Coolest Cats on Campus by Jessica McColl

Callan Park is a historic site resting on 150 acres and located in the cosmopolitan inner west of Sydney. This heritage-listed site was once a Hospital for the Insane, which opened its doors in 1878. It became renowned for the experimental treatment of mental health patients in it’s early years. All medical services were relocated in 2008.

Due to its status as a heritage-listed site, Callan Park is only available for the use of either education or health services. The University of Sydney was given a 99 year lease of the property in 1996 and moved it’s fine arts campus there, know as Sydney College of the Arts, or SCA.

I began my studies there in 2004, first majoring in sculpture and then switching my major to ceramics.

Art school is something else, like stepping into a completely different world. A world filled with people who share a common interest and yet are so accepting of differences. I encountered some of the most uniquely intelligent people during my time there. Former institutions are popular venues for art school campuses because they are so closed in, and they come with an inspiring history. As I am sure you have gathered, Callan Park is no exception.

The Art School itself is inside the Kirkbride Building, where the original park of the institution was. Large sandstone walls enclose the buildings and beautiful courtyards. Outside of these walls is a massive park, which leads down to the bay of the Sydney harbour. Horrid stories emerge from Kirkbride’s early history, where people were effectively dumped in the asylum to be hidden from their society for supposed social transgressions such as homosexuality and infertility.

As it turns out, Callan Park remains still, a dumping ground. This time however, it is for un-wanted pets.

The grounds are full of stray dogs (often seen being rounded up by RSPCA) and the more elusive cats and bunny rabbits. I would often arrive very early and leave after dark and see former pet rabbits frolicking around the grounds while starved stray cats looked on. The feral cats are much harder to catch sight of, but are certainly there. Presumably the offspring of stray cats, the feral cats are wild creatures. Generally they are larger than a regular housecat and as fierce as they come. Fortunately, these cats stayed out in the grounds, not venturing onto campus.

One of 'our cats' once they warmed up to us. To the right you can see the top hat kiln. Lid on this time! Photo courtesy of Jia-haur Liang

One of 'our cats' once they warmed up to us. To the right you can see the top hat kiln. Lid on this time! Photo courtesy of Jia-haur Liang

In 2007, we returned from uni holidays to a rather unexpected surprise. The turn of season had seen the temperature drop significantly and one industrious mama cat had decided to raise her kittens in the insulated top of our top hat kiln! If you can imagine, this outdoor kiln has a box-like top, which lifts off, and while not in use is often laid on its side. Filled with insulation to aid the firing process, it would be good protection against the elements. What a clever girl!

There was a flurry of excitement amongst our studio, and we set to work to decide what to do with our new adopted family. Unfortunately, ‘Mum’ as we named her, was not as excited to see us, as we were to see her. She wouldn’t allow you to go near her or her kittens without arching and hissing and growling.

Students began pooling their meager funds to buy food for ‘our cats’ occasionally bringing them a treat of tinned tuna, probably far better than what some of those same students were eating for lunch themselves. Slowly our family of cats became friendlier. They mainly stayed in the courtyard of our studio. Early one evening, one of the kittens ventured through the locked gate, which leads outside. Feral cats descended upon it, attacked and then ate it while devastated students watched on powerless to save it.

After this rather traumatic incident, it was decided that something had to be done for the remaining kittens and, of course, Mum. I called cat welfare organization after cat welfare organization. None were able or willing to take on our small family. One did offer discounted de-sexing and vet care, even offering to loan us the traps. Even so, the cost was far higher than we could afford. So we made ceramic cats and sold them to raise the funds. We then humanely trapped our cats and had them de-sexed and vaccinated.

I am not sure what became of all of our cats as I graduated at the end of that year. I do know that one of Mum’s kittens, Blackie, came down with rather serious cat flu and was taken in by the very talented Gemma Bonshek.

Here he is, eight years later and living a very charmed life, by the looks of things!

Blackie, now known as XiaoXiao. Photo courtesy of Gemma Bonshek

Blackie, now known as XiaoXiao. Photo courtesy of Gemma Bonshek

Spot the kitty! One of Mum’s kittens trying to remain elusive amongst the kiln bricks. Photo courtesy of Jia-haur Liang

Spot the kitty! One of Mum’s kittens trying to remain elusive amongst the kiln bricks. Photo courtesy of Jia-haur Liang