Sydney Kate Watson, asst. arts & living editor
When walking anywhere on Berry’s campus, one is likely to see some of the notorious feral cats. At one time, the feral cats around campus were so common that they had an active Instagram account: @berrys_dhall_cats. While the feral cats at Berry may seem cute and sweet, they do bring up major challenges in regards to the environment and public health according to Dr. Miranda Knight, clinical assistant professor and college veterinarian.
No one can pinpoint exactly when the feral cats first arrived on Berry’s campus. According to junior Teryn Ferrell, most students say that the cats have been here since their freshman year.
“It seems like they have always been here,” Ferrell said.
Many cats once lingered by the Dining Hall in Kilpatrick Commons, there are three feral cats who live near the WinShape dorms, known as the dumpster cats and there is a Calico cat that spends most of its days by Memorial Library. According to Ferrell, the feral cat by the library has been named Homeslice. She is fed and loved by many students, and her clipped ear, also known as an ear tip, indicates that she has been spayed. Petting Homeslice before heading to class or after grabbing a coffee makes many students’ day. Senior Lauren Havis said that after petting Homeslice’s fuzzy face she feels good. Having Homeslice around is like having an emotional support cat that you don’t own, Havis mentioned.
Junior Vanessa Rice said that the feral cats around Berry create a nurturing environment and give the campus a sense of hominess.
“When I first came to campus, I was happy to see that there were cats around campus,” Rice said.
Even though Berry’s feral cat population brings a lot of joy to campus, the cats have a disheartening origin story. According to Dr. Knight, some of Berry’s feral cats may come from people dropping their cats off at or around Berry because they believe that their animals will be taken care of here. Also, Dr. Knight said that there are millions of feral cats all over the United States, and these cats will seek places that best fit their needs.
“We have a huge feral cat population especially in warmer climates and so they just kind of migrate,” Dr. Knight said.
Once these cats are on campus, if they are not spayed or neutered, they can mass produce rapidly. According to Assistant Director of Forensics Hope Willoughby, cats not being spayed or neutered could also be an origin story for some of Berry’s feral cats. Willoughby has fostered over 30 cats since April 2020 for Floyd Felines, a non-profit in the Rome area.
“It is so important that we spay and neuter cats because we don’t want to contribute to that overpopulation,” Willoughby said.
According to Willoughby, there are not enough safe homes for cats currently, and shelters are overrun. Floyd Felines transports hundreds of cats out of the state and to different places around the country because shelters are so full. Willoughby said that part of the reason shelters are overflowing and there is an increase in feral cat numbers is because Floyd County does not require residents to spay or neuter their feline pets. Residents may believe their cats will not have an opportunity to breed and that is why pet parents do not spay or neuter. Also, some cat owners may not be able to afford it.
“Without that requirement that people get their pets spayed or neuter, a lot of times people don’t do it,” Willoughby said. “Our lack of regulation here in this area absolutely contributes to the problem.”
Feral cat populations, such as the one at Berry, have the potential to continually increase at an unprecedented rate if the cats are not spayed and neutered. According to Willoughby, one of the cats at Kilpatrick Commons had a litter of kittens this summer. Each kitten then has the potential to have a litter of its own, and cats tend to have large litters.
“It starts to just increase exponentially and become a much bigger problem very quickly because of how fast cats breed and how big litters can be,” Willoughby said.
If the feral cat population is reasonably sized, Willoughby said that they are a great way to control the pest population. However, as this population of cats begins to grow, the cats start to have a negative impact on the environment. Cats are natural predators and are inclined to hunt for their food. According to Dr. Knight, feral cats can have a negative impact on birds, small mammals and fish. Also, Willoughby said that when a large feral cat population depletes their food resource through over hunting, the cats then have less to eat and there is ultimately not enough food to go around.
“Trying to balance the welfare of the cat versus the welfare of the environment is a tricky thing to do,” Dr. Knight said.
Another troubling aspect of Berry’s feral cat population is their vaccination status. According to Dr. Knight, Floyd County has rabies and toxoplasmosis, which are diseases potentially carried by the cats that can be easily spread to humans. Dr. Knight believes that the feral cats at Berry are a public health concern.
“You do need to be cautious because we don’t know their history,” Dr. Knight said.
Willoughby echoes Dr. Knight’s stance of concern. She said that the feral cats at Berry could have worms and other parasites due to their lack of veterinarian care.
“If we don’t take steps to actively manage the cat population here on campus, we could end up with a bunch of sick cats that then have the possibility of passing on these worms, diseases, parasites to students’ pets or other animals that are around campus,” Willoughby said.
Even Ferrell, who enjoys the cats’ presence on campus, has concerns about the animals’ well-being and their effects on campus.
“If you just have a bunch of feral cats that aren’t being taken care of, then they’re just spreading around more disease,” Ferrell said.
When asked about who takes care of the feral cats, such as spaying and neutering them and making sure they are vaccinated, Berry administration did not know. Dr. Knight said that the animal science department does not intervene the feral cat population.
Students love the feral cats around campus, and according to Willoughby there have been many studies that show pets help with people’s mental health. The Berry community wants these feral cats on campus, but they want them to be taken care of and the community to be protected from diseases.