When Libby Rowell started feeding Mama Kitty in 1997, she never expected to bury the stray in her backyard nearly 15 years later.
Mama, a black tortoiseshell cat who lived by the UF Physical Plant buildings on Radio Road, knew the sound of Rowell’s voice and the time she got to work. The small stray would meet Rowell at her office door every day around 8 a.m., looking up at Rowell with her “pug-like” face and upturned nose.
Even after 15 years of feeding her, Mama wouldn’t let Rowell touch her — not until about a week before she died in 2012, looking up at Rowell for one of the last times with her golden eyes.
“After all those years, she never let me pet her until she knew she was sick,” Rowell said, tears in her eyes. “I guess she knew she was loved and I would take care of her.”
Mama, who cared for generations of orphaned kittens like her own litter, inspired Rowell’s interest in helping the colony of about 15 cats living along Radio Road, she said.
Rowell, a senior fiscal assistant for UF’s Central Stores, has fed the colony every day for 20 years, despite UF’s policy against feeding feral cats. She brings whatever cat food she can find on sale, spending about $15 a week.
After bonding with Mama, she found homes for three of her litters and kept the last three of Mama’s kittens, Gracie, Buddy and Casey, for herself.
“I never wanted to draw attention to myself,” Rowell, 56, said. “I’ve never asked for help, never asked for money.”
Rowell is one of many UF staff, faculty and students who feed cats on campus despite UF policy prohibiting it.
“I know some people discourage it,” Rowell said. “I feel like me taking them, trapping them and finding so many homes for them is more of a service than a disservice.”
Although UF bans feeding feral cats on campus, employees are not punished for doing so, UF spokesperson Steve Orlando said.
The number of stray cats on campus is unknown, said UF Pest Management Coordinator Don Orth.
Orth said he sees cats all over campus but complaints are rare. Pest management receives calls to help kittens stuck in pipes less than once a month.
To enforce UF’s policy, the employees also pick up bowls of food left out for cats, which Orth said could attract other animals like raccoons.
Strays tend to congregate at night in quiet area on campus, like Lakeside Residential Complex, Gerson Hall and the law school, according to readers who contacted the Alligator.
Sam Lack, a UF political science senior, has been trying unsuccessfully to befriend a tuxedo cat by Gerson Hall for two years. Lack, 21, likes seeing his “little buddy” after class, even though the skittish cat runs away before Lack can pet him.
“I know stray cats get a bad rep, and probably it’s a problem if they get into stuff,” he said. “But I don’t have a problem seeing a cat running around.”
Along with Rowell feeding the cats in the morning, two other women take care of them on evenings and weekends, she said. The women have named the daily group.
Tiger runs the show. Speckle Beans gave birth to Little Specks, who once chased off a hawk attacking the colony. Callie is a Calico cat, and Chatty wouldn’t shut up as a kitten. Prancy prances. Bob, a fat tabby, has an attitude, and he won’t leave Prancy alone.
Clippy was named after his clipped ear, a sign he was neutered and vaccinated for rabies by Operation Catnip, a nonprofit. The organization has neutered 53,000 cats since 1998, said the executive director, Audrey Garrison.
Garrison said cats on campus have lived in the same areas for years, long before caregivers began feeding them.
“People think it’s some crazy cat guy or gal feeding the cats and that’s why the cat is there, but that’s not the case,” she said. “They didn’t put food out saying, ‘I wish a cat shows up.’ They started feeding the cats that live there.”
She said many community cats have feral personalities, meaning they rarely interact with humans and hide during the day.
About 40,000 feral cats live in Alachua County, Garrison said. Rather than relocate or shelter the cats, the group releases the cats back to the area in which they live, neutered and vaccinated.
Sterilization slowly decreases the cat population as less females give birth, but Garrison said work still needs to be done before Alachua County’s cat population stabilizes.
Mason Mellot, a UF mechanical engineering sophomore and self-proclaimed cat lover, said he doesn’t mind the cats living by his dorm at Lakeside Residential Complex.
The 20-year-old remembers seeing the Radio Road colony the day before Hurricane Irma on his way to buy milk. He only had 30 minutes to get to Publix before it closed. As he frantically rode his bike up the hill, he noticed the colony standing next to the Counseling & Wellness Center in the drizzling rain.
“At first I was like, I have to do something about these cats because they were about to experience a hurricane,” he said. “Then I realized that I’m only one person on one bicycle with one backpack. I cannot carry 15 cats.”
Mellot told himself he would call someone if he saw the cats on his way home, but when he passed later, they were gone.
He was relieved to find out the colony, which Rowell still cares for, is okay.
Despite growing up on a farm, Rowell never grew attached to many animals until she met Mama Kitty.
When Mama got sick, Rowell took her to the vet and stayed with the cat as she was put to sleep. She laid the old, then-fat cat to rest in the backyard of her farm next to an infamous non-neutered male, Big Daddy. The two strays are in the same yard as all of her childhood pets.
Rowell said she’ll keep caring for the cats as long as she’s around.
“It just breaks my heart to see an animal running wild with no family and no food,” Rowell said. “It just breaks my heart.”