Press "Enter" to skip to content

Research team studies campus cat behavior

Pitch, one of the college resident cats, perches on a feeding station outside of The Campanil newsroom. (Campanil Staff)
Pitch, one of the college resident cats, perches on a feeding station outside of The Campanil newsroom. (Campanil Staff)

Mills College has plenty of wildlife on its woodsy campus; students often cross paths with tree squirrels, skunks, raccoons — there is even a wild turkey. But another population of animals also inhabits the campus — feral cats. One professor in the biology department is taking advantage of the abundance of the non-domesticated cats, mentoring two pre-veterinary students in studying their behavior.

Dr. Jennifer E. Smith, assistant professor of biology, has done previous studies in Kenya on the spotted hyena, revealed interesting insights about feeding rank order among these carnivores. Her research team is also interested in understanding whether feral cats follow a strict rank order when feeding, and whether cats show distinct and repeatable personality traits over time.

“The social lives of feral cats are poorly understood by the public and by professionals alike. Interestingly, feral cats are domestic cats that have returned to the wild,” Smith said in an email. “Although they are the same species as pet and stray domestic cats (Felis silvestris catus), feral cats were born and raised in the wild and are therefore unsocialized when it comes to interacting with people. Instead, they hiss or growl when approached by people.”

One of Smith’s mentees, Julia Zirinsky initiated this study last year and is now a second-year, pre-veterinary post-baccalaureate. Hsin-Hung Lin, another mentee, is a sophomore biochemistry and molecular biology major and is using the study as a way to gain experience to prepare her for veterinary school.

“I took Animal Behavior with Dr. Smith last fall and there isn’t much research on feral cat population [in general],” Zirinsky said. “Dr. Smith pitched the idea of us doing research on feral cats because there’s a group of 10 to 12 on campus and it’s right here at our fingertips — why don’t we try to study this population?”

Zirinsky noted that dogs are motivated by food, and wanted to know if cats react in the same way when getting fed.

“Raised without human contact, we hypothesize that feral cats possess a distinctive suite of social behaviors when socializing with each other and competing over access to food.” Smith said. “Documenting these behaviors is a major goal of our research project at Mills.”

Pitch, above, is one of the cats that Dr. Smith and her research team are observing for the feral cats study. (Photo by Octavia Sun)
Pitch, above, is one of the cats that Dr. Smith and her research team are observing for the feral cats study. (Photo by Octavia Sun)

The idea is to look at the feral cats’ behavior while eating — for example, how often they look up while feeding, and how much time they spend eating in general.

To be able to observe the cats clearly and carefully, the team used designated stations at Rothwell, Reinhardt and Founder’s. The stations are equipped with a GoPro video camera in a protective shield on a tripod and a square container filled with a mix of canned wet cat food and dry kibble.

To track the data the team uses JWatcher, a free computer program that analyzes and quantifies observed animal behaviors.

“One of the hypotheses we’re thinking about is if we can find consistent behavior of the individuals and predict future behaviors by seeing individual consistent behaviors,” Zirinsky said, “Say one animal is super vigilant when given food so we can say maybe the animal is nervous and is more concerned with its surroundings than eating, versus an animal who’s totally relaxed or even in a group of two or more.”

 To ensure the cats behave naturally, the team does not want to interact with them at all: the whole purpose is to observe the cats as if no one was there. Because of that the team has to be at least 50 feet away, and may even need to hide behind a bush or at the bottom of a hill in order to prevent the cats from getting comfortable with the researchers, which could skew the data.

In order to lure the cats over to the stations, food was involved, which the cats receive from multiple sources, from individuals to organizations. 

“The cats prefer the wet food… because it has a stronger smell. We also don’t want to feed them too much because some of the cats are overweight and overfed so we feed them at least enough to keep them interested,” Zirinsky said.

The feral cats occasionally come into conflict over resources such as food and shelter. However, some of them are friendlier than others, such as the gray mackerel tabby that accompanies students across campus. There are also cats like Pillow, a fluffy, one-eyed gray and white cat who is not friendly towards humans, according to many students. 

Many of the cats have been given names by members of the Free Roaming Cat Coalition (FRCC), a campus group of students and faculty whose members feed the cats. The FRCC was initially inspired by community members Kim Nghe and Jack Mills, who live near Mills and walk their dog on campus, according to FRCC program director Christine O’Neill, Accounts Receivable Accountant II.

“They were the first to name, feed, and care for our campus cats, and they remain involved today,” O’Neill said.

Smith’s research team works closely with the FRCC; in fact, the stations that Smith’s team uses to observe the cats’ behavior were set up by the FRCC.

Naming the cats helps FRCC members track the number and location of campus ferals, monitor their health, and coordinate having new cats spayed and neutered. The group’s goals include ensuring that no new cats are added to the existing population and no kittens are born on campus because they want to prevent the overpopulation of feral cats which can lead to the spread of disease and disruption of ecosystems. 

The FRCC works year-round to care for Mills’ feral population. Volunteer Spark Caranza recalls that due to the spaying and neutering program, the populations of new kittens born has decreased in the past five years.

“Some of these cats were probably domesticated cats brought to campus by students and abandoned when the students moved out,” Caranza said. “It’s sad. Cats abandoned on campus starve, or can be eaten by raccoons. It’s like leaving a child out there. We try to find homes for new young cats we spot. It would be better if students followed the rules and only brought registered service animals to campus.”

So far, the research is only recently getting started and both members of Dr. Smith’s research team have learned a lot about the cats and conducting a field-based research project.

“This is also my first research project,” Zirinsky said. “I love the idea of being able to do something that may never have been done in that field using computer programs. I’m also interested in animal behavior, which is why I’m into this research. There hasn’t been much research on animals’ individual personalities.”

Lin is very thankful that Dr. Smith told her about this project because it is helping her get more animal-related experience which is beneficial for veterinary school. In addition, she is studying behaviors of animals, something she enjoys a lot. 

“It is a great study and Julia is hoping to publish a paper on it. Hopefully we can help her get that done. In addition, I am studying behaviors of animals which I’m enjoying a lot.” Lin said.

If students are interested in being involved with helping the feral cats on campus, the FRCC always welcomes help.

“We can always use help picking up food and water bowls at the end of the day, and there are other ways to help out too. Email if you’re interested in volunteering or want to make a gift to help us feed and provide medical care for Mills’ feral cats,” said Pamela Wilson, another FRCC volunteer.


Correction: In our print issue, “Research team studies campus cat behavior” was written by Contributing Writer Octavia Sun, not Natalie Meier.