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.
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.