Feline friends on campus shack up thanks to VC caretakers

Part of Vassar’s rich history includes that of its perennial feline visitors. Given the amount of stray cats wandering about campus, volunteers have taken it upon themselves to provide them with shelter and care. Photo By: Jessica Tarantine
Part of Vassar’s rich history includes that of its perennial feline visitors. Given the amount of stray cats wandering about campus, volunteers have taken it upon themselves to provide them with shelter and care. Photo By: Jessica Tarantine
Part of Vassar’s rich history includes that of its perennial feline visitors. Given the amount of stray cats
wandering about campus, volunteers have taken it upon themselves to provide them with shelter and care. Photo By: Jessica Tarantine

Vassar is known across the nation for its beautiful campus; what it is not so well-known for are the multitude of stray cats that populate it. Most commonly found on the south side of campus, there are usually several feral cats wandering around Vassar when the weather is warmer.

Residents of the South Commons, Terrace Apartments as well as staff who work at Shipping and Receiving or the Wimpfheimer Nursery School routinely see the little felines lurking in and around the buildings in which they live and work.

The cat community has been steadily growing the last couple of years, which has caused concern for their well-being and safety while living at Vassar.

This concern for the cats has resulted in a very dedicated network of Vassar staff and students who go out of their way to help the cats.

Buildings and Grounds’ Director of Operations Jeff Horst was one of the first to begin an organized effort to take care of the feral cats—all the way back in the early ’90s.

He recalled how, when he first came to work at Vassar in 1990, stray cats would often come and sit on the patio outside of the Retreat, no doubt looking for handouts or free belly rubs.

There were so many strays that the College’s administration, including Frances Fergusson, the president at the time, became involved.

Horst wrote in an emailed statement, “Fergusson tasked me with doing something about this burgeoning population.”

Members of the community like Horst, as well as now-retired Vassar Security officer, Sgt. Jim Lawless and others came together to find a humane solution.

Horst continued, writing, “…with the help of a volunteer group including Jim Lawless we began the feral cat program funded by a beautification endowment.”

The feral cat program’s goal was to take the care of the cats while they were around and, ideally, see them adopted by a local family.  Horst and his colleagues, many of whom voluntarily offered up their time and money to help the cats, did this by putting out food for the cats on a regular basis, as well as catching them and taking them down to the local Compassion Veterinarian to get them spayed and administered shots and vaccines for their future health.

Horst said that as part of his work, he promised the Vassar Animal Rights Coalition that none of the cats would be put down at the vets unless they were deathly ill with feline leukemia and beyond medical aid.

Due in part to a lack of funding and interest, as well as a decline in the population of wild cats, the project tapered off back in 2006.

However, the last few years have seen a resurgence in the number of stray cats on campus and a network for new strays that found their way to Vassar, spearheaded by Administrative Assistant Andrea Palmer of Buildings and Grounds.

Mary Griffith ’75 is also active in helping to take care of the cats. She said she had a theory why so many new cats began appearing around campus in the last few years.

Griffith wrote in an email, “During the recession, folks who lost jobs and homes could not afford their pets, and abandoned them on campus. Animals shelters were maxed beyond capacity, and folks took advantage of a beautiful campus with young people, as the next best solution.”

Griffith is one of the volunteers who staff the so-called Cat Shacks that are scattered around campus.

The Cat Shacks were founded by Sgt. Jim Lawless, a retired Vassar Security officer and Vietnam veteran. There, food and shelter are put out and maintained so the cats have a safe space to return to, such as in the event of harsh winter weather or heavy storms.

“We try to maintain an ‘intentional obscurity’ regarding location, and don’t want a spotlight focused precisely where it exists,” wrote Griffith.

She explained that volunteers are composed of retired Vassar employees, current employees, community members, alumnae/i and even some current students who balance the responsibility of caring for them.

Griffith wrote, “There are roughly seven volunteers, each responsible for a particular day. If someone cannot care for the cats on their day, they contact another volunteer for coverage.”

While he is not one of these volunteers, Sgt. Lawless continues to return to campus once every week to do maintenance on the Cat Shacks and care for the feline residents.

The ultimate goal of the Cat Shacks and the volunteers who work them is to help the stray cats get adopted into new homes. For that reason, these caretakers go to great lengths to catch the cats and take them to a veterinary office to get necessary medical attention, so that the cats can be healthy when they find permanent homes.

The adoptions have been very successful in the past. Several years ago, a stray cat spent such a great deal of time wandering around the All Campus Dining Center (ACDC) that he came to be affectionately known around campus as “Deece Cat.”

He was eventually taken in by Diane Dalton, Director of the ACDC, who has had him ever since. Last June, Dalton also adopted two very young kittens who were strays on campus.

Kathy Tritschler is a worker at Wimpfheimer Nursery School, which is frequented by several of the strays whom they try to feed and tame. One in a particular, a black cat whom they call “Momma,” has come to consider the south side of campus her home.

Although she hasn’t been around since spring break and the most recent snowstorms, a cause of some concern, she has made a habit of returning to the nursery quite frequently, and bringing her litter of nine kittens in tow with her.

Tritschler reports that she and other volunteers were able to feed and tame the cats to the point where they could take them to the vet and get them checked out and spayed. After returning from the vets’, they were able to find homes for all nine of the kittens.

While the numbers of stray cats may not immediately be apparent to many students, some consider them as much residents of Vassar as the students and faculty.

The volunteers, such as Sgt. Lawless and Griffith, who have poured time and effort into caring for the cats, stressed how important it is to them to continue to keep the cats safe and healthy. Horst believed that he and his fellows have helped approximately over 100 different cats over the past two decades, and with a growing population they only hope to help more.

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