In Beirut, they’re famous. A few hundred or so, many of them outcasts and left behind by society, they live in a large extended family. They occupy what is probably the most prime piece of land in the city — the campus of AUB, the American University of Beirut — and they know well how to mark their turf. Now, this is neither a powerful student movement nor the Lebanese equivalent to the Pink Ladies or the T-Birds, but cats. The AUB cats.
“The cats have it better than the students. And, they rule campus!”
Set on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean, AUB is a beautiful campus. Green and lush, it’s a much needed getaway from the noise and bustle of the city. This is appreciated not only by students but also by the many cats who call AUB their home. Ask any current or former student, and they will have both stories and opinions about cat encounters to share with you.
There are even a handful of groups on Facebook devoted to the cats — both for “lovers” and “haters” of these furry animals as well as those who deem them ‘Mexican terrorists‘. Indeed, the cats are as integral to the university as the library, the AUB beach or Abu Naji on the other side of Bliss street.
University staff Henry Matthews, a truly dedicated animal lover, devotes much of his time to the campus’ animal population. He first started working at AUB in 1985, and has been caring for the cats ever since. “I came to AUB during the height of the war,” says Matthews. “It was a very sad period, with frequent firefights erupting around the university.” At that time, AUB also saw an increase in its number of cats. “There has always been cats on campus, but during the war more of them came,” continues Matthews. “The feeling we had back then was that they ran away from the fighting. They came to seek safety.”
The cats are as integral to the university as the library, the AUB beach or Abu Naji on the other side of Bliss street.
Came the end of the civil war, the role of AUB as a cat refuge lingered. While stray cats and abandoned ones find their way to campus themselves, others may get some human assistance. For owners who tire of their pets, dumping them at AUB is a handy solution. One student describes how a friend of hers who was leaving for abroad, simply brought her cat through the gates in a bag, and then released it on campus.
But there are also people with no other choice than leaving their cats behind. Lebanon, afflicted as it is by constantly erupting crises, might become a place you have to leave unexpectedly and in a hurry. When evacuating, what do you do with your pet? One solution: leave it at AUB. That way, many cats have found a new home on campus. Matthews remembers one professor from abroad: “When the 2006 war erupted, he had to evacuate immediately. With no one to take care of his cat, leaving it at AUB was the most humane thing to do.”
Lebanon, afflicted as it is by constantly erupting crises, might become a place you have to leave unexpectedly and in a hurry. When evacuating, what do you do with your pet?
Judging by the looks and behaviour of AUB’s feline community, most of them are doing well. In contrast to Beirut’s alley cats, the university ones are neither skinny nor dirty and smelly. Indeed, they spend their days resting in the shade rather than going through garbage bins in the street. And, AUB is taking care of its cat residents: feeding them twice a day, spaying them and bringing them to the veterinary when needed. “The cats have it better than the students,” says one AUB student with a smile. “And, they rule campus!”
True, many cats thread the AUB grounds with a sense of unmistakable confidence. This-is-our-hood-kind of style. Matthews: “They have their turfs, definitely. And there’s a hierarchy, with a few big tomcats on top. Actually, you think they would clash, but they don’t. They know their place and most are tame and friendly.”
Students differ in their opinions of the cats. While most would fit either of categories ‘like them’ and ‘don’t mind them’, there are also those bothered by their presence.
Students differ in their opinions of the cats. While most would fit either of categories ‘like them’ and ‘don’t mind them’, there are also those bothered by their presence. The main complaints, according to Matthews, concern cats trying to steal people’s food. “If they are fed twice a day, why do they always try to steal away my food?” and “Stay away from my sandwich!” read comments on AUB’s Facebook page.
Cat stories range from that of a student getting a dean’s warning for kicking a cat, to the idea that the old water fountain outside Jafet Library was removed after a cat tragically drowned in it. The most dramatic — and very true — one is Matthews’ story from 1989: “During that very bloody part of the war, with heavy fighting in the area around AUB, I was heading to my house in Hamra. Suddenly, shells started falling all around. I started running, and saw a cat with a wounded leg. I took her up of course, and ran with her in my arms to the safety in my home.” The AUB cats are alright, it seems.