How Not to Die Alone

How Not to Die Alone

How Not to Die Alone

Free cats at MIT

March 11, 2019 | Stephen L.

Nuclear Science and Engineering

This is an account of how three grad students came to befriend a cat at MIT.

Year 1 B.C. (Before the Cat)

Grad school can be an isolating experience if you allow yourself  to be consumed by the lab or classes. Fortunately, I found at least two acceptable individuals in my program named Guillaume and Shikhar to become my roommates, and with them I have shared many experiences and ideas. All three of us are international students who left our families and friends in 2015 to come to the United States where we bonded over our eagerness to embrace American values. In our first year, we were excited and, without sexual partners to distract us, crushed everything from research to MIT Tech’s crossword puzzles. Yet, we couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing in our household. We couldn’t help but think that there might be more to life than being three random idiots pursuing PhDs.

The opportunity of a lifetime

In October of 2016, Guillaume saw that that someone was soliciting a new home for a young cat on MIT ReUse (a mailing list on campus for the exchange of free items). None of us had ever taken care of an animal before and didn’t know what to expect. Nonetheless, at least two of us thought it apt that we use graduate school as an opportunity for exploration and discovery. Despite significant opposition from one party (Shikhar), we knew that we had committed to the democratic rule of law when we crossed the border. Thus, an email was promptly sent off as follows:

Dear Peggy*:

My roommates and I are thinking of adopting a cat, but aren’t sure how to take care of one.

Best regards,

Stephen and Friends

Within minutes, our email was met with the following response:

Hi Stephen:

Absolutely great. I’ll drop her off tomorrow afternoon.


With the receipt of this email came a rush of pure exhilaration that was even greater than what I had experienced when I was accepted into MIT for graduate school. We had the sense that lives were about to be irrevocably transformed.

The failure of inexperience and overcoming it

When we first met the cat, she was underweight and abandoned (Fig. 1). Peggy seemed to have no idea where the cat came from and doubted she had received any vaccinations. The harsh reality had hit us: owning a cat was more than what the internet (see “Nyan Cat”) had led us to believe. For the first time in our lives, we had true unadulterated responsibility. Not the soft responsibility of writing code or running experiments, but real, direct impact. We would have jurisdiction over a living, breathing, conscious being that was capable of pain and suffering.


Figure 1 Nameless Cat (2016)

She was deathly afraid (of everything) and hid from us. When we tried to find for her that day, she was nowhere in the house to be found. We were devastated when we saw an open window, from which we thought she had escaped. In our minds, we had just failed the most important task of our lives. Ultimately, we didn’t let our disappointment destroy us, but rather allowed it to fuel our problem-solving capacities. We deployed a network of motion-sensing cameras and started training machine learning algorithms to detect and track her next appearance. The cat was found two days later, peeking out from a hole that we didn’t know existed in our cabinet. One might say we needlessly applied technology to the problem.

Since then, we have learned a lot. We’ve learned that, even at MIT, technological solutions aren’t always the best ones. We’ve harnessed our research skills to examine all facets of cat care from litter boxes to table manners. We’ve drawn from amazing resources such as Animal Planet’s My Cat from Hell and Netflix’s Lion in the Living Room (a must-see). Over time, tribulations have become fewer and farther between.

Where we are now

The cat, which we’ve named Pawla, is now a happy, healthy and an active member of society (Fig. 2). She has been acknowledged as a significant contributor in at least three master’s theses and enjoys spending time with her friend Bo, who we subsequently adopted from the streets of the inner city. Shikhar and Pawla have become best friends and the shared responsibility has molded us into a multi-ethnic yet cohesive strike force. The cats can be found on their shared Instagram, which has more than 10 followers. Since Pawla, more than 30 free cats have shown up on MIT ReUse. For those who have adopted one, we thank you for your service. For those who are interested in a life-changing experience and a forever friend, we recommend prudently considering it.

Figure 2 Pawla (2018)


*name changed to protect the innocent


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