BEIRUT: On any given day, as students go about their lives at the American University of Beirut, attending classes, having lunch on a picnic bench or hanging out in their dorms, they often find themselves sharing their activities with a furrier cohort.
Approximately 300 cats loll around virtually anywhere on campus, sometimes splayed across a staircase or on top of a wall. They are also fond of sneaking into buildings.
“Cats regularly attend classes,” chemistry undergraduate Jihane Abouzeid said. “They sit in a chair ... although they usually just sleep through it.”
“We had a cat sneak into the lab a couple of weeks ago when it was raining,” she added.
Students also note with amusement that cats commonly wander the hallways, take elevators and even give birth. Last year, student Majid Chammas discovered a cat midway through delivery inside his dorm closet.
Two cats also recently gave birth inside the School of Nursing.
In fact, their ubiquity has warranted an official policy. Cats entering public buildings are violating AUB’s six-point, sternly worded cat policy, which is published on a special “Cats on Campus” section of the university’s website. Though it rarely happens, people who spot rogue cats are supposed to contact the administration to take them outside. The policy also bans giving them food outside of the university’s official feeding program, or intentionally harming them. “Cats are to be treated with respect,” it intones.
The Environmental Health, Safety and Risk Management Department, which took over the policy’s administration in 2012, is unclear when the policy was formalized. Director Farouk Merhebi said it likely occurred under former university President John Waterbury, who was known to have a soft spot for cats.
The origin of the campus cat community dates to the 1980s, when owners left their pets at AUB, believing it would offer them relative safety during the Civil War, according to the 2011 campus-cat-themed desk calendar published by Office of Communications. A few volunteers began feeding them, and supported by ad hoc volunteer efforts over the following decades, the cats came to be a permanent fixture on campus.
According to a 2004 report in The Daily Star, the Animal Welfare Club formed in 2001 and began collaborating with the administration to care for the multitudes of unhealthy strays milling around the campus.
Against official policy, people continue to abandon strays and unwanted pets on AUB’s campus, which is seen as a cat sanctuary of sorts, according to veterinarian Rosemarie Jaouhari, whom AUB contracts part time to oversee the cats’ health care.
Jaouhari, who previously worked at the medical faculty’s Animal Care Facility for a decade, makes occasional rounds of the cats, treats sick ones brought to her attention by the feeder and spays 8-10 cats each month. “We mainly focus on female cats to keep the population in balance,” she said.
AUB also funds food supplies. Every morning, student affairs assistant Zena Jureidini, who volunteers as the feeder, arrives on campus around 6 a.m. Over two hours, she works her way through four official feeding stations that cater to the 250 cats on the upper campus. She serves plates of dry mix and wet canned food to her regulars, who are often waiting for her. An employee hired by the EHSRM manages two official feeding stations on the lower campus, where another 50 cats reside.
The once-a-day feeding is sufficient, the vet said, noting it is supplemented by staff and students who slip them food on campus.
Some cats also venture out to Bliss Street for scraps from sympathetic restaurants.
“They are stray cats, and we should treat them [as strays]; they are not pets,” Jaouhari said.
The average life span of a stray cat is about 5-6 years, she said, as surviving the wild requires much more energy.
While EHSRM’s Merhebi declined to disclose the exact amount of cat funding, he said the monthly budget was around $2,000-$2,500, covering food and the services of Jaouhari and the lower campus feeder. He vehemently dismissed the popular rumor among students that 1-2 percent of their tuition goes to supporting the cats.
Funding only comes from AUB, he said, adding that it had no plans to increase it and welcomed donations.
Both the vet and feeder said much more funding is needed. Jureidini’s daily responsibilities are too heavy for one volunteer.
Certain types of cats, such as abandoned Persians, are lacking the extra care they need, such as brushing of their long hair.
They suggested the Animal Welfare Club could organize student volunteers to assist with feeding, but efforts to arrange this have failed. Students were unwilling to show up at an early hour to feed the cats, Merhebi said. The club’s focus is also on animals outside campus.
An adoption program was formalized last fall, and more than 25 cats have since been adopted by staff and students. Cats can be “returned” if it doesn’t work out, Jureidini noted, so they are not abandoned on the street.
Meanwhile, Jureidini, who has 14 cats at home, sees the AUB cats as her “children,” and brings them extra food, she said. She can recognize all 250 upper campus cats, and keeps an eye on who shows up at chow time.