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It Began at Stanford: Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the Stanford Cat Network

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He awoke to the voice of a woman outside his window. It was my dad’s first morning in Crothers Hall as an incoming law student. In the bushes near the back courtyard, she was setting down paper plates heaped with food for some eager felines. He stepped outside and approached her. At first startled and concerned about the stranger, she relaxed after he explained that he, too, loved cats and was simply wondering what she was doing. She explained that she worked with an organization known as the Stanford Cat Network, a group that fed the cats who called Stanford University home.

At the time of the Cat Network’s founding in 1989, a population of roughly 1,000 cats lived on campus. That might be surprising to current students. After more than a year at Stanford, I’ve only seen one: a handsome, black tomcat who appears and reappears every so often, always slinking off into the night. Most of the cats were the abandoned pets (or their offspring) of summer-bound students. In those days, the University viewed the cats as a problem. Administrators were concerned about potential health risks to students, faculty, and staff and the optics of having homeless cats on campus. And the students, faculty and staff were concerned about the welfare of the animals — the sight of a mother cat and her kittens strolling through Tresidder would, of course, inspire worry.

But instead of taking this compassion to heart, University administrators decided to contract with a pest control company to trap the cats and take them to the Santa Clara County pound. Out of sight; out of mind. The pound was, like most at the time, killing the vast majority of cats and dogs that had the misfortune of passing through its doors. It didn’t matter if they were healthy or sick, young or old, friendly or traumatized. Only a lucky few would be adopted out and the rest would be killed. Such was the fate that seemingly awaited Stanford’s cats.

Fearing for the felines they not only devoted their time and energy to, but also had come to know, name and love, a network of dedicated caretakers — primarily Stanford students, staff and faculty, including at least one Nobel laureate — got together to urge the administration to abandon its deadly plan. Hoping for support, they turned to a local humane society in Santa Clara County and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), one of the nation’s largest, most influential and wealthiest nonprofits “dedicated” to the humane treatment of animals. But to the surprise of the caretakers, these organizations sided with the University. They agreed with the death sentence. Cat extermination was perfectly in line with HSUS policy and the policy of other “humane” organizations like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the American Humane Association (AHA), which then held the position that “ownerless animals must be destroyed. It is as simple as that.”

They justified the rounding up and killing of community cats with the claim that the lives of homeless cats were “nasty, brutish and short.” Since many of the cats were “feral,” meaning they were not social with people, they could not be adopted into homes. Thus, HSUS, ASPCA, AHA and other animal “protection” organizations promoted the killing of cats as an act of mercy. At the time, the idea that animal sheltering required killing animals, pets or strays, was largely unquestioned.

But the cat lovers at Stanford could not accept this. They saw cats that enjoyed healthy, happy and well-cared for lives on the Farm, a relatively safe place with a temperate climate and friendly people. And so, in a small meeting room at the Palo Alto Humane Society, they devised a plan to save the cats. They established the Stanford Cat Network to coordinate volunteers, publish reports of new, tame cats on campus in The Daily (in case any were lost pets) and trap all the cats for spay/neuter. After sterilization surgery paid for by the Palo Alto Humane Society, those who were social would be adopted into homes and the rest returned to campus under the watchful eye and care of the volunteers at feeding stations. At the same time, the Cat Network would educate students not to adopt pets they could not care for, distributing materials discouraging the act. This would keep the cat population from reproducing or growing, allowing it to slowly decrease over time. It was a humane solution that would not cost a single life.

They made their pitch to the University. By that time Stanford Environmental Health & Safety had already conducted a study proving that the cats posed no health risk, addressing one of the major concerns administrators had. But it would take more than the science to turn the fate of Stanford’s cats. One day, the cat of Donald Kennedy, the President of Stanford, wandered away from home. Shortly thereafter, Kennedy’s cat turned up at one of the Cat Network’s unofficial feeding stations. Recognizing the wayward feline from a missing cat poster on campus, a member of the Cat Network returned him to Kennedy. When asked how they had found his cat, the Cat Network volunteer told Kennedy about the Stanford Cat Network, the feeding stations and the concern for the fate of the cat population. The next day, Kennedy donated $50 to the group, and it was officially accepted by the University. Thus, the nation’s first university-sanctioned trap-neuter-release (TNR) program was born.

Today, universities from coast to coast, including Auburn, Central Florida University, Arizona State, Texas A&M, North Carolina State and many more have community cat programs modeled after the Stanford Cat Network. The story of the Stanford Cat Network is not only part of the University’s legacy of innovation, but one of the greatest leaps forward in the history of the animal protection movement. It not only humanely reduced the Stanford campus cat population from upwards of 1,000 to no more than a dozen, it helped ignite a revolution in lifesaving that has fundamentally changed homeless cat care in the United States. TNR programs, rather than round up and kill, are embraced across the country from universities, to towns to cities to entire states, protections for feeders of community animals have been enshrined into law and many shelters have embraced a philosophy of No Kill for all healthy and treatable animals that pass through their doors. Even HSUS, once one of TNR’s most vociferous critics, now accepts that, “Programs that attempt to use lethal control to eliminate cat populations are inhumane, ineffective, and wasteful of scarce resources.

And it all began 30 years ago at Stanford, when a determined group of cat lovers refused to succumb to defeatism, refused to accept the Orwellian notion that killing is kindness and, instead, found a new and better way. Recently rechristened the Feline Friends Network, the Stanford Cat Network remains ever dedicated to caring for the furry felines who call our campus home.

Contact Willoughby Winograd at willjw ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Willoughby J. Winograd is an undergraduate at Stanford University, studying public policy and applied ethics. At Stanford, he is an op-ed columnist for "The Stanford Daily," an independent, student-run newspaper, and a committee member for the Associated Students of Stanford University. He has been an ethical vegan for all his life, and is deeply committed to the rights of both humans and animals. In accordance with this, he is currently in the process of writing a book, "Embracing the Anthropocene," which challenges the assumptions of environmental conservation, presenting the case for environmental protection guided by the rights of humans and animals, not biodiversity.