On an ordinary school day, a grayish brown ball of fur curls up at the top of the concrete steps leading to the entrance of the College of Mass Communication (CMC) at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman. The furry ball sleeps through all the noise and movement of the students, personnel, faculty and visitors to the college. Once in a while, a student kneels down to stroke the sleeping feline. She opens an eye and raises her head to acknowledge the gesture, then purrs to show her contentment.
Kitkat is one of CMC’s four resident cats. She blends with the grey concrete steps but no one has ever made the mistake of stepping on her – her curled up body is such a usual sight that the scene seems unfinished without her. In fact, she spices up the drab colors of the main building. It is not unusual for visitors to suddenly twist their heads to take a closer look at the cat, as if trying to confirm what their eyes had seen just a second before.
When she’s not napping, Kitkat stands like a sentry at the entrance door. Nothing escapes her scrutiny. She approaches the edge of the steps when she sees a friend – both human and feline. She then gently rubs her body against the person’s leg and mouths a soundless miaow to welcome her friend.
I feel lucky and honored that Kitkat considers me a friend. Often, when I arrive at school, she runs to the car to greet me and walks with me to the steps. When I leave at night, she escorts me back to the car and watches as I drive off. According to CMC security guard Rey Villaruz, she does that only to me.
Villaruz is Kitkat’s buddy. While she takes her morning siesta, Villaruz is just a few feet away, sitting at his desk or standing by the entrance, patiently watching the people entering and exiting from the open glass door. The door stays open till 9:00 pm so he must guard it, ensuring that no troublemakers make it past the steps. At noon, he takes his lunch, making sure that Kitkat gets her share of his food, too. At the very least, she gets to eat rice and soup with chicken bones.
“The cats are part of our daily life here. I pity the cats when I see them starving so I share my food with them,” admits Villaruz who was first assigned to the college in August 2009.
Villaruz, it seems, is not the only one whose heart goes out to the cats. Aside from students and faculty, Villaruz’s fellow security guards Ryan Bayabas and Maumen Kuli share his love for the college cats and feed them leftovers.
Contrary to what many would think, the CMC cats are not mere hangers-on. Neither are they opportunists. They know they can find a meal on ordinary days at the college, but they also know that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. They pay for their meals by rendering service – they patrol the grounds and kill the rodents that cross their path. Villaruz says he used to see dead rats lying around in the college grounds in the morning.
“I’ve seen them kill big rats. That’s a big help for our college equipment and sanitation,” Villaruz averred. “That’s why we need the cats here.”
His colleague, former CMC security guard Aris Vicente, was even more direct. “They kill the rats that climb into my drawer to eat my food,” he said. “These cats are my friends.”
Vicente, who has since been assigned to another post, recounts how Butterfinger, a large orange male tabby, accompanies him on his rounds at night. “Sometimes, he would inspect the place even before I did then we would just meet in the upper floors,” he recalls.
And when the cats made strange noises in the middle of the night, it alerted him and off he would go to check it out. “They really kept me on my toes,” he said.
Villaruz has his own security story to tell. Once, while on night shift in July last year, the stillness was broken when Kitkat suddenly jumped in front of him. Her fur stood on end and her body was tense. It was nearly midnight and Villaruz couldn’t see anything or anyone beyond the dimly-lit college parking.
But he knew there had to be something out there because of the way Kitkat went on red alert. Carefully, he examined the dark for any traces of movement or sound. Seconds later, he was able to discern a shadow behind one of the trees. It turned out to be a scavenger on a midnight hunt. The man had a bottle of water in his hand and was about to club him had he not turned around in time.
“That man could have knocked me out and grabbed my gun,” Villaruz said, adding that it has happened several times already to other night guards on duty.
“I would feel bad if these cats disappear. Night duty would become very lonely. With these cats by my side, I feel safe,” he quips.
FRIENDS AND ACQUAINTANCES
Ryan Villareal, a fourth year journalism student, says the cats make him smile because of their playfulness and distinct personalities. He and his friends hang out in an area not far from the canteen and they get to mingle with the felines daily. “We know who among them is the mischievous one, the playful one, the pregnant one,” he says. “It is amazing how the cats have inched their way into our daily tambay and college moments.”
He recalls that he and his groupmates did a short video feature on the cats last year. “One of the best things that a student said during an interview was that she feels at home when she sees the cats because she remembers their family pet and it makes student life more bearable,” Villareal recounts.
“So whenever I see a cat popping out from a stack of readings in the photocopy area,
prancing on the tables in the cafeteria, or following you around while you eat your pasta Bolognese, it does not freak me out or disgust me. Instead it makes me forget my fatigue and stress,” he said.
Another fourth year student, Journalism major Khate Manalo, explained in an email message that the presence of the cats inside the U.P. campus helps develop compassion among the students. “They remind us that we have a responsibility toward animals and we cannot think only of ourselves,” she writes.
Khate admits, though, that she is not close to the cats. “We just greet each other. At first, they were evasive and snobbish,” she admits. But she had the chance to bond with them last December and discovered that they are, after all, “malambing”.
“Since then, they greet me with their miaows when I call them or stroke them. I would like to think that they know me now,” she says.
She admits that student life can indeed be stressful and “the gentle nature of the cats calms us”.
At present, all four feline residents of CMC are female. Two belong to one family - Kitkat is the matriarch and her daughter is Twix. Twix is as orange as Kitkat’s best friend M&M. A third still unnamed cat took up residence in the college late last year. All three have just given birth.
Butterfinger, who lives in the neighboring College of Music, comes for a visit several times a week. He is probably the father of all the kittens.
I can never forget a scene I witnessed last year. I arrived at the college one Monday morning and saw the usually shy Butterfinger hanging out with Kitkat and their two orange kittens. They were all stretched out and relaxing at the top of the stairs.
This scene was unusual because like shy lovers trying to keep a secret, the couple (Butterfinger and Kitkat) have their trysts under the cars or behind the shrubs. Their 2 kittens were always more visible as they spent their days by the guards’ radio, listening and watching while learning from their mother and the guards.
It was a rare sight, made all the more special because it was Feb. 14, 2011 – Valentine’s Day. Butterfinger stayed around and enjoyed the company of his family for the entire morning then went back to his favorite haunts in the early afternoon.
To people who know Kitkat, there is no doubt about her innate intelligence. She knows just what to do and what is expected of her. As part of my hosting routine for my weekly radio program Kwentuhang Pets Atbp (KPA) on DZUP, I greet each of the CMC cats on air and the security guards as well. So every Thursday at noon, I tell Kitkat to listen to the program and my greetings for her. According to Villaruz, when the KPA theme song starts playing, Kitkat heads for the radio on the concrete floor and lies down next to it, her ears cocked and eyes wide open. He says she also stands up and walks away as soon as I do my closing lines.
One day, I forgot to greet her on the air. After the program, she was waiting at the top of the steps for me, the way she does every Thursday at 2pm. But this time, when I tried to touch and stroke her, she ignored me, turned her back on me and walked away. I then realized that I had forgotten to greet her on air!
HUMAN – CAT RELATIONSHIPS
There are still many people who cannot stand the sight of animals on campus. But their number is definitely diminishing. In other universities abroad, pets are even allowed to stay in the dorms.
As for the CMC cats, guards and students, the friendship is based on the mutual need for companionship and security. “We can’t really call them strays because the students feed them and there are people caring for them,” Vicente remarked.
Villareal adds: “I don’t see anything wrong with them being on campus. They are part of the UP community just as we are. We just have to understand the cats’ behavior and lifestyle so that we can live harmoniously with them.”
Published in the ANIMAL SCENE magazine, May 2012
(click to enlarge magazine images)
(click to enlarge magazine images)