Pebbles with a cause

A university campus can be a lonely place. Far from home, without family and friends, it can be hard to find comfort in new surroundings.   

Something familiar, like a family pet, can make a positive difference. And at Essex, we are fortunate to have our very own campus cat. Our black and white feline friend, who goes by the name of Pebbles, provides happiness and joy to many of our university community – staff and students alike.   

We celebrate the privilege of having a domesticated (yet semi-feral) animal who likes to call our Colchester Campus home. 

A cat by any other name 

Pebbles, otherwise known as the Essex Campus Cat, arrived on our Colchester Campus just over 14 years ago.   

“When he came onto campus, a member of staff took him to a local vet to have his microchip checked,” says Pebbles’ legal guardian, Craig Stephens, Chief Executive of Essex Students’ Union (SU). 

“She took him back to his owner, who was very grateful, but Pebbles kept coming back onto campus. We tried a few times and eventually his owner agreed that he would stay here.  

“His name was Pebbles – it said it on his microchip – and so we didn’t change it. His pseudonym is the Campus Cat.”  

Two years after arriving on campus, the Students’ Union officially adopted Pebbles.   

Craig took him to the vets and had the microchip transferred to his name. 

“If he sees me – or rather smells me – he runs a mile!” admits Craig. “I regularly take him to the vet and give him the treatments he needs, and he knows that I am the one who is going to do those things to him.”  

Craig says that Pebbles has his regular admirers who he goes to for food and comfort – and these people keep him informed of how Pebbles is doing.   

Outside The Store, Pebbles has food and drink bowls. These are filled in the morning and the evening, and staff there – as well as cleaner and Pebble fan Angela Skinner – keep an eye on him.  

Angela says it makes her day to see Pebbles in the mornings.  

“When I park in the North Towers car-park Pebbles is waiting. He seems to know my car and that it's time for his early breakfast. I always have cat food and treats for him. I love seeing him around Campus and you can see how happy he is. I’m sure the students will always remember him after they leave.”  

Pebbles has his regular haunts on Campus. He loves to hang out on the window ledge of the Tony Rich Centre, especially in the morning sun. He frequents Essex Business School where he finds food and friends in both the marketing office and in the Postgraduate lounge; and also spends a lot of time in the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) building. And, as rumour has it, has been known to spend the whole day in the VC’s office.   

Pebbles – who is also a registered student (he studied in the Department of Government), has his own brand of merchandise, and features in University marketing material – is a very popular, and well-known, cat.  

Top Cat 

It is not only on campus where he is popular. 

Pebbles has his own social media channels (including Facebook, Instagram and X) and has roughly 13,000 followers.  

“Pebbles is active on social media,” Craig adds. “But some of his followers are people who have never been here before – they are people who follow famous cats, like the Number 10 cat, for example.

“Pebbles is famous – he has had a lot of local, regional and national coverage.” 

He has been featured in People’s Friend magazine (in May 2023) on Anglia News, and in a study by (a website which profiles universities in Europe) which voted Pebbles one of the top five cutest campus cats in Europe.  

In fact, Pebbles features in the top spot.  

Pebbles then, isn’t alone in being a campus cat. As seen from the study, universities in Edinburgh, Buckingham, Augsburg in Germany, and Aberdeen also have their own campus cats. 

The importance of being Pebbles 

The fact that Pebbles is not the only campus cat, tells us something about the power of having an on-site pet.  

We all know the benefits animals are reported to bring, but no-one knows more about the therapeutic impact of animals than Fiona Hannah, who, after graduating with an MA Psychodynamic Counselling, went on to set up her own mental health service, Teenage Mental Health, in Ipswich.  

Fiona is now studying for a Professional Doctorate (Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy) and, although specifically focusing on the role dogs can play in psychodynamic therapy, she recognises the many benefits a cat like Pebbles brings to the community.  

“There is an enormous amount of evidence that animals can have a positive effect on people. Stroking a dog or cat, for example, brings about chemical changes in the body and reduces cortisol levels, so reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, and brings out positive emotions. If you like animals, the physiological effects on you can be huge. 

“And this is what happens when students see Pebbles.”

“For adolescents who are away from home, Pebbles offers them the familiarity they may feel if they have a family pet. He gives people happy feelings, and lowers their emotionally heightened feelings to help them feel calm.” 

Fiona Hannah, Clinical Director of Teenage Mental Health

It’s a cat’s and a dog’s life 

The positive, and calming, benefits animals can have has been recognised by the SU, who host a “Flat Pack Farm” on campus during exam time, and run sessions where therapy dogs come onto our Colchester campus to spend time with students.   

The Flat Pack Farm is organised by the SU’s education team, in collaboration with an organisation called Wellies On, to give students a relaxing experience during a stressful time.

The team say: “We have seen first-hand the impact that animals can have on student wellbeing and it helps to reduce stress and anxiety, especially when students are in exam mode.”

Angela Kokic Brnicevic, volunteering coordinator for the SU’s V Team, says that the weekly sessions with Essex Therapy Dogs (held in Silberrad Centre on Mondays from 12pm to 2pm) is also popular with students – and are targeted at those who need extra wellbeing support.   

“Many students who come to the sessions suffer from anxiety and other mental health conditions which make their everyday life a bit harder. The therapy dogs always bring a smile to their face and give them the opportunity to meet other students in a safe and warm environment,” she says. 

They also run regular weekly sessions off-site where students go to either a horse and donkey rescue centre or to a local care farm.

“We do not endorse our volunteers to just go and pet animals, we encourage them to think and act upon their wellbeing. As much as it is beneficial for students to spend time with animals, we also believe it is important to give the animals their personal space and treat them with kindness.”  

A point that is also prevalent to Pebbles, as Craig explains.

“He loves fuss when he loves fuss, but if he doesn’t want it, you will know,” he says. “We have to remember that although he lives here, he is still semi-feral, and if he doesn’t want to be picked up by a stranger, he doesn’t want to be picked up.”  

But those who know Pebbles treat him with love and respect, and, in turn, welcome and appreciate his affection. 

How Pebbles wins friends and influences people 

Students are happy to tell you what Pebbles means to them.  

One student, now in her sixth year of study, chose Essex over another university, because of Pebbles.  

Isabella Ciuta, a first year PhD student in Molecular Medicine (having completed both her Masters by Dissertation and undergraduate degree at Essex), says that Pebbles was her “ultimate deciding factor” in coming to Essex from her home country of Romania.    

“I got accepted into the two UK universities I applied for and found myself comparing rankings, campus versus city student life, accommodation prices, and graduate outcomes, but there was no simple right or wrong answer. So, I decided to embark on my academic journey with the university that had a campus cat named Pebbles,” she says. 

“The first time I met Pebbles, I was on my way to my first lecture as an undergrad. It was a happy coincidence and it made me feel a lot calmer about being in a totally new place, in a new country.” 

Since that day, Isabella regularly sees Pebbles on campus, and she is one of the people he will allow to pet him, and even give him a hug.   

“Before coming to university, I would spend the majority of my time on my grandparents' farm or in the yard with my cats. I was very used to the days going by being surrounded by animals. Seeing Pebbles around campus reminded me of home.”

Pebbles is equally as loved by many members of staff.  

Karla Bird, Marketing Officer for Essex Business School, often spends time with Pebbles.

“It always feels like a treat if Pebbles chooses to grace you with his presence. He is often roaming the EBS building, and he’s now started knocking on our office door some mornings for snacks and water,” she says. 

Louise Cullen, Head of Communications and Engagement for ISER, adds: “Seeing Pebbles on the stairs or finding him snoozing in a random cosy place is always a bit magical a bit of the unexpected in a workaday environment.”

Emily Smith, MiSoC Communications and Administrative Assistant (ISER), also says she feels lucky to have Pebbles around.  

“Even after ten years, he still makes me smile. His presence has become normal to me and he part of the furniture now. I love it when new members of staff get excited that we have a cat, because it’s not normal!” she says.  

The smartest cat in town 

Just from speaking to a handful of people, it is easy to see the impact of Pebbles.  

Positive words including “magical”, “lucky” and that seeing him can be a reminder that “there is nothing to worry about”, make you appreciate the joy he brings. 

And his presence – and the connection people feel with him – brings a sense of community to campus.   

It is this sense of community which is now being celebrated by the Students’ Union. This Spring sees the first ever Campus Cat Day – which is set to become an annual celebration – where people can come together to appreciate, and celebrate, all things Pebbles.   

From midday until midnight, there will be a range of Pebble-themed activities happening, as well as the unveiling of a special, commemorative statue of Pebbles, by the Chancellor of the University, Dr Sarah Perry.

The bronze statue, which was made by acclaimed animal sculptor Gill Parker, and funded by monies raised from Pebbles merchandise and donations from alumni who support him, will be based between Square 3 and Square 4.

“The statue is to recognise all of the joy Pebbles has brought to our students.” Craig explains. “We hope that he will be like a good luck charm, or a symbol, and that we will build a tradition where you pat the statue for good luck. 

“Campus Cat Day is all about having a celebration. Whatever people’s reason for taking part, Pebbles is bringing our community together to have some fun.” 

Our Vice-Chancellor, Professor Anthony Forster, welcomes the day of celebration. 

“The sculpture on our Colchester Campus will be a delight to everyone who has known him and will be a lasting memory of Campus Cat for future staff and students,” he says.  

“Pebbles chose to live with us many years ago and each day he brings joy and happiness by being amongst us. Like many of our community, I also enjoy spending time with him and feel very privileged when he chooses to spend time in my office.” 

The Pebbles effect 

Whether you are an animal lover or not, and whether you are a follower of Pebbles or not, the ripple effect our campus cat has on our community cannot be denied. 

If taking part in Campus Cat Day by drinking a ‘Cat-uccino’, painting a pebble for Pebbles, or wearing a set of cat ears, isn’t your thing, we do understand.  

But we also understand, and appreciate, that a cat like Pebbles can make people feel good. He can also encourage people to feel comforted. And he can make them feel like they belong. 

And if one small feline can do all of that, we’re glad he calls Essex his home. 

Item 1 of 4

“Even on the gloomiest, hardest days, seeing a chunky cat walk around campus like he owns the place, never fails to put a smile on my face.” 

Isabella Ciuta, PhD student

Find out more

Student talking into a microphone

Study with us

Find out more about life at the University of Essex and the range of courses and opportunities we provide.

Students celebrating the Holi festival

The Students' Union

When you join Essex, you join a community of 15,000 students representing 140 different nationalities from around the world. Our campuses are buzzing with activities and events and you'll find a supportive network of like minds where you can pursue your passions and have fun.

University of Essex 60 logo

Sixty Stories

We’re celebrating 60 years of making change happen.  60 years of boldness and bravery from our students past and present. 60 years of creating change.