Garden keepers with nine lives

A flash of orange slinks inside a small greenhouse. It passes an array of orchids and other green plants but pays them no mind. To this colorful character, home is where the dinner is. 

The cats that reside at the USF Botanical Gardens seem to have no interest in who comes to visit them and admire the flowers. Even so, they do show an interest in time. 

Every day around 4 p.m., they come to the greenhouse for a meal, provided by the garden’s director, Laurie Walker. While Walker enjoys their company, she is troubled by the fact that some of the cats once belonged to someone else.

“I don’t want to be a repository for unwanted pets,” Walker said. “Unfortunately, people have a tendency to dump animals here, and that is not good.”

Most of the six cats living on the property are feral and not socialized. Through the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, all known cats on the property have been spayed or neutered and vaccinated. 

But one cat named Rafters, who passed away a year ago, held a special place in the staff’s hearts at the gardens. Walker believes she was once a pet because of her social tendencies.

She speculates that more pictures had been taken of Rafters than any of the flowers in the gardens. Rafters was well-known even to the children who visited.

“I would look out and there would be little kids running through the garden carrying her,” Walker said.

Kevin Slaughter, senior groundskeeper at the gardens, also admired and enjoyed the company of Rafters while she was around. However, he stands on the fence with the issue of feral cats living on the property. 

“Having feral cats is not really an environmentally friendly thing, especially since we have so much wildlife,” Slaughter said. “They’re part of the garden and having them as part of the character of the garden is a good thing, but then there’s the other side of it.”

The other side involves the issue of the cats hunting and killing native animals that also call the gardens home. Despite this, rescue organizations like Second Chance Sanctuary say that feral cats exist because they have been abandoned. If they’re going to live, they must find food. These feral garden cats are, in increasing volume, finding their needs met at USF.

The staff provides for the felines — it’s ritual by now. Walker bangs tin bowls together and calls out. Cats dash underneath plant stands, avoiding the footfall of any nearby human being. A grey male named Bat Kitty slinks towards a tin of fresh cat chow, glaring at a woman who picks up a hanging plant across the greenhouse.

While these feral cats may be king of the Botanical Gardens, people have dumped unwanted pets of other kinds. Slaughter mentioned an embarrassing event in which he had to chase down a rooster and some hens. All of the birds were successfully given a new home, but were not easily caught.

“Here’s this grown man chasing a chicken around with a rake,” Slaughter said. “It was embarrassing, but we finally got rid of them.”

Rabbits were another of the animals left to fend for themselves in the gardens. Their fate was unknown, but Slaughter could only assume what happened to them.

“I saw them hopping around and I couldn’t catch them,” Slaughter said. “And I’m sure the hawks got them. If not, the alligators. If not, they just couldn’t make it.”

Staff at the gardens do not recommend or endorse the notion of dropping off unwanted pets. But there are still hungry feline mouths to feed. The money spent on keeping the cats from going hungry comes right from Walker’s own wallet. 

To help staff keep up with taking care of the grounds as well as feeding the cats, volunteers are always welcome to apply and attend orientation.

“We have wonderful volunteers that help us,” Walker said. “Many of them are from the community, but a lot of them are students and we really encourage students to come out and volunteer.”