- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2005

School officials canceled today’s classes at John Eaton Elementary so that workers could finish cleaning up the cafeteria where more than 500 cats were spayed or neutered over the weekend.

It won’t happen again, Assistant D.C. Schools Superintendent Dale Talbert told parents of students with asthma and other allergy-related illnesses, many of whom expressed concerns that holding a cat sterilization clinic in the elementary school posed a health threat.

“We have partnerships with many organizations within our community, and it’s our effort to work with our community. We try to reach out and be supportive,” Mr. Talbert said. “We won’t do this particular project again.”

Parents wondered how the clinic was approved in the first place, and some said they would not bring their children to school again until an independent professional can certify its safety.

“We know that asthma and respiratory illness and allergies are at epidemic proportions here in the District,” said Terry Lynch, whose two children attend the school. “Parents at the school whose children would be using these venues were not consulted prior to the use. We feel that a basic public trust was broken.”

“It hard when you deal with things you can’t see and you don’t know what’s there and what’s not,” parent Maggie Mackey said. “How are they going to disinfect that? Just throw bleach on it, and that’s it?”

The clinic, sponsored by the cat-rescue group Alley Cat Allies, the D.C. Department of Health and the Washington Animal Rescue League, processed more than 500 cats, about two-thirds of them feral, during the two-day program.

The city’s top health official did not understand what all the fuss was about.

“These aren’t diseased cats that are here, and I don’t see any public health threat whatsoever,” said Dr. Gregg A. Pane, D.C. health director.

“How DOH [Department of Health] thinks that an elementary school was designed or equipped to serve as a surgical hospital for animals tells you the kind of judgment that the officials at DOH have,” Mr. Lynch said.

Students were told over the public-address system Friday that all weekend classes would be moved, but were not told why, parent Dana Grasty said. Ms. Grasty’s daughter Kirsten Collins, 11, attends the school and is severely allergic to cats.

“My daughter was told her cheerleading wasn’t going to happen, and I just happened to go check it out,” she said. “I couldn’t believe my eyes.”

Kelley Ellsworth, whose three children attend the school, stopped by on Sunday to see what was going on. She said she found four or five tables set up in the school’s multipurpose room, about 50 feet from the cafeteria kitchen.

“Cats were on the tables, some strapped down. They were cut open, guts showing, the air heavy with cat urine and who knows what else,” she said. “I went in, and I’ve had a headache ever since.”

Using the school was the Department of Health’s idea, said Pilara Felgate, Alley Cat Allies spokeswoman. “They recommended it, and they chose it and said, ‘Use this place,’” she said.

Officials at the Department of Health were not available for comment.

Ms. Felgate said she does not understand why parents are worried.

“We know how to clean up properly after a spay-and-neuter clinic,” she said. “We have kids come to school there all the time who have cats, and I don’t think other children at school are going to go into respiratory or cardiac arrest. We obviously wouldn’t do it if we thought it would endanger the lives of children.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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