Before 2002, Stony Brook was the crazy cat lady of Long Island—hundreds of stray cats roamed the campus, and there was no plan in place to take care of them all.
Along came Nancy Franklin, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and director of the master’s program at Stony Brook, who one day felt destined to serve a furry face.
“It all started when I saw a cat looking at me by the Administration building on my walk to my car,” Franklin said. “It just dawned on me…something has to be done about this problem.”
The problem Franklin talked about was not only the stray cat population, but also the handling of domesticated cats by students.
“People have this idiotic view to send cats off and think, ‘With their instincts they’ll be fine,’” Franklin said.
So she began to draw up her own plan for a trap, neuter, return program. After sending a letter to then-university President Shirley Kenny, a few faculty members caught word of the project and jumped on.
One early member was Rita Reagan-Redko, an undergraduate advisor in the Department of Technology and Society who currently directs the student network.
“I joined shortly after it started, and when Nancy asked me to take over the feeding duties, I said sure,” she said. A cat-lover as well, Reagan-Redko noticed this problem long before joining the project.
“I came back to [Stony Brook] in the 90s, and I was appalled at how many cats I saw on campus,” Reagan-Redko said.
With growing student interest in helping and Franklin’s classroom recruiting techniques, the SBU Cat Network was soon born.
Today, the Cat Network is a fully recognized university organization, feeding the cats, building the cats shelters, and tending to their medical needs.
Franklin was keen on repeating the phrase “grassroots organization” to describe the SBU Cat Network.
Senior Stephanie Martone is the current president. She stressed the cooperation and compassion needed to help the cats.
“Whether faculty or student, we have someone to take care of them every day of the year,” said Martone. “Even summer and winter when school is not in session for most students.”
The group even frequently gathers money out-of-pocket to pay for expensive veterinarian procedures.
Both Martone and Franklin said that there were at least 350 cats on campus in 2002. Since then, the SBU Cat Network has helped get that number down to under 100 through adoption and population control.
If you have not had the experience of seeing a cat at Stony Brook, the reason is twofold.
“We still have a lot of cats on campus, but a lot of them are hidden and they know where the shelters are so they only move around at night,” said SBU Cat Network member and junior biology major Stephen Chan.
The other reason is that many cats are “feral,” as opposed to stray.
According to the Last Hope Animal Rescue website, “A feral cat is primarily wild-raised or has adapted to feral life, while a stray cat is often someone’s pet that has become lost or has been abandoned.” Feral cats are much more afraid of humans, while strays, who still have domestic tendencies, tend to hover near human dwellings like garages or backyards.
But while Stony Brook may have been a feral hub, the problem is not Long Island, but college life itself.
“A lot of students think they can have cats in their rooms, but then they find out, usually from an RA, that they actually can’t have one,” SBU Cat Network member Maddy Marcus, a junior journalism major, said. “Then they just find some woods and let it run out.”
Alleycat.org says that programs similar to this have been successfully implemented on campuses like Stanford University, Auburn University, Texas A&M at College Station, Arizona State University and more.
As for working on solving Stony Brook’s problem once and for all, SBU Cat Network member and junior psychology major Shannon Fitzgerald says it is a “see something, say something” effort for students.
“If students say something like, ‘We saw a cat near Javits,’ then we’d be in charge of building a sanctuary there,” Fitzgerald said.
More than once, the SBU Cat Network has been rewarded for its efforts by the Animal Rescue Site’s Shelter Challenge competition, earning top prizes and $1,000 grants.
“If you love or if you hate cats, you want to see this problem addressed,” Franklin said. “There’s nothing like the incredible and intense love of a rescued cat.”