Duquesne Biology Professor Volunteers Her Skills and “Cattitude,” One Feral Colony at a Time

In her spare time, Dr. Becky Morrow will do more than 50 surgeries a day.

Assistant professor of biological sciences at Duquesne University, Morrow is rare among academicians: a licensed veterinarian and a scholar who gets her hands dirty helping communities from Clarion to the West Virginia border control feral cat colonies. Morrow with her special surgical unit.

She makes clear that feral cat colonies exist because food supplies and shelter are available; if these cats were exterminated, as others advocate, different cats likely would move into the same territory-or animal pest populations might soar. If residents capture the cats, Morrow is willing neuter and release them, leaving behind a stable and healthier colony.

"You do a whole group at once. That's how you get ahead of the reproduction cycle," explained Morrow, who established the nonprofit Frankie's Friends Cat Rescue in New Kensington in memory of her rescued silver tabby.

Morrow finds recruits across campus, engaging students to organize clinics, draw blood and assist with surgeries. Duquesne students who aspire to veterinary practice gain an edge by working with Morrow, observed Dr. Alan W. Seadler, associate provost for research and technology.

"Because Duquesne has no veterinary school, no agriculture school and no medical school, this is a major achievement." Seadler said.

For instance, post-baccalaureate student Rebecca Theodorou has spent every weekend since March with the mobile clinic.

"I knew nothing about cats when I started. I honestly admire their ability to survive on their own, essentially in the wild," said Theodorou, who also is seeing career possibilities in the new field of shelter medicine.

Yet the benefits of Morrow's work are not limited to pre-medical and post-baccalaureate students. Dr. Lisa Ludvico's forensic science students gain skills obtaining DNA through tissue samples remaining from Morrow's efforts. An international practice is to clip a cat's left ear tip so it's immediately visible that it has been neutered. Ludvico, a cat lover serving on the nonprofit's board, asked Morrow about obtaining this tissue, which typically is discarded, for a more rich-and rare-DNA extraction opportunity than saliva and blood samples.

"Some students were put off at first," Ludvico said. "Then they started realizing the marker systems used to identify individuals in animal populations is the same as what is used in humans, even though they are species-specific."

Ludvico and her students are determining the inter-relatedness of cat colonies, to answer if cats band together in families or if groupings are happenstance.

Altogether, these efforts mean students win, communities win-and the cats themselves win. "Students can see the community problem," Morrow said. "Working with underserved populations is tied to our academic work."

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.