A glimpse of a tail, the scurry of paws, a whiff of cat food in the mornings: There are seven cats that call San Diego State their home, and one man who knows and cares for them more than anyone.
“Over by the bookstore, there’s a grey and white [cat] named Hermione,” said John Denune, a former SDSU staff member. “Her mother lives over near the mediterranean garden and her name is Buddy. In front of Hepner Hall, there’s a black one named BJ. Her brother and mother live on the other side of this building; that’s Orion and Darcy. There’s a relatively new cat on campus … named Blondie. Probably the oldest cat on campus … is Mama Calico.”
Several students have acquainted themselves with the cats but many are unaware that all seven cats are cared for by John Denune, the creator of the Aztec Cats program.
Aztec Cats was started by Denune in 2009 when he was leaving work for the night and noticed four cats on campus looking for food in trash cans.
“I grew up with lots of animals; I grew up on a farm,” Denune said. “I just felt that wasn’t a way for a cat to eat.”
Denune began feeding the cats every day to ensure they were well fed at their home on campus.
“But just feeding them wasn’t enough since the cat population would multiply if they weren’t neutered,” Denune wrote on the Aztec Cats Facebook page.
He then teamed up with the Feral Cat Coalition, a non-profit organization based in San Diego dedicated to reducing the overpopulation of feral cats, according to their website. With the help of the organization, Denune keeps the cat population on campus in control.
“We don’t want a lot of feral cats running around campus because [of] the chances of them getting hurt or somebody on campus getting hurt,” Enterprise Technology Services Budget and Administrative Manager Sheryl Necochea said, one of the Aztec Cats feeders.
Necochea is part of the team of feeders Denune recruited to ensure the cats are fed on a daily basis.
Denune was a technology security officer at SDSU until 2011, when he took a position at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). When he left his job at SDSU, he formed a group of staff members who also share a passion for taking care of animals to feed the cats. He then created a schedule for all the feeders to follow.
“He actually used to feed all the cats every day, and he would also take them to the vet, try to find homes for them, everything,” said Nance Lakdawala, an SDSU staff member and Aztec Cats feeder. “He took care of them completely. … There’s actually six of us that do a week at a time, and we just trade off.”
Each of the feeders takes turns feeding the cats on a week-by-week basis.
On weekends and holidays, Denune comes to campus to feed the cats despite no longer being employed by SDSU.
“They’re kind of my extended cat family, and I actually look forward to coming here every weekend and just walking around the campus,” Denune said. “It’s a beautiful campus. Feeding my cats and seeing my cats, it’s just part of my life.”
Over the seven years since Aztec Cats first began, several other cats, besides the current seven, have called SDSU their home.
Denune said 19 former Aztec Cats were adopted out, including two adopted by Necochea and several he adopted himself.
However, he said there were two instances that he knows of involving students taking the cats.
One student took an older Aztec cat to the animal shelter, thinking he was a lost cat.
“One day [a cat named Papa] just disappeared, and when he didn’t show up for a couple of days, we really started to worry,” Denune said. “Just for kicks I looked at the county animal shelter mugshot pictures, and there he was.”
Another instance occurred when a student took home an older cat, Crook, thinking she was lost.
“The student said, ‘Yeah, I took her home because I thought she was lost,’ so we tried out an adoption with them, and Crook growing up kind of alone and on campus didn’t really socialize well with this person,” Denune said. “We took her back, and actually, a faculty member adopted her, and she’s been doing great at the faculty member’s house. He sends me pictures every once in a while holding her and sleeping on the bed.”
Necochea said the goal for the Aztec Cats program was to adopt out the kittens. The older cats prefer the outdoors, so those Denune and the other feeders don’t have the same goal in mind for them.
Denune said the feral cat program is written into the grounds policy for staff members to take care of the cats and feed them.
“It’s kind of an official blessed program,” Denune said.
The cats are safe living on campus, and the living situation of the cats is safe for students as well.
“We had the blessing of [the] vice president for business affairs, and she checked it out with other campus police constituents and environmental health and safety,” Denune said. “They didn’t see a big risk to the campus.”
Many students and staff alike enjoy the presence the cats bring to the campus.
“[The Aztec Cats program] means a lot because it kind of brings a sense of nature to the campus,” media studies sophomore Sumner Shorey said. “There’s a sense of hospitality, too, and comfort.”
Shorey’s favorite cat Hermione lives near the graphic design office, and many people who work in graphic design help with the care of Hermione.
“I love [Aztec Cats],” SDSU Senior Graphic Designer Nader Rastakhiz said. “I think it’s very friendly … I see people are coming and relaxing [with the cats]. It’s a good thing.”
Around the graphic design office, the designers know Denune as a provider for the cats. He makes a gift every year for everyone who helps with the care of the Aztec Cats.
“One year he made a mug with a bunch of [the cat’s] pictures on it,” Graphic Designer Elizabeth Brozek said.
He’s working on a fundraiser to produce cat calendars and sell them to the SDSU community, Lakdawala said.
Besides the perk of getting the calendars for helping with the program, the feeders are grateful to Denune for what it brings to them.
“Working with the campus cats and John just gives me that little bit extra step where I feel involved in the university and doing something good for the university,” Necochea said. “I’m grateful to John to have started the program, and I’m grateful to be involved.”
“I just love animals, and these guys didn’t ask to be born on campus, they didn’t ask to be born without a home, so my goal is to try to make them the happiest home as possible, and they seem to really enjoy living here,” Denune said. “You walk around and see them sleeping under a bush or something like that, and it’s just very heartwarming to see that.”
“He’s definitely a cat person,” Necochea said.