Tulane’s College of Cats
FRANK METHE PHOTOGRAPH
“The phrase ‘domestic cat’ is an oxymoron.” – Columnist George Will
Barbara Ryan and “Campus Cats” have cleared of feral felines Tulane University’s meandering walkways toward higher learning. No longer must harried students and professors share time with calicoes and shabby tabbies underfoot as they rush headlong from one to another of those massive grey stone buildings in pursuit of all the knowledge Tulane has to offer.
“It used to be so many cats, so little time,” says one long-time maintenance worker near the Norman Mayer English building just off St. Charles Avenue.
Ryan, executive secretary of the English department, is also the primary “cat catcher” in an army of 50 or so Tulane professors, students and other personnel who pay allegiance to the olive and the blue by helping to keep the feral cat population in check.
These unattached cats and sprawling campuses seem to attract each other elsewhere, Ryan says. It has something to do with the wide-open spaces, the lofty perches and the many hidden-away places at those institutions.
“They’re like rabbits,” Ryan says. “They multiply faster than you can count them. You’ve got to do something about the feral cat population, or quicker than you can blink an eye, it will overtake you.”
So where else would you find the brainpower to come up with the solution? Where all great collections of minds tend to be found under one roof: at a university.
“Campus Cats” has been one obvious (and seemingly successful) solution to the cat problem since the mid-1990s.
But neither the problem – nor the solution – came from Tulane.
Campus Cats organizations operate at Cal State Fullerton, the University of Georgia, the University of Washington, the University of Texas, Southern Methodist University … In fact, you name an institute of higher learning and you’ll likely find a one-time feral cat problem and the solution they all begot: “Campus Cats.”
This isn’t a uniquely American phenomenon. Schools throughout Europe, Asia and Australia now have Campus Cats organizations. And where there are do-gooder organizations there are sure to be networks, bumper stickers, meetings, conventions, recruitment drives and fundraisers.
“National Feral Cat Day is Oct. 16,” Ryan says. “That’s usually when we have our fall break. We obviously couldn’t have our fundraiser then, so we had it Oct. 28. It was a great success. We raised awareness of Campus Cats and we raised a good deal of money to support the program. We’re very pleased. We have the full support of the administration, but Tulane no longer funds Campus Cats,” she continues. “That’s why we have to raise our own funds. Those funds allow us to bring our cats to the Southern Animal Foundation down on Magazine Street in the Irish Channel.
They have grants, and sometimes they do the fixing for free. But sometimes we have to pay. And it costs money to feed the cats once we bring them back here to campus.”
Ryan is a transplanted Philadelphian who came to New Orleans in 1996. She brought with her a talent for coaxing Beethoven from a piano’s keys and big dreams of a being a musical virtuoso.
“I tried to do the music thing,” she says. “But, I like to eat.”
Ryan landed the job at Tulane and, with her husband, two dogs and a handful of cats, wound up living in the Lower Garden District.
It wasn’t long before she was head-over-heels involved with Campus Cats. It was a job she knew had to be done.
“First of all, I knew we couldn’t let those cats go hungry,” she says. “If you’re going to keep them here, you have to feed them. And, of course, if we didn’t keep the population in check there would be cats every place we looked. We have three traps nearby. Once we catch them we bring them to the Foundation to be spayed and neutered, then bring them back on campus for release … right in the same area they were trapped.”
So why does she bring back the cats to the exact spot from whence they came?
“Right now we have between 30 and 40 cats on campus,” Ryan says. “They’re all fixed. If you keep a fixed colony of cats, they will drive off other cats. So we don’t have to be concerned about the population increasing from other strays coming in or through more litters of kittens. What we have now is pretty much a static number of cats. These are cats that you’re not going to find homes for. They’re not hurting anybody. But what they are doing is keeping the mice and rat population down. So in the end, it’s a win-win policy for everybody.”
So Barbara Ryan will continue to do what executive secretaries of university English departments all over do. In addition, she’ll coax the carpenters for her building to build a cat shelter nearby; she’ll make a run to the store for cat food from time to time; and she’ll serve as the liaison between the administration of Tulane University and the beneficiary felines of Campus Cats.
The iconic comedian W.C. Fields disliked many things – including children. He also disliked Ryan’s hometown of Philadelphia – and cats. He once said, “Thousands of years ago, cats were worshiped as gods. Cats have never forgotten this!”
Barbara Ryan nods in agreement and walks off. She has a cat trap to set.