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Stanford Cat Network celebrates fifth anniversary

STANFORD -- Five years ago this month, concerned Stanford University community members banded together in an attempt to avert a "cat-astrophe" in the making.

In January 1989, the university announced that it planned on taking steps to deal with what officials feared had become an unmanageably large feral cat population on campus - estimates ranged from the hundreds to upward of 1,500.

After plans were announced to trap the feral cats and ship them off to humane societies, where they would likely be put to sleep, a group of volunteers approached university officials with a proposal to humanely trap the cats and have them spayed, neutered, vaccinated and tagged so that they could remain alive on campus.

With the help of Ron Parker and Herb Fong of Facilities, and Ray Busley of Crane Pest Control, the contractor that handles animal removal for the campus, the Stanford Cat Network was born. The informal group now considers itself a model for other campuses facing the problem of humanely dealing with numerous unwanted former pets and their offspring.

"Stanford is a model for other institutions," said Carole Hyde, a Stanford staff member who has been with the network since the beginning. "It is in the forefront of a grass-roots movement to deal with homeless animals without killing them."

The Cat Network currently has about 50 regular volunteers from staff, faculty, the student body and neighboring communities. They care for an estimated 300 cats at the present.

While university officials have, for the most part, been cooperative, the network members take pride in the fact that they are self-supporting.

"What is so critical to remember," said university staffer Carole Miller, a founding member of the network, "is that there would be a problem - without the Cat Network. We put in far more than the university is willing to put in. Several us have, at minimum, a half-time commitment to it, and when there are issues to resolve, or many cats to adopt, we work full time."

Caring for the cats

All cats captured or found on campus these days are provided with veterinary care and placed into homes if they are tame enough. Placing cats is one of the most important services of the Cat Network, Miller said, but far from the easiest.

"When we took on this responsibility in January 1989," said Miller, "we located and made contact with all the cats. The very first cat we trapped was super wild; but we decided then and there that we would have to care for the entire population, without any euthanasia.

"[Placing them in homes] is much easier said than done, though," she said. "It's the single largest ongoing drain on our resources."

Since many cats simply will not be placed into homes, caring for the wild ones keeps the network busy - and strapped for funds.

Generations of cats have lived on the Stanford campus and individuals have been independently feeding some cats here for 20 years, Hyde said. However, their methods were not always circumspect or efficient.

Under network guidelines, each caretaker has a designated feeding spot. The areas are intentionally located away from doors, paths and buildings, and ideally are hidden from view. Early-morning feeding is strongly encouraged, to avoid attracting nocturnal critters. Cats competing with raccoons, skunks or opossums for food usually lose.

The network is supported almost completely by public donations. More than $7,000 has been raised up to now, but "we definitely need more money," Miller said. The Cat Network has a regular newsletter that currently has about 800 people on the mailing list. It also sells T- shirts, mugs, note cards and tote bags to raise money.

Fong said the university's investment in the Cat Network is minimal, essentially limited to staff time that he and others spend keeping in touch with the volunteers.

"We facilitate the Cat Network's efforts as a conduit when there's a 'hot spot' on campus, to direct administrative or network resources to the problem," Fong said. "We don't get involved with the physical aspects of trapping, etc.; we just deal with other feral animal complaints."

Fong noted that some people are still feeding cats on an independent basis, which occasionally causes trouble.

"We have problems with renegades, who think they can help without going through the network," Fong said. "It just complicates things when people aren't following good feeding guidelines."

Fong, grounds chief for the university, called the network a success overall.

"Without the network, the university would have a sizable investment," he said. "Before this was organized, the cat population was controlled only by disease or famine. It wasn't pretty. Now, they have shots, they're spayed and they're fed. Now the problem is with people dumping cats. An education effort is needed to stop the animals' suffering. Our program is a real model."

More student volunteers sought

Most of the campus cats, it is believed, were pets abandoned by students upon graduation, or were dumped on campus by people from neighboring communities. Recently, two kittens were found on the grassy median by Escondido Village and Pampas Lane, Miller said.

"I think the major source of the cats is students, although initially we believed more were strays or dumped here," she said. "In the five years, as we monitor the feeding stations, we've seen strays show up. A large majority are in my stations, on the periphery of campus."

Things have improved, Miller noted.

"We're seeing fewer tame strays," she said. "It's starting to drop off, as students are learning they shouldn't acquire a cat only to dump it later. We need to increase our thrust into humane education."

Part of the education process is to get more students involved in network activities, she said.

Graduate student Mariko Chang is one of the student Cat Network members. She recently spent a year feeding a group of a half- dozen cats near Governor's Corner. Chang spent between $20 and $30 each month on food, and twice had to capture cats with broken legs to take them to the vet.

"I think that there are a lot of animals who do need care on campus," said Chang. "[To be a feeder] is a big-time commitment. But lots of times during feeding we'd get to talk to students, tell them how the cats got there and why they shouldn't abandon cats. I managed to increase student and community awareness that it's not OK to abandon pets. The hardest part is that so few people are doing so much. It's rewarding, and I wish more campus people would get involved."

Network's future

Stanford, Miller said, has been approached by other colleges and institutions for ideas on how to control their feral cat population. The Cat Network is now working on developing informational packages that it can provide to others.

The continued presence of feral cats has not been without controversy. Some people have complained about possible health risks. But Hyde said an audit by Environmental Health and Safety officials concluded the risks were extremely low.

"We're performing an animal control function," Hyde said. "We've worked out any problems with the university thus far. If there weren't this control project, the campus would look more like it did five years ago."

"The campus cat population in itself is a control," Miller added. "Cats are territorial, and the 300 cats do have some effect in discouraging newcomers. On other campuses where a cat population was taken away, more wildlife moved in."

Hyde summed up the mood of the volunteers: "The Cat Network is [almost] cost free [to the university], humane and enlightened, as befits Stanford. It's a neat project, but a serious project. Lots of people are very selfless, donating lots of their time and money. I think that the people involved feel it's community service."

(The Cat Network is hoping to sponsor an open house in honor of its fifth anniversary this year. For more information about the group, contact the Palo Alto Humane Society at 327-0631, Carole Miller at 723- 2541, or Carole Hyde at 723-2089.)


This story was written by Elizabeth Bacon, a news writing intern with the Stanford News Service.


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