It all started with Poopsie, an elderly grey tabby who staked out territory at the Southwest School of Art (SSA). Clearly the old gal had sophisticated taste: the independent art college sits on the picturesque, riverfront grounds of the Ursuline Convent and Academy, which dates to 1851.
When North Carolina native Barbara Hill relocated to San Antonio in 2001 to take a position as the school’s Director of Community Programs, Poopsie was the lone campus cat.
“She was very old … and probably lived until she was 18,” Hill recalled.
When Poopsie’s tenure ended, other cats began to arrive, including a pregnant mother whose kittens soon has kittens of their own.
Noticing a need for intervention, Hill stepped up as the point person for the campus cats. In addition to creating the aptly named Kitty Fund — a community-fed petty cash drawer set aside for cat food and veterinary care — Hill attended the San Antonio Feral Cat Coalition’s Trap-Neuter-Return training program to help control the growing population.
“We trapped and neutered about eight or nine cats,” Hill said. A few months later, two calicos showed up, one of which Hill claimed and named Rue. “She was so sick I couldn’t leave her there. She had to come home.”
There are currently eight known campus cats in residence: JoJo, Que, Ursa, Odin, Patches, Pumpkin, Socks and Whiskers. Save for later arrivals Patches and Que, they’re all related. JoJo is the grandmother of the other five, including the reverently named Ursa — after the Ursuline nuns who once lived on campus — and Odin — after Jean Marie Odin, founding bishop of the academy.
The ASPCA would label these felines “community cats” — outdoor, unowned, free-roaming cats that might be friendly, feral, old or young. Most often seen early in the morning and late at night, they all but disappear during the daytime.
“They’re not totally feral,” Hill explained. “There are a couple that will let you pet them … They love to hang out in the courtyard [and] over by Club Giraud — needless to say, because Club Giraud will often give them tasty morsels from the kitchen.”
Fancy scraps aside, the cats depend on the Kitty Fund, which is fed by donations collected by the school’s Copper Kitchen Café and Fiesta Art Fair — a Fiesta favorite Hill has organized for 15 years. With the campus closed and Fiesta canceled due to COVID-19, the Kitty Fund was already dwindling when a medical emergency wiped it out.
“We have this one cat that likes to get in fights,” Hill said. “He came as a big tomcat and I had him neutered, but he still tends to get in fights. He had a big abscess, and that gets expensive.”
Considering the situation, Hill had a lightbulb moment.
“I’d already been selling masks,” she said. “And, really, I was doing it for family and friends … [but suddenly thought], ‘Hey, I could use what I’m already doing to try to put money back into the Kitty Fund.’ So, I asked, ‘Is everybody OK with me listing this in our in-house newsletter? You know, if you’re interested in a mask, it’s in exchange for a donation to the Kitty Fund.’”
Informed by both YouTube tutorials and patterns of her own design, Hill created masks in four styles — pleated, shaped, 3D and drawstring — using an eclectic assortment of fabrics from her personal stash and others she picked up from area retailers. While she was prepared with enough masks to supply the immediate SSA community, she wasn’t quite ready for the Instagram post that got shared with the school’s 9,980 followers. Featuring photos of the colorful masks and their feline beneficiaries, the post garnered 148 likes and 11 comments. Before long, the masks had sold out.
Beyond replenishing the Kitty Fund, Hill’s mask project made it clear that the campus cats are loved and appreciated.
“There were some great stories,” Hill said. “[One commenter] just wanted to give money because she saw the cats every morning when she was walking her son to school. … I guess [the cats] bring joy to them when they walk to school every morning and see the cats on our campus. A lot of people do. A couple of the people who take weaving classes wanted masks and they said the same thing.”
“We definitely underestimated the love the San Antonio community has for our amazing campus cats and the attraction of Barbara’s beautiful handcrafted masks,” said Debra Del Toro, SSA Vice President of Communications and Recruitment Strategy. “That being said, due to the overwhelming response, we have met our goal and won’t be offering additional masks.”
Contributing to the Kitty Fund, however, is still possible. Those wishing to donate can send PetSmart or Petco gift cards to the following address: Kitty Fund, Southwest School of Art, 300 Augusta St. San Antonio TX 78205.
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