The University of the Western Cape (UWC) Feral Cat Project (TUFCAT)
The University of the Western Cape (UWC) is home to several well-established colonies of feral cats. The cats have either been abandoned or have wandered on the campus in search of food. According to oral history provided by a long-term cleaner Mr Frank Davids (he has worked at UWC since 1976), the cats have been on campus for decades. It is believed that their ancestors may have originated from the Unibel and Modderdam informal settlements which were demolished during the Apartheid era. When people are foircibly removed they often leave animals (particularly cats) behind.
The UWC Feral Cat Project (TUFCAT) was initiated by animal loving UWC staff, who could not ignore the plight of the literally hundreds of unsterilised and emaciated feral cats roaming around the campus. The project officially began in 1997 under the auspices of Sociology lecturer, Dr Sharyn Spicer (Department of Anthropology & Sociology) and the late Andre Oppelt (former Operations Manager).
In order to effectively manage and ultimately stabilise the feral cat colonies that currently live at UWC (as well as in residences based off campus), we set up a trapping, sterilising and feeding programme. Initially (with the exception of the Transport Cats, who were fed daily and independently by a former UWC employee – Mr Engelbrecht), I could only afford to feed the cats three days a week. The rest of the time they were left to their own devices.
Initially only 4 colonies were trapped and sterilised by cat lovers. During our first audit in 1999, we counted approximately 165 cats. At this stage we were not yet aware of the colonies living at various residences both on and off campus, so in fact numbers were significantly higher. The trapping and feeding continued slowly, despite numerous setbacks including the death of Andre, the retirement of Mr Engelbrecht and the relocation of the trappers. Thereafter, we struggled to get help with trapping of the remaining cats and not much progress was made over the next few years.
Finally in 2000, I met with Mr Quinn (Operations), Mr Geoff Adonis (Health & Safety) and Charmaine Klein (Cape Flats Nature Reserve & Gardens & Grounds) and it was agreed that the trapping and sterilising continue and that UWC would contribute financially towards this. The SPCA agreed to help and they trapped, sterilised and/or euthanased sick and/or injured cats for us. But, due to various circumstances, in 2003, the SPCA could not continue assisting us. We thus had no option but to purchase traps which, (was a complicated and expensive affair) and trap the cats ourselves when we fed them. This is an extremely slow and time-consuming process since most of the cats that still need to be done are “trap-shy” and thus difficult to catch. A private vet, based in Southfield, Dr. Lesley I’ Ons, who shares our concerns about the pet over-population problem agreed to sterilise cats for us at her surgery at rates that work out cheaper than any welfare will do it for.
When we counted again in 2000, we counted 156 cats. In 2004 we counted a total of 139 cats (but this did not include the colonies “discovered” thereafter at 3 other residences). We currently estimate there is a total of about 168 cats on campus, of which we estimate that 38 still need to be trapped and sterilised. Since 2000, we have ensured that the cats have food every single day, including during the university holidays.
Initially Sharyn (helped by the late Janine Nepgen) were responsible for the day to day functioning of the project. They did the bulk of the actual hands on physical work involved and ensured that all the cats living on campus are fed, have clean water and receive veterinary care where necessary and possible. The most time consuming, physically and emotionally and demanding part was the actual trapping and transportation of the cats, which was done in the evenings and during the vacation time.
We are also responsible for collecting any donated goods and buying whatever is needed to sustain the cats. I did this with absolutely no break, (not even during university holidays), from 1997 – 2017 and Janine since 1999. Unfortunately, Janine died on cancer in 2018. Fortunately we had the foresight to hire Patrick Luvuyo Lupuzi as the cat’s full- time caretaker.
Patrick excels at the job. He feeds them all daily (even over weekends), gives them treats, brushes and flea treats the 30 or so that he can touch, cleans their shelters and traps them to take to the vet as needed. He also sells the 2nd hand books on campus which help us to sustain the project.
Our colony numbers are right down and around 90% of the approximately 120 resident cats are sterilized. We estimate that by end of this year (2020), we will have trapped and sterilised almost all the cats living on campus, including those living at off campus residences. This, combined with natural attrition resulting from the relatively high mortality rate of cats, particularly ferals whose average life-expectancy is estimated to be around two years, will reduce the existing cat population even further. The feeding and sterilisation project drastically improved the situation on campus in that people are more tolerant of the cats, who are not only declining in numbers, but are healthier and all in all create less of a nuisance than in the past. It is in the interests of the institution to keep (sterilised) core cat colonies on campus to prevent any potential rodent problems from emerging in future.
Apart from the cats that currently live on campus, we have removed hundreds of cats and kittens and numerous dogs, many of which were tame domestic pets that had been deliberately dumped. Some of these animals were very ill and had to be put to sleep, but the majority of them were rehabilitated and new homes were found for them. Before they are adopted out, the animals are sterilised, vaccinated, dewormed and tested. In addition, they have to be boarded and advertised before they are adopted and the project pays for all of these costs. Cats who do not find homes, spend their days at the TUFCAT Sanctuary.
Many places continue to opt for unhumane and impractical solutions and attempt to eradicate entire cat colonies. Where this has been tried at UWC, removing the cats simply created a “vacuum” or ecological niche that was soon be filled by opportunistic, unsterilised (and often unhealthy) strays from surrounding areas. This, combined with the number of animals that are deliberately dumped on campus (especially during holiday periods), will lead to a cat over-population problem similar to what we experienced during the mid-1990s. We have seen that, once the cats have been sterilised the colony numbers remain constant as they ensure that no new arrivals are allowed to join. Robben Island is an example of a feral cat eradication programme and anecdotal evidence obtained from conversations with staff indicates that rodents have proliferated (especially around the restaurant/eating area) since the cats were eliminated. Recent reports in the media have also indicated that rabbits have bred prolifically and are decimating the wildlife since their only natural predator, viz., feral cats were removed from Robben Island. Similar situations developed at Bird and Marion Island.
UWC’s success and humane stance has not gone unnoticed and our project has convinced management at other institutions to follow suit. UWC is cited as an example of “effective humane feral cat management,” thereby facilitating the establishment of similar projects at other institutions who also have many feral cats to manage. These include, Wits University, Pollsmoor Prison and more recently Voorburg Prison in Porterville has also embarked on a Trap-Sterilise-Release (TSR) programme as has been demonstrated successfully at UWC. Cape Peninsula University of Technology (Zonnebloem campus) have also embarked on a TSR programme and we assist them wherever we can and students from their Bellville campus (Pentech) have recently approached us about the possibility of setting up a similar programme there. But, as always, we are limited in terms of what we can do as we lack funds and resources at this stage. The UWC project has been featured in several publications including On Campus, The Argus, The South African Petfriendly Directory, Animaltalk, AnimalWatch international, Pet Prints and the Big Issue. It is also currently listed on many websites and blogs such as Chirpy Cats. We continue to regularly receive emails from people countrywide who we advise about setting up a TSR programme like the one at UWC.
UWC has also won the Green Campus award three times and this has partly been attributed to the use of feral cats rather than environmentally unfriendly toxins to control rodents.
The feeding and sterilisation project has drastically improved the situation on campus for the feral cats – people are more tolerant of and compassionate towards the cats, who are declining in numbers, are healthier and create less of an irritation, than they did in the past. Apart from the radical reduction in the “nuisance factor” created by them scavenging for food or mating and fighting, the project has raised overall awareness of animal welfare concerns amongst both students and staff. Cats were first domesticated by the Egyptians in 3000 BC to protect grain from rodents and those living on our campus today continue to perform this function in exchange for the care we give them.
UWC campus is huge (about 160 hectares) and the cats live in 28 colonies. Two off campus residences also form part of the programme. We feed the cats daily. They all have shelters.
TUFCAT has entered into a service agreement with UWC and remain responsible for all aspects of caring for the cats, as well as removing tame animals and also dead cats. UWC pays us a nominal monthly amount for this and also covers the cost of sterilizing the ferals. All other costs are carried by the project. Staff, students, animal lovers and a few corporates donate to TUFCAT.