Snow pussies: Schools make tough calls with the twitch of a tail
Making the call to close schools for inclement weather has always been tough for school officials, particularly when the snow hasn't even started falling. In Albemarle and Charlottesville, a pilot program between the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA and the school systems is making that judgment easier– and providing once homeless cats with a second chance.
"We were used to making those school closing decisions ourselves," says Josh Davis, COO of County Schools, who says the idea that a cat could save the school system time and money and keep students safe during winter weather seemed far fetched. "I was dubious," he admits.
That was before Davis met "Roker."
The five-year-old tabby first showed his forecasting talent when he arrived at the SPCA in December 2009, just days before the so-called "Snowpocalypse" that dumped two feet of snow on the area. While other cats seemed unaware of the impending blizzard, the normally placid Roker grew increasingly agitated as the storm approached.
"He was pacing, and his tail was just twitching and twitching," recalls volunteer Judy Schmubarton, who at first joked with SPCA colleagues that Roker was taking after his famed Today show namesake. Their laughter stopped when Roker behaved the same way before each of that brutal winter's subsequent storms.
"The tail always twitched," says Schmubarton, "but in early February, he let out a yowl that let us know we were in for a doozy!" Roker was right again, as the February 2010 "Snowmaggedon" brought another 18 inches.
That summer, Schmubarton, frustrated that Roker hadn't been adopted, reached out to the County schools with an idea so crazy she figured officials would laugh it off: let Roker's predictions determine whether to close schools.
She was stunned when County Schools Superintendent Pam Moran agreed to give Roker a try.
"We embrace high-tech solutions for a variety of challenges," says Moran, "but it's well established that animals have instincts we can't fully understand, and it would be foolish not to harness those instincts for the benefit of our students."
Hoping to split the costs of kitty litter and cat chow, Moran contacted City Schools Superintendant Rosa Atkins to see if the City might join the so-called "snow pussy" project. Atkins agreed.
"It was a chance to test a pilot program without committing to a cat of our own," says Atkins, who notes that last year, pleased with Roker's performance, the city schools adopted "Sprouse," a two-year-old Himalayan mix who had shown similar forecasting talents while housed at the SPCA.
"He's been a delight," says Atkins, who defends Sprouse's decision to close schools early on Friday, January 25– when a mere half-inch of snow was called for. "I believe it was the right choice," she says, expressing gratitude for Sprouse's caution. "Roads get slippery quickly," she notes.
Atkins invites any parent frustrated by the decision to come to the city schools' new cat housing area to meet Sprouse.
"You can look at that cat's face and see that he cares about the kids," says Atkins.
One challenge, both Atkins and Moran agree, has been establishing clear communication with Roker and Sprouse. Fortunately, the last few mild winters have allowed administrators time to study the kitty sign language that enables quick decisions under pressure.
"A single tail twitch to the left is a one-hour delay," Davis explains of Roker's signs. "Two twitches would be two hours. If the tail goes to the right, that means he wants us to close schools early. A long meow is a full closure."
And no one ever wants to hear the type of yowl Roker let out back in 2010.
"That," says Davis, "would signal the need to shut down pre-emptively for at least a week."
Both Atkins and Moran say they're proud to have found a creative solution to a problem that has plagued administrators for years.
"The snow pussy program is here to stay," says Moran.
The Rutabaga is an occasional humor column in the Hook. It is satire, not news.–editorRead more on: Rutabaga