Harrisonburg has an affinity that can’t quite be explained.

By Anne Elsea | Photos by Griffin Harrington

Cat Culture













La’Tisha Pryor has a minor obsession with cats.

“Since I’ve been in college, cats have been sort of my thing,” the junior kinesiology major says. “I guess you can say I’m a cat lover and proud of it.”

But it wasn’t until she came to JMU, a place that seems to have an unusually large number of cats, that her infatuation came alive.

Harrisonburg’s “cat culture” is at an all-time high, with students adopting cats an average of four or five times per week, according to Matt Chan, the adoption volunteer coordinator at Cat’s Cradle — a center completely dedicated to cats.

Driving around town, you might see one of the 37,000 strays last reported in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. If you’re searching for a cat, going downtown to Cat’s Cradle might be your first stop.

Started in 1998 by Pat Rossi, Cat’s Cradle was created to provide a no-kill alternative for stray cats. Rossi worked with local vets to provide reduced-price sterilization and vaccines to anyone who had found a stray cat and was willing to keep it.

In 2001, Cat’s Cradle opened a free-standing spay/neuter clinic in Harrisonburg. Now, the Shenandoah Valley Spay & Neuter Clinic  offers low-cost sterilization for both cats and dogs and has the capacity to perform more than 10,000 surgeries a year.

For students without a cat, Cat’s Cradle is also a place to forget about classes and play with some very social cats.

“I used to go to the shelters and Cat’s Cradle and play with them all the time, but after two years of no animals in my life at JMU, I decided to adopt one,” says Hannah Skedsvold, a junior marketing major.

Chan thinks the cats also benefit from being so close to a university.

Cat stats

  • There are about 37,000 stray cats in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.
  • There are cat shelters set up in South View, Fox Hills, Stone Gate and Squire Hill.
  • The Quad cats’ Facebook page now has about 1,970 “likes.”

“I love to see students come in and adopt; I see students every single day,” Chan says.  “I get at least one student adoption every other day. It’s gratifying to see college students take on that responsibility.”

It’s hard to know exactly where the cat culture at JMU came from, but Chan explained that Virginia in general has a high stray cat population.

Cats gravitate toward student complexes. … I think that’s why we have such a big stray cat population. It continues to grow if we don’t stop the cat colonies.
Ramona Messenger, Rockingham Memorial Hospital

“There are definitely cats everywhere,” said Alex Mott, a sophomore SMAD-declared major who lives in South View, where several cats live near. “Wild cats have habitats around town. … Cat’s Cradle downtown make cats seem more popular.”

CatChan sees his share of cat lovers in Cat’s Cradle, but he has also noticed their growing popularity online.

“There is a lot on the Internet, and it’s how people use the Internet now with cat jokes and stuff,” Chan says.

You can even find two black cats running around the Quad. The cat siblings, named Dolley and Jimmy after Dolley and James Madison, migrated from South Main Street to the Quad a few years ago. Ramona Messenger, the university events director, has since taken the “Quad cats” under her wing. She has also set up a feeder in front of Burruss Hall for them.

The cats were part of a small litter living near an old apartment complex off South Main across from where the FedEX building is now. Messenger was volunteering with Cat’s Cradle at the time when JMU students living in the apartment got in contact with her.

Messenger trapped four of the cats in the litter, including Jimmy and Dolley, before getting them neutered and spayed. Then she let them all go.

A JMU student helped her feed the colony at first, when the cats were still living outside the student’s apartment. Once the student graduated, no one was there to feed them.

“That’s when two of them gravitated to the Quad in 2011,” Messenger says.

People soon started talking about them in Messenger’s office, and once she began to see the cats around the Quad, she started feeding them again.

That was when Messenger came  up with the idea of a JMU program for trapping, neutering and spaying stray cats.

“Cats gravitate toward student complexes, students put food out, and with the garbage dumpsters it’s a popular area for cats,” Messenger says. “I think that’s why we have such a big stray cat population. It continues to grow if we don’t stop the cat colonies.”

She joined up with Cat’s Cradle and apartment complexes to set up several cat “shelters” throughout the area, which are basically small homes for cats with water and food available.

Currently, 14 cats use the South View shelter, six in Fox Hills, three in Stone Gate and three in the Squire Hill shelter. Messenger works with Cat’s Cradle to neuter and spay the cats so that the cat population can be controlled.

“It’s stopped new cats and colonies from coming in [and] stopped kittens from coming also,” Messenger says.

Jane Dinsmore, an administrative assistant in the Bioscience Building, regularly feeds the two Quad cats.
Jane Dinsmore, an administrative assistant in the Bioscience Building, regularly feeds the two Quad cats.

Though the Quad cats used to be shy around people, they will now often let people pet them. Dolley is the more outgoing of the two, sometimes rolling on her stomach to get treats, according to caretaker Jane Dinsmore, an administrative assistant in the Bioscience Building.

“I have heard the remark that ‘Just seeing the cats makes me happier for the day,’ ” Dinsmore says. “They are good ambassadors for JMU.”

Laura Wisman, who also feeds the cats, said that even tour groups are clued in about them.

“I was giving Dolley some treats and one of the tour groups was walking by and the leader told them about it,” said Wisman, executive secretary of the College of Arts and Letters. “They all seemed really excited to see her in person and [learn] that she was real.”

Wisman says the affection is reciprocated.

The cats “really miss when the students aren’t here and the attention they get when they are here,” Wisman said.