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Campus Cat Colonies: How feral feline populations are managed at universities

Ellen, a brown and white tabby cat, sits on the concrete pavement near Tolbert Hall at the University of Florida on April 29, 2024. (Kat Tran/WUFT News)
Ellen, a brown and white tabby cat, sits on the concrete pavement near Tolbert Hall at the University of Florida on April 29, 2024. (Kat Tran/WUFT News)

Most colleges and universities take pride in naming their sports teams after fearsome animals: Gators, Bulldogs and Tigers. But there is another critter that has marked its territory at many schools, including the University of Florida: Feral cats.

These unowned and roaming animals have found homes around dorms, classrooms and wooded areas where they can find food offered by compassionate students, faculty and administrators.

“They kind of have their own little group of caretakers, but UF policies toward feral cats is strange because you’re not supposed to feed them or interact with them,” said Emma Van Riper, 21, a UF political science senior, who learned about the campus cat community through Instagram and sometimes feeds cats living in the Tolbert Area.

The UF Environmental Health and Safety regulation maintains that feral cats cannot be fed due to public health concerns and will remove any animal food and containers left on campus grounds. “But we’re not going to leave them starving and alone because it’s not their fault they’re outside,” Riper said.

These elusive felines pose an obstacle for university administrations trying to protect the safety of humans and wildlife. But they also serve as a central part of the campus community and their caretakers. Trap-neuter-return programs, or TNR, have been used by community cat caretakers as a way to curb the overpopulation of cats and manage colonies.

UF is not the only university with a feral cat community. Schools in other states also have populations of feline citizens. In fact, feral cats have stirred controversy in other countries, as a 2018 study by the University of New South Wales in Australia addressed its feline issues with a nine-year study that found TNR programs stabilize cat populations.

Trapping cats involves the placement of food or bait at the very back of a trap to coax the cat inside and trigger the trip plate, according to Alley Cat Allies, a non-profit cat advocacy organization. The cats are then taken to a veterinarian or clinic to be neutered, vaccinated and have their ear clipped, a human way to identify cats that have been spayed and vaccinated, and then returned to their colony on campus.

The camaraderie of campus cats is reflected on social media platforms like Instagram, said Tina Tallon, a UF assistant professor of Artificial Intelligence and the Arts. She learned about UF’s campus cats and their management through a friend’s search for a missing cat.

She discovered the Instagram accounts: @campuskitties, run by Ines Aviles-Spadoni, a UF research program coordinator for the Transportation Institute, and @gatorcats, run by Devon Limcangco, 23, UF electrical engineering senior, both accounts regularly post about UF’s campus cats.

Soon after, Tallon volunteered to provide medical assistance to Willie, a black-and-white cat living near the mechanical and aerospace engineering building and eventually adopted him. “Not only does [social media] create community, but it also helps monitor the well-being of the cats, because that’s actually happened with Tenders,” Tallon said.

Tenders, a local campus cat celebrity, sprawls on a power generation near the front desk office in Tolbert Hall at the University of Florida on April 29, 2024. (Kat Tran/WUFT News)
Tenders, a local campus cat celebrity with a clipped ear, sprawls on a power generator near the front desk office in Tolbert Hall at the University of Florida on April 29, 2024. (Kat Tran/WUFT News)

Tenders is a local campus cat celebrity, who briefly disappeared from her usual home at UF Tolbert Area. Her disappearance sparked concern amongst community members about her whereabouts, including Tallon, who helped find and rescue the brown-and-white cat.

There are more formal, established campus clubs and programs that manage and advocate for the well-being of cats like the Cat Club, created in 2016, at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida and the Campus Cat Program, created in 2017, at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, Florida. Both colleges maintain a team of volunteers and club members, who use TNR methods to reduce the number of campus cats and feed the cats daily, with just enough food to comply with campus policies and discourage other wildlife like raccoons or squirrels.

On UWF’s 1600-acre campus, Nicole McDonald, the senior campus coordinator, worked with the university’s Department of Environmental Health Safety to address the health concerns and nuisances posed by 30 identified feral campus cats, as they were entering university buildings through automatic sliding doors.

“I caught up with another staff member who had been feeding them and we sat down to try to figure out a way to deal with them because we did not want to have them euthanized,” she said. After collecting donations to provide veterinary care, they started to perform TNR methods and trapped one or two cats every couple of weeks.

The university also has three or four foster families who care for potential cat candidates up for adoption. “We’ve been lucky, we have about 1,600 faculty and staff who have almost adopted them all because we have an amazing group that really love animals on campus,” McDonald said. Now, there are about four or five cats left on campus.

A kitten with ringworm awaits care inside an animal cage at Operation Catnip, a Gainesville spay-neuter clinic, on April 27, 2024. (Kat Tran/WUFT News)
A kitten with ringworm awaits care inside an animal cage at Operation Catnip, a Gainesville spay-neuter clinic, on April 27, 2024. (Kat Tran/WUFT News)

Many cat caretakers seek additional support and assistance from animal shelters, independent cat management organizations and clinics that provide veterinary services. Operation Catnip, a free spay-neuter clinic and a teaching avenue for veterinary students was founded in 1998 by Dr. Julie Levy, a shelter medicine professor and program director at the University of Florida’s veterinary school.

Since its founding, the clinic has spayed and neutered more than 80,000 community cats, reducing the number of cats entering animal shelters or euthanized due to lack of shelter space, Levy said.

The awareness of effective and humane control of cat populations is widespread throughout the community, Levy said, pointing to how familiar people are with Operation Catnip through social media. Free-roaming cats on UF campus have been kept at a low number due to staff and volunteers who help neuter cats and remove some for adoption.

She also said TNR methods foster community involvement and engagement to volunteer and care for free-roaming cats. “That's different than programs where cats are removed for euthanasia, and it's very hard for supporters of that to find volunteers that will help do that,” Levy said.

When individuals continue to trap and maintain cats in their local areas, Levy said they are often adopted out, which also prevents the number of cats in the area from growing.

Other cat caretakers may assume a more involved role and set up a feeding schedule by themselves or with other residents. Adoption invariably accompanies the TNR process and causes an immediate reduction in cats in the area, preventing the population from growing. Solely performing spay-neuter methods takes longer because the cats are still thriving while they’re there, Levy said.

Another group of cat caretakers lies on the west coast at San Diego State University. Aztec Cats, founded in 2009 by John Denune, 57, a former San Diego State University Information Technology security professional, also seeks trapping, spaying and neutering services through clinics like the Feral Cat Coalition. Over time, he was able to spay and foster and relocate 23 cats and kittens after his first encounter with a mother cat leading her four kittens to dig around the trash near a food court on campus.

“I went out that night and went to the grocery store, and got some cat food and watched carefully to see where they lived and started feeding them,” Denune said. “Then I started noticing other cats on campus and the rest is history.”

He attributes the success of TNR methods to how self-contained the large campus is and the volunteer work by campus faculty, staff and students. The colony started with around a dozen cats, and Denune, now retired, continues to care for the two remaining cats on campus and manages the Facebook page.

“You don’t want the cats reproducing out of control on campus, because at that point, the administration would probably have to take some negative action against that,” Denune said.

As he started implementing feeding locations around campus, he collaborated with the university administration to change campus policies to allow feral cats on campus in compliance with environmental health and safety concerns.

Along the Ohio River in Evansville, Indiana, Sarah Stevens, 53, director of the honors program and living-learning communities at the University of Southern Indiana, assumed a role as a faculty point-person for the campus cats. One of her students, Peyton, worked with university administration to develop cat-friendly policies. The cats are managed by a leadership team of three to five members and 15 to 20 volunteers. In the last three years, they have been able to TNR 21 cats, and relocate and adopt four adult cats and 22 kittens.

Three cats, Ellen, left, Frankie, middle, and Big Balls, right, sit on the concrete pavement near Tolbert Hall at the University of Florida on April 29, 2024. (Kat Tran/WUFT News)
Three cats, Ellen, left, Frankie, middle, and Big Balls, right, sit on the concrete pavement near Tolbert Hall at the University of Florida on April 29, 2024. (Kat Tran/WUFT News)

There are four feeding stations near wooded areas, behind apartments and around dumpsters, and like many other campuses, someone is always tasked to feed the cats daily.

Any concerns or updates about the cats are posted on the campus cat's Facebook group. “We have a shared Google Drive, so we have our vet receipts, budget, cat census, and feeding calendar,” Stevens said. They have also created winter shelters made from Rubbermaid containers, aluminum blankets and straw to protect the cats during colder months.

“When we have caught kittens, we usually try to find someone to foster them. We can’t always find somebody, so if we have one of our members foster, that’s great,” Stevens said. “But if we can’t find someone to foster, that’s when we partner with the humane society or Feline Fix [a local spay-neuter clinic] because they have a list of people who foster.”

Blackheart Trappers, in Miami-Dade County, is a nonprofit professional TNR organization founded in 2019 and run by Jonathan Colon Garcia, 36, and Sylvia Perea Cortez, 57. In the summer of 2020, their first big project was at the University of Miami, where they trapped nearly 300 community cats. “It took us about a year and a half to be able to do what we did there,” Garcia said.

Garcia and Cortez have adapted their TNR methods to the urban environment and the cats living in human-centric areas, where cats are seen as nuisances. “Which is very difficult because when you find and trap a cat next to a busy restaurant, it gets very stressful and frustrating when you’re trying to help one cat and you have a bunch of humans talking or not paying attention and letting us do our work,” he said.

When it comes to compassion fatigue, a form of emotional and physical distress due to repeated exposure to trauma that can affect caregivers as defined by Joyce University, and mental exhaustion, Garcia sets boundaries and knows when to say “No.”

TNR is about “preventing the needless deaths of countless litters,” Garcia said. However, Garcia notes that in certain cases, the best decision is to euthanize cats. “It hurts, because when you get to the point that you have the cat in your hands and all that you could tell them is, ‘I’m sorry we failed you,’ that’s when you need a break,” he said.

A cat sits inside an animal trap at Operation Catnip, a Gainesville spay-neuter clinic, on April 27, 2024. (Kat Tran/WUFT News)
A cat sits inside an animal trap at Operation Catnip, a Gainesville spay-neuter clinic, on April 27, 2024. (Kat Tran/WUFT News)

Grant Sizemore, director of invasive species programs for the American Bird Conservancy, said TNR does not effectively reduce cat populations. The best way to control the overpopulation of cat colonies is by enclosing them in a confined space and keeping cats indoors, he said. This way, the cats can be consistently tracked, located, trapped and updated on their vaccinations.

Additionally, feral cat colonies are reservoirs for diseases that affect human and wildlife health including toxoplasmosis and feline leukemia virus, he said. Toxoplasmosis is transferred from the parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, and is found in infected cat feces, which can increase the health risks for pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Sizemore notes the difference in perspectives and priorities of cat management programs between TNR advocates and conservation organizations. “For some, the priority is a live outcome for the cat regardless of what consequences that might have for naive wildlife or community health, and others, like conservation organizations, we prioritize not releasing a non-native invasive predator onto the landscape.”

The main problem with community cat management in Gainesville is the lack of cohesion between the Environmental Health and Safety unit tasked to control cats off campus and the students and staff who feed the cats, Levy said. She believes developing structured, policy-driven procedures and a volunteer task force would be the right way to decrease tension and manage campus cats.

There are different tools like discouraging people from feeding cats in certain areas, implementing TNR, relocating the feeding station or putting up cats for adoption, that can be used collaboratively to solve wildlife concerns, she said.

“If someone’s goal is to eradicate all free-roaming cats from the landscape, there isn’t any effective program to do that because it’s impossible,” Levy said.

“Whether it’s a routine cycle of killing cats to remove them or trap-neuter-return, it’s an ongoing process and there’s no final solution involved.” Alternatively, Levy said TNR programs should be approached the same way we look at harm mitigation methods, often used in public health programs to improve well-being. “We can take steps to reduce their harm and learn to live in harmony with that urban wildlife rather than think we can remove it all and go back to the way things are.”

The goal of colony management should be continual reduction and eventual elimination of the colony through attrition, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. On UF’s campus, Levy said the cat population has been neutralized due to TNR methods and the impact of work done by volunteers.

“I love having cats in the community. But at the same time, I know that having lots of stray cats isn’t good,” Limcangco said. “I’m hoping that we keep trapping them and giving them fixes. They’ll be like less community cats, but they’ll be more happy and safe.”

Kat is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.