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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


    Campus Network Tends To University’s Deserted Cats

    The gray sky seems to hang lower and lower as the threat of rain grows. A fair-skinned female, dressed in dark blue denim jeans and a plum colored, thigh-length pea coat walks out of the Student Activities Center. She’s sporting thick-rimmed glasses and her hair is pulled away from her face in a perfect French braid.

    She strides toward the Zebra path, now painted red and white to mark Stony Brook University’s 50th anniversary. She scurried, so engrossed in discussing the task ahead of her. Slinking past the Stony Brook Union, the blur of plum heads to a little patch of woods just to the right of the H-Quad dormitory.

    She then wades through damp brown leaves in search of something.

    Suddenly, a heavy wooden box covered in a blue, bubble-wrap tarp pops into view from behind a tree trunk. The tarp helps the box retain the sun’s warmth after nightfall. A small, circular hole is cut into the side of the box about four inches from the ground.

    She walks over to the box, the top parallel to her hip, and lifts up the lid. “There are no cats today because of the rain,” said Christina Dheel, vice-president of the Stony Brook Cat Network.

    Dheel points to the hole in the box just above ground level, explaining it allows a cat to enter the straw-lined haven to escape the elements and chow down on the fresh food placed there daily by the network volunteers. “I guess I would call it a… cat… house,” she said, struggling for the proper term.

    The network is a campus organization of 342 students and faculty members that “Trap, Neuter and Return” (TNR) both domestic and feral cats living on the Stony Brook University campus. The TNR technique refers to the method with which organizations nationwide hope to control the increasing problem of feral cats.

    TNR includes trapping the cats, bringing them to the vet to be neutered — making them unable to reproduce — then either releasing them to a family for adoption or returning them to their natural environment.

    “It’s a great idea if you love cats, and it’s a great idea if you hate cats because we are reducing the number of cats,” said Dr. Nancy Franklin, psychology professor at the university and head faculty advisor to the network.

    Across the United States, TNR is practiced by thousands of individuals and hundreds of organizations, according to Alley Cat Allies, a national, non-profit organization advocating non-lethal methods of reducing the outdoor cat population.

    The goal of using TNR on campus is not to eliminate the entire cat population. Instead, the goal is to make way for the next generation. According to Franklin, it would be impossible to rid the entire campus of feral cats.

    There are currently more than 16 million feral cats sashaying across the United States, according to the Nassau County Legislator’s webpage.

    As a result, more and more areas nationwide are turning to TNR to help control the problem.

    “There is an epidemic on Long Island,” said Dawn Reilly, a representative of Pitter Patter Paws, just one organization that makes up the Long Island Cat Project. The current problem of feral cats on Long Island is a result of previous generations letting their animals run loose without being spayed or neutered, according to Reilly.

    New York is starting to try to tackle the problem. Nassau County legislators Diane Yatauro (D. – Glen Cove) and Denise Ford (D. – Long Beach) held a hearing in March to try and combat the issue by listening to animal activists.

    “The Legislature will look into the adoption of New York City’s law of mandatory spaying and neutering of pets, starting a county registry of volunteers, and the implementation of a TNR program,” said Yatauro in a legislators’ news release on the county’s webpage.

    Other parts of the country are trying to correct the problem as well. Since 1993, the Feral Cat Coalition in San Diego spayed and neutered over 10,000 feral cats resulting in a drop of 50 percent in the city’s total animal shelter intakes.

    With so many wooded areas on the Stony Brook University campus, the network’s task of counting how many cats are on campus year to year is impossible.

    “What we do know is that we have far fewer cats walking into traps than we did in the first several years,” said Franklin. “In some ways we’re operating on blind faith that we’re achieving a long-term humane solution to this problem.”

    The Stony Brook network is part of the Animal Alliance of Long Island, which works with animal shelters, individuals, and rescue organizations to find homes for feral or abandoned animals. The Long Island Cat Project is a division of the alliance.

    Unlike other organizations across the island, however, the network only deals with cats on campus.

    At the university, before a cat is released, a small v-notch is cut in its ear so that if it is trapped again, the volunteers know it has already been neutered. If a cat with a v-notch is caught, it is released back onto the campus.

    But all of this could not happen without the first step — setting the trap.

    Dheel walks to the right of the wooden cathouse to a rectangular, metal-mesh box just tall enough for a cat to walk into. She lifts the latch on top of the cage, and then presses her hand against a metal plate that covers the entrance. The plate moves down to the floor, leaving the doorway wide open.

    The trapper fills the white, Styrofoam bowl inside with Tasty Treasures dry cat food and places it at the back of the trap. One side of the bowl is missing. Dheel explains that if no cat food is left, a trapped, nervous cat might eat part of the bowl.

    She points to another plate just in front of the bowl. “If the cat steps here, it will trigger the door to close,” said Dheel. “But the cat is so far inside the trap at this point he won’t get hurt.”

    She sprinkles catnip in the trap and throughout the surrounding area to entice the cats.

    Turning to face the dorms, she bounds out of the woods, moving fast enough so the damp leaves don’t soak her jeans. “Most of the stations are not this close to an area where students can easily see them,” said Dheel. This is because students have been known to steal traps and because cats will not approach a station that is situated too close to humans.

    There are six trapping stations on campus, but usually only one is set each day because there are only 15 trappers. All are willing to try and balance the cats with their homework.

    The stations are also usually quite far from the center of the campus. Trapping stations are located, behind the soccer fields, in H-Quad, behind the West Apartments and near Tabler Quad. There are 35 feeding stations set up across campus.

    A trapper will open the trap in the morning, check back in the early afternoon to see if a cat has been caught, and then close the trap around 6:30 p.m. If the trap is closed too late, a raccoon might wander in because raccoons are also attracted to cat food.

    Scenes like this occur 365 days a year on the Stony Brook campus going back to the early 1990s when Chris Saporita, — a graduate student at Stony Brook and now a prominent Brooklyn environmental attorney — along with several other students, formed the Student Action Coalition for Animals.

    Most cats on campus, though, are not feral. Feral cats are the wild offspring of domestic cats, according to the Feral Cat Coalition. They are domestic cats that have been abandoned because their owners don’t want them or can’t take care of them.

    A nationwide telephone survey conducted by Alley Cat Allies revealed 81 percent of adults would rather release an unwanted cat into the wild than euthanize him or her. “Dumping your cat is just plain cruel,” said Franklin. “You take an animal that lacks skills to fend for itself and you subject it to a whole range of dangers.”

    Franklin has been involved with the
    project since the Student Action Coalition for Animals first caught her eye. “It was from Chris I learned both how big the problem is on campus and how to do TNR,” said Franklin.

    Since the 1990s, 269 cats — including kittens born to trapped, pregnant females — meowed their way through the network’s program. “I remember every cat,” said Franklin.

    One kitten in particular stands out in her memory.

    The day after Christmas in 2001, as Franklin walked to her car after finishing some office work during winter break, she noticed a little shorthaired, gray female kitten strolling along the crosswalk between the Administration and Humanities buildings. The kitten was two or three months old, remembers Franklin. “It wasn’t until then that I really got it,” she said.

    Seeing the defenseless ball of fur running around by herself while the day before so many families sat inside together by warm fires, made Franklin realize how important it was to cut down on the number of cats living in the wild and try and help the ones that are find good homes.

    Right then and there Franklin ran to the store, either Home Depot or a local hardware store — she can’t remember which — and bought a Havahart trap to catch the kitten. She drove back to campus, set up the trap and then left to kill some time.

    As Franklin approached the trap several hours later, she heard a thrashing noise. What Franklin at first thought to be a rabbit, turned out to be the kitten. She raced home to her cottage, kitten in tow. Once home, the kitten dashed under the couch in Franklin’s spare room and refused to wander from her new cave while Franklin was around until one month later.

    The kitten — now named Blossom, after a friend’s favorite cartoon character — lives with a graduate student.

    A cat can’t be placed with a family until it’s been neutered and Franklin decides it’s ready for domestic life. That’s when the cats’ pictures are posted on the network’s website for adoption. Dandelion, for example, a longhaired gray and white female cat, is described under her picture for adoption as “a great purrer.” The network also posts photos of the adoptable cats on, a website where cat lovers from across the country can search for pets. Families have come to adopt cats found on the Stony Brook campus from as far away as Connecticut, New Jersey and Virginia.

    Between trapping, feeding, and searching for good homes, keeping the network going isn’t an easy task. The Undergraduate Student Government slashed the network’s 2007-08 budget. It suffered a loss of $1,354. The government could not be reached before deadline. Saving felines is also time consuming. “It’s a lot of work,” said Dheel. Volunteers like Dheel have busy lives. Before trapping in the wilds of the Stony Brook campus on a wet afternoon, Dheel spends two-and-a-half hours at Stony Brook University Medical Center. The biochemistry major, who dreams of being a doctor one day, volunteers in the Neurology Department, placing labels on blood samples and updating the computer databases. “I joined the network because I wanted to do something completely different,” she said.

    The sophomore from New Jersey credits her own cat with inspiring her. Dheel found the brown tabby she named Dreyfus, in PetSmart. He is blind in one eye. “No one else wanted him so we figured we’d take him,” she said. Dheel, along with the rest of the network has made an impact on the four-legged orphans hanging about the university campus.

    Although the primary goal of the network is to get all the cats off campus and into good homes, sometimes this is not possible.

    Behind the Administration building, tucked safely in the hedges resides Seamus and Bongo, two large, orange feral cats that are “too wild to work with,” according to Franklin. When humans step too close, the cats run — forcing Franklin to leave their names off the adoptable pets list permanently.

    The network is in need of homes for the older cats pictured on the website.

    “We have sweet adults,” said Franklin. “Someone who may not be adorable and tiny, but who still needs a home.”

    Any inquiries about TNR or feral cat across Long Island should be directed to the Long Island Cat Project (

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