Yes, there was a global pandemic that disrupted every part of the university for more than a year. Yes, there was a historic freeze in February that shut down the state of Texas. But the real question on everyone’s mind is, how is Domino?
In early June, on one of my first days back in the office, I went to see for myself. I exited the Main Building and crossed the cul-de-sac to the West Mall. Just to my right, at the southeast corner of the Flawn Academic Center, was the patch of grass walled in by hedges that had long been the cat’s domain.
I could not remember just when I started noticing Domino, but it had been time out of mind, at least the better part of a decade. I had noted with amusement how, as time went on, the feral cat seemed to have become ever more provided for, dare I say spoiled — another bowl for food or water, another kitty shelter appearing seemingly with each passing season. Surely it was the most luxurious life a feral animal ever led. Among all creatures on Earth, Domino had lucked into the optimal existence: complete freedom and complete care. Through nothing but laziness and vagrancy, he had it all.
Occasionally I would spot someone approaching Domino to stroke the black-and-white fur that inspired his name, and then empty a plastic baggie or Tupperware container of cat food into one of his several bowls.
At first on this day, I didn’t see him at all. I saw plenty of evidence of him — the empty plastic bowls and two cat shelters, but no Domino. Someone called my name, and I turned to visit quickly with a passing colleague, and when I turned back around to face Flawn, there he was. He had been there all along, sprawled on his side under the brushy hedges, blending so well with the dappled noontime light I had missed him. He was lying so still I watched his sides for a few long moments to make sure he was breathing, before I entered his domain.
I stepped through the narrow opening in the hedge and crossed the patch of St. Augustine slowly. He raised his head, his sea-foam-green eyes squinting at this stranger, then laid his head back on the dirt: “Oh, no food? Just my public. Sigh. Have them wait in the foyer.”
Just then, a woman appeared with her own lunch in one bag and cat food in another. Taslima Haque, a Ph.D. student in plant biology, was one of Domino’s stalwart caregivers, having been in rotation for the past five years. With biological research experiments to constantly tend, she was one of those people who never left the campus during the pandemic. Day after day, she would mask up and dutifully hike to her lab in the Hackerman Building, and on her way, no matter what the weather, she would feed Domino.
“I have been a cat lover since my childhood, and I had several cats back at home at that time,” she told me. Half a decade ago, when she came here for grad school, she says, “One of my friends was discussing campus cats, which intrigued me, and I decided to pay Domino a visit.” Initially, he was wary, she recalls. “Domino is a classic cat character. He took a little time to come close to me when I started feeding him.”
In my naivete, I had just assumed that good-hearted campus staffers simply brought him food whenever the spirit moved them or whenever they were scheduled to be on campus — but no. Domino has a highly coordinated support network.