“I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and I never thought in my wildest dreams I’d be doing it. I think God gave me a destiny to take care of these cats, and I did.”
Meet Robert Barnes, a University of Richmond landscaper who lives for his cats.
“I was born and raised with cats," Barnes recalled. "When I first started here in 2003 … I came across this one cat and I saw another one and another one, and it was like, dead of winter, it’s freezing out, and I gave them their cat food. They just chowed down on it, and after that I never stopped.”
Since then, he has been feeding and caring for the cats daily with the help of people who support his cause.
Barnes said he got free food from people who really appreciated what he does. He makes sure that all the cats are healthy, and that they’re neutered and said he took them in sometimes when they needed to be fixed or checked out.
"I watch them very closely, he said. "I’m very protective of them. They wait for me in each different spot around the campus, and when they hear my car, they pop out.”
He added that the cats used to sleep in his car while he worked during the day.
Paul Lozo, the director of maintenance at UR, said Barnes even came in over the holidays to make sure the cats get the care they need.
In the cold winter months, Barnes makes sure to give them extra food to help keep their body temperatures high.
“They do know where to hide and stay covered,” Barnes said. “I worry about them when I don’t see them that morning or that night when we have a snow storm, but I figured they’re hiding. They’re waiting it out until they think it’s safe.
“They’re not scared of me … They rub my leg, I pet them … A good half of them I could pick them up. They will not go near anyone else – they’re very skittish. They don’t bother anyone … and they’re good cats, all of them, and I love them very much.”
Barnes’ passion extends beyond the campus grounds – he has adopted some of the cats that he knew were ready for a good home. He currently has four, with a recent addition, Stormy, who “turned out beautifully,” as Barnes put it.
“They’re my passion," Barnes said. "They’re like my kids."
Lozo added that Barnes has found homes for some of other the cats besides his own.
“I can tell by their character if they’re ready to come home or not," Barnes said. "Some of them will not do well being inside at all. I have one cat named Stripe. He’s 16 years old, and I could pet him just a few minutes. I could pick him up for like maybe two seconds, but he’s very content with himself, and he will not do well inside."
Barnes also described his relationship with one of his favorite cats, Gracie.
“She was my best cat," Barnes said. "I saved her life three times.
"The third time I said no more, I’m taking her home, and she adapted like that,” Barnes said, snapping his fingers. “She passed away only two years ago.”
With regard to the black-and-white cat that sits outside the dining hall, commonly known as “Dhall Cat” by many UR students, Barnes said: “That’s Piper. Someone else takes care of him.” Lozo said Piper had gotten his name because they had found him living in a pipe by the University Post Office.
Senior Jane Irving shared her experience with the famed "Dhall Cat."
“He’s not very friendly," Irving said. "He doesn’t really like people, at least me. He never lets me get close to him.
“I just love him. It’s an unrequited love, but it’s okay,” she said jokingly.
To show your support for the campus cats and Barnes, you can donate food by leaving it at the maintenance offices at the Physical Plant on campus.
“Yeah, drop it over here," Barnes said. "Everyone knows me here. Everyone knows what I do.”
Lozo added: “They’ll bring it back in the office and they’ll put it in his hands. He stores it back here.”
Contact features writer Robbie Kent at firstname.lastname@example.org.