The adventures of Peaches: From shy cat to campus icon

The adventures of Peaches: From shy cat to campus icon
  Carolyn Chang

More than five years ago, Carla Antonaccio, a professor of classical studies currently on leave in Greece, found Peaches hiding under a bush in Keohane Quad. 

“I heard her crying and pushed food in to her. Gradually she trusted me and came out,” Antonaccio wrote in an email.

This marked the beginning of a relationship between Peaches and the Duke community. Started in January 2017, the Facebook group "Caretakers of Peaches (The Calico Cat)" has gained national attention and connected about 880 cat-loving members of the Duke community. 

The caretaker group has had its ups-and-downs—ranging from raising more than $1800 for Peaches’s medical bills to Duke administrators trying to remove her from West Campus.

The Caretakers

Prior to "Caretakers of Peaches," Antonaccio cared for the calico cat. Although Peaches would eventually become a crown jewel on campus, there was no shortage of cats when Antonaccio discovered her.

“They are everywhere. There was one where the new wellness center is, and I became aware of staff and faculty who took care of cats near where they worked," she wrote. "I don’t know what happened to that colony when all the construction—also the Penn Pavilion—happened. Usually it’s been some community volunteers—Durham animal lovers—and individual faculty, staff and students who have been the backstop to student interest and love for the animals."

Alongside other members of Duke staff, Antonaccio found kittens with Peaches and Mamabean, another calico cat that lives near Wannamaker dormitory. All kittens were adopted, one by Antonaccio. 

Even though she was uncertain who the kittens' mother was, Antonaccio wrote that Peaches and Mamabean “are definitely related” and might even be mother and daughter. 

Once the kittens were adopted, a nearby animal rescue group—Independent Animal Rescue—spayed Peaches and Mamabean, who were feral at the time. This was a trap-neuter-return, ensuring that both cats could no longer produce offspring, Antonaccio explained. 

The two cats eventually returned to Duke’s campus. Antonaccio wrote that she did not want to separate Peaches from her cat colony, so Peaches remained on West Campus primarily under the care of Antonaccio. 

But, Peaches's care-taking team would expand in 2017, with the creation of the "Caretakers of Peaches" Facebook group. Formed by senior Anna Li, the group started because Li was "really worried" when she returned from the 2016-2017 academic year winter break because she could not find Peaches and figured that someone else who took care of her independently on campus might know.

“I thought it would be a good opportunity for us to unite. If someone was keeping her inside for the night, we don't have to worry. That’s how the group started,” Li said.

She said she envisioned the Facebook group as “five nerdy cat lovers,” but membership “really exploded.” She did not realize initially just how loved Peaches was. Today, the Facebook group not only connects caretakers for logistical reasons but also allows members to post pictures and voice any concerns.

“I think the types of posts are pretty consistent. It's a nice community built around Peaches," Li said. "Sometimes, I'll go visit her, and then I'll see someone else petting her, and we'll introduce ourselves and realize it's another person who posts a lot in the group."

Because of the immense support within the Facebook group, Antonaccio realized she could leave Peaches in the students' care.

“It was clear to me students were also feeding her, at least during the regular year," Antonaccio wrote. "Also, there were some faculty-in-residence, and their kids liked the cats and would feed them.” 

Initially, Antonaccio said she was really worried that the two cats would be taken by animal control once again. Her main concern now is continuity, as student caretakers have varied in the past couple years.

“In the past, when there was less coordination in feeding, there were mountains of cat food cans, food on the ground, and that has been unsanitary, unsafe and could lead to problems with housekeeping and administration," Antonaccio wrote.  

Antonaccio misses Peaches and Mamabean but is glad that they are receiving lots of attention and regular vet care.

Junior Anna Matthews is also very involved with the cats on campus. After someone found a cat near Gross Hall, Matthews recovered it but said she doesn't think there are any remaining in the area. She said no one is entirely certain how the cat was actually found.

“There were no other cats around, and he was shrieking which is usually a sign that the mother is not around," Matthews said. "He was really skinny—probably had not been taken care of for a while. I ended up getting him to the vet."

Once the kitten was not constantly sick, Matthews said Li put up posters around campus to find someone to adopt it. A Duke faculty member eventually adopted the kitten to give his other cat company. Matthews said that they cuddle constantly and are very adorable.

“It ended as a very good success story,” Matthews said.

Unfortunately, the cat also contracted worms and fleas. When this happened, Matthews and others took the cat back to the vet. Despite treatment, the fleas did not go away. She explained that the worms were the main problem because just receiving one treatment did not fully eliminate them. 

Matthews noted that in addition to not noticing any other cats near Gross Hall, many of the other cat colonies on campus have been dwindling. 

“Treat cats kindly. As far as I can tell, there have been cats on campus for 40-plus years, and there are different myths as to how they ended up on campus," she said. "But they bred for a while, and the population started shrinking when people started taking care of them. Most of the cats are really old. I think Peaches and Mamabean are the youngest cats on campus.” 

First-year Julie Peng, an active member in "Caretakers of Peaches," has spotted a cat that even roams around East Campus. In an email, Peng wrote that she first encountered the cat, which she named Floofyboi, outside of Lilly Library. Since then, she has seen Floofyboi a few times and has become aware that the cat belongs to graduate students.

"Floofyboi walks up and likes to rub up against your legs," Peng wrote. "He/she is incredibly friendly and has a very nice, fluffy tail."

But, with Li graduating this year, other caretakers will have to step up. Li said that she has been "pseudo-training" two first-years to take on her official cat responsibilities, including annual vaccinations and filling up Peaches's food. Despite her many duties, Li does not think that she does more than most people. Equipped with the tremendous support from the Facebook group, Li pointed out that there are hundreds of people on campus who provide Peaches with love and affection.

"It's not an official position. It's kind of like you can make as much out of it as you want, just as long as you make sure the cat is well cared for. I just wanted assurance that someone will be taking care of them after I leave," Li said.

  Carolyn Chang

A day in the life of Peaches

During the time Peaches spent with Antonaccio, Li said she observed the cat become more outgoing.

"In the last couple years, she has really blossomed," Li said. "She knows that the students are here to play with her and feed her. She likes us now."

Li described the daily life of Peaches and noted that she does not seem to have any particular order. She sleeps in her house outside Keohane 4B and spends the rest of the day wandering between Few and Keohane, sometimes even reaching the main quad and getting close to the Chapel.

Peaches definitely knows where people go, Li said. One year, when summer school students lived near Edens, Peaches did too. Li also mentioned that Peaches occasionally hangs out with Mamabean near Wannamaker.

“I think she knows the campus pretty well. She [has] also gone with me to the Gardens before,” Li said.

Peaches is a pretty competent hunter as well. Li has witnessed the cat take down birds and kill mice, in addition to carrying a squirrel tail in her mouth. Yet, despite her more aggressive side, Li characterized Peaches as a pure spirit.

Li explained that it sometimes scares her how much Peaches trusts her, as Peaches also hops into her car for the vet—assuming that Li is "doing something good." Although she is still vaccinated against rabies, Li said Peaches has never shown any aggression toward her, adding that she doesn't think Peaches would ever bite anyone.

Peaches also has therapeutic value, especially for students who miss their pets at home. Li explained that animals have a way of grounding others “back into the present because that is where they live.” 

“There's just something about this warm, happy cat sitting on your lap," Li said. "It helps to remind you that there is a lot of joy in the little things in life."

Peaches loves people and greets everyone she encounters, Matthews explained.

“I will be walking to visit a friend, she will come running up to me and try to trip me because she wants to pass me and weave around my legs," she said. "If I squat to pet her for a moment, she will climb up onto my legs even though I am not completely sitting down, and she will refuse to get off. I will be able to hang out with her for a bit by her climbing on my lap and being very excited to see me."

During the winter, there were concerns about whether Peaches had gained too much weight. Li said people worry a little bit too much about her. She explained that in the past, the exact opposite concerns had been voiced, as students believed Peaches was too skinny and might have health issues. 

On both occasions, Li took Peaches to the vet and found out that the concerns to be false alarms, as the weight of outdoor cats fluctuates with the season. At her vet visit in late winter, Peaches was “only 0.3 pounds different.”

"Even though she looks very heavy, it's mostly fluff," Li said. "Peaches isn't actually fat. It's a misconception."

Memelord reacts only

Sophomore Will Ye, the creator of Duke Memes for Gothicc Teens, spoke to Peaches’ presence in student life. As a Few resident, Ye sees Peaches often and believes her to be a cat adopted by all students. 

“The biggest reason why I’m active in the [Facebook] group is that I really like Peaches, and everyone else does, too,” Ye said. “Having her show up in your Facebook timeline makes it even better. I also do think it is pretty useful to have a discussion outside of physically seeing Peaches because a few posts—like the vet ones or asking questions about health, or about taking care of her after seniors graduate—are important to have and to keep things organized and future clarifications about Peaches and other animals on campus.”

Ye also drew a connection between Peaches and meme culture on campus because of how popular memes of her are. He described a past meme featuring Peaches and Nugget—both animal icons—asking people to vote for one or the other.

“Everyone knows who Peaches is, and everyone knows who Nugget is,” Ye said. “So, the meme is pretty funny and generates controversy in a fun way.”

Sophomore Carly McGregor, another active member of the meme group, sees Peaches every day before she goes to breakfast and characterized her as a “little bundle of love” with a very reassuring presence on campus. McGregor referred to some of the earliest, popular memes on the meme page being those of cats.

“If you look back at the early memes, like ‘Can I has cheezburger?,' a lot of them did originate with cats. So, I feel like the meme atmosphere and that culture is probably related to the entire campus being really excited about this one cat. There is definitely an interest there,” McGregor said. 

Getting rid of Peaches?

Last summer, Li noticed Peaches' cat house had "mysteriously disappeared."

“I wasn’t sure if administration moved it, or if housekeeping did. But, I wanted to get administrative approval for the houses this year. I wanted to get some sort of word from them that the [cat] houses wouldn’t be removed,” Li said.

Since then, Li has been in email correspondence with Debbie LoBiondo, assistant dean for West Campus, about campus protections for Peaches and Mamabean. Li explained that LoBiondo has acknowledged that cats are "special cases" but is "still concerned that the cats are feral.” Li believes these apprehensions to be “reasonable” but that Peaches is “much more trusting” since she was spayed and taken care of by Antonaccio. 

“Peaches used to be very feral. But, obviously times have changed, and she’s very trusting now,” Li said.

Antonaccio noted her support for keeping Peaches on campus, assuming that the caretakers' efforts continue.

"I’m glad [Peaches is] loved and taken care of and hope it continues; I would not be in favor of [the administration] trying to eradicate cat colonies or remove cats that are being responsibly supported by the community," Antonaccio wrote.

Signed by more than 650 people, Li wrote a petition detailing the importance of the cats on campus and why the administration should provide protections for them. The petition calls for winter housing, assurances that Duke administration will not tamper with cat housing unless in case of an emergency, no disruption to their food except for sanitation issues and $400 per year for their vaccines and medical bills. 

"Duke administration currently does not even recognize or support the presence of these cats on campus," the petition states. "Given the enormous positive impact these cats have on the Duke community, it's time that Duke administration joins the student body in recognizing them as part of our family."

Li does not believe that LoBiondo has seen the petition.

"At this time, I have no comment regarding [Peaches] the cat," LoBiondo wrote, in an email.

Junior Francia Fang is a resident assistant for Keohane 4B and believed the petition to be “a success.”

“I think it is a bit ridiculous for the administration to try to get rid of her,” Fang said. “I know we have other cats on campus who are not as well known as Peaches because they are not as comfortable around strangers. But, at the end of the day, they are all harmless. And, I think she is a staple on campus and that students really enjoy having her around." 

However, the only “RA-specific” comment Fang has is about Peaches’s current house. Although she does not believe it has caused issues, the housekeeping staff expresses concerns when there is vomit outside the dorm or if Peaches’s food is left outside in the rain and becomes soggy and looks gross, a concern addressed in Li’s petition.

“Since her little home is right next to one of the main entryways to the dorm, it is an unpleasant sight to look at," Fang said. "Usually when that happens an email gets sent out to the entire Keohane 4B community to take care of it. Usually, it is resolved in a matter of days. Aside from that, Peaches poses no issues in terms of administration. People generally have a really good time playing with her and petting her. I know I do too." 

Save Peaches

In 2017, Li started a GoFundMe to raise money for Peaches and Mamabean’s vaccines that raised $1,890. She attributes its success to The Chronicle article that discussed it and the follow-up in People Magazine. Matthews and Li said that the funds were eventually exhausted when taking care of various cats on campus.

In the hopes of establishing a more sustainable funding source, Li attempted to organize a system within Duke to pay for cats' annual medications and vaccines. Matthews emphasized the importance of the cats receiving their boosters within a certain time frame to keep them safe. If either of them becomes injured, it would be optimal for them to receive medical attention as soon as possible.

“If they are injured, it is better to take them to the vet so they won’t be angry or grumpy or other various problems," Matthews said. "We don’t want them to be upset with the students.  Being able to get funds for that would be very useful.”

As an RA, Li talked to people in Housing and Residence Life about the issue. 

"It's kind of like [HRL is] aware of her but don't have an official place for her. It's only recently that she has become a campus figurehead, so I think it would be nice to make an official place for her and get some campus funding," Li said. 

Li later said that she has turned away from placing "pressure on housing" and toward targeting University Center Activities and Events. To be considered in the Student Organization Finance Committee annual budget, she is considering forming a chartered student organization. 

"I don’t really have faith that we can keep running fundraisers to pay for their stuff because that was mostly successful from the People Magazine article, and I don’t think they’re going to run any more articles for us," Li said.

A volunteer student group from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln called Husker Cats aims “to ensure a high-quality life for cats living in feral colonies on campus.” Li cited this group as a model for how current cat caretakers at Duke “could make it work.” 

Li also mentioned that someone could write a book on Peaches and donate the proceeds.

“There are a lot of ideas bouncing around,” Li said.

Correction: This article was updated Wednesday night to reflect that Peaches' current house was not purchased last December. The Chronicle regrets the error.