- The Washington Times - Monday, November 6, 2000

HAGERSTOWN, Md. It is barely daylight when Brenda Shane arrives at City Park with her daily load of food and water for a colony of feral cats.

About a dozen of the castoff pets and their offspring silently surround her as she crawls beneath a sheltering stairwell to refill containers. As the cats feed, she checks the conditions of the straw she has spread to cushion the ground and the cardboard panels that block the wind.

Miss Shane calls herself their caretaker, but by feeding the cats she contributes to a problem City Hall is trying to solve.

City officials say the popular, well-tended park is not designed to shelter cats, and they have ordered the animals removed.

The local Humane Society agrees, contending feral cats can carry diseases to other pets in the neighborhood.

But Miss Shane and thousands like her say feral cats deserve care and kindness as much as their domesticated cousins, and that removing one colony only makes room for another.

"I look at them as just part of the wildlife at the park," Miss Shane said. "Some people like to feed the fish, some people like to feed the squirrels; I like feeding the cats."

The issue divides even ardent animal lovers, but they agree on one point: Cats that are both free-roaming and free-breeding are a big problem.

There may be as many as 60 million feral cats in the United States, according to Alley Cat Allies, a Washington-based group that advocates caring for the animals rather than killing them.

Miss Shane says she follows the group's advice of live-trapping, neutering and returning cats to the colony.

"With a little bit of help, they can live quite nicely and control the population as well," she said.

She said she has had about 20 cats fixed and vaccinated in the past three years and hopes to catch a dozen more.

"Unfortunately, I have a few females I haven't been able to trap yet, and they get pregnant every year, and I have some little ones coming up. It somehow feels like a job that's never quite finished."

Critics say the job will never be finished as long as the cats are being fed.

"They usually learn the hard way and end up calling us when the animal population has gotten out of hand," said Keller Haden, animal control supervisor for the Humane Society of Washington County. "They start out with just a couple and start feeding them, and they end up having litters after litters after litters."

Free-roaming cats spread disease and prey on small mammals and birds, and they often are killed by cars, starvation, poison, predators and cruel humans, according to the Humane Society of the United States. The organization urges communities to develop comprehensive strategies including euthanasia for eliminating stray cats.

The goal of feral-cat caretakers should be eliminating the colonies through attrition by making sure every cat is neutered, the Humane Society says.

Miss Shane said that philosophy is unrealistic in City Park.

"I just don't think they are going to be able to keep cats out of the park, period," she said. "There are stray cats all over Hagerstown. They're going to wander, they're going to roam."

City officials say the colony's presence encourages people to abandon cats in the park, despite the threat of a $1,000 fine and 90-day jail term.

"We'd like to relocate them before the cold weather comes," park supervisor Delbert Mason Jr. said.

So far, the city has had no effect on the colony. Five weeks after the relocation plan was announced, not a single cat has been caught, Mr. Mason said.

Potomac Stray Cat Rescue, a local outfit Mr. Mason contacted about the job, has checked out the situation but has not yet begun trapping the animals, said Patty Harrington, who operates the enterprise with her husband, Paul.

The Harringtons charge $140 to remove a cat, get it fixed and find it a home. Usually, the home is the Harringtons' property in the Western Maryland countryside. About 100 cats live there now, Mrs. Harrington said.

"We have 10 acres of land, and we just let them roam the land," she said.

Miss Shane figures the cats are just as content roaming City Park, where they can count on daily meals of Meow Mix, canned cat food and water.

"I realize I have some still up there that are breeding. I'm doing my best. My goal is to get them all," she said. "It's one at a time, and that's how I'm doing it."

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