CCV.
Over the past several years, the group has had to consistently replace stations that go missing, Tsiang said. Only one actual structure remains, Jones said. One went missing within the past couple of weeks, which CCV reported to EKU Police.
“A lot of effort went into making that,” Jones said. “Not only does it allow a central place for the cats to eat, it also allows for the food to stay dry.”
Members of CCV aren’t sure who’s been taking the feeding stations or why. They speculate it could be students or employees who want EKU’s cat population gone, or just want to play pranks. But it does complicate things.
“Occasionally you could justify maybe a bowl disappears, maybe a dog took it. But a feeding station was removed by someone on campus, and it just makes it hard,” Tsiang said.
Still, rain or shine, CCV volunteers make it work. Most feeding stations are now just a few bowls designated for food and water under some bushes.
“It looks more like a bush right now. Because it is a bush,” Jones said, laughing.
Another challenge CCV members face is the public perception of feral cats. People often think “feral” means “dangerous” or “wild,” but more literally means “free,” McKenney said in a presentation to the EKU Animal Studies Club on Oct. 22. Feral cats are shy and more likely to avoid people, she said. For that reason, most are unadoptable.
“You don’t usually see them,” Jones said. “I think if you were to walk across campus you might see maybe one or two cats but they tend to stay away from humans - they don’t bother students.”
When it comes to caring for campus cats, Tsiang and Jones said they felt a personal responsibility. Domesticated cats are homeless because of human irresponsibility, Tsiang said. To her, that reflects upon the actions of students, faculty and staff.
“I think that was also a motivation for CCV people and it certainly is for me, that those cats are there because of EKU, so we have some responsibility to do what we can to make their lives as good as we can,” Tsiang said.
The organization takes money donations through checks and food donations through a donation box in the lobby of the Department of Psychology in the Cammack Building. For more information on CCV, go to facebook.com/communitycatsvolunteers.