- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 24, 2005

Cleo hadn’t been seen in the alley for two days, and Holly Marie was starting to worry.

“I hope he’s OK,” Miss Marie said. “He had a busted eardrum, which has thrown his equilibrium off. If some kids found him, it could be disastrous.”

Cleo is one of about seven feral cats fed daily in the alley by Miss Marie, who runs the Ward 1 Alley Cat Coalition. The cats have shown up faithfully for two years, even answering to the names that Miss Marie has given them. But for the past few days, Cleo has been a no-show.

But then a gray ball of fur saunters around the corner. Cleo, head leaning to the side because of his off-kilter balance, ambles over to the food, taking his regular place alongside his alley cohorts.

Visibly relieved, Miss Marie greets the cat warmly.

“I was just hoping he had found another alley somewhere, because some people do terrible things to cats. Someone poisoned some cats that I fed in another alley, and six of them died slow, painful deaths. It was horrible. You grow attached to them after a while.”

Animal advocates and volunteers like Miss Marie agree with D.C. health and animal officials that there are too many feral cats roaming city streets and alleys — but activists are often at odds with the city on how to deal with the problem.

Donna Wilcox, executive director for the nonprofit cat-rescue group Alley Cat Allies, estimated that there are “tens of thousands.”

“But it’s not an epidemic,” Miss Wilcox said. “It’s very similar to the situation in most cities.”

The situation has gotten better, Miss Wilcox said, especially in Anacostia, Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan and Logan Circle, which were targeted by the organization for the trap-neuter-release program.

The program is a full-management plan, in which strays are humanely trapped, evaluated, vaccinated and sterilized. Kittens and tame cats are placed in foster homes, Miss Wilcox said, but healthy adult cats too wild to be adopted are released.

Miss Wilcox wouldn’t name specific areas in which wild cats are prevalent for fear that people will dump unwanted cats in those areas or that the Washington Humane Society, which provides animal-control services for the District, will round up and euthanize the animals.

“The Humane Society kills 4,000 cats a year. And many owners who no longer want the cats abandon them because they know” that the cats will be euthanized if they are turned over to the health department, Miss Wilcox said.

Jim Monsma, director of community outreach for the Humane Society, conceded that the Humane Society does euthanize captured cats, but said the yearly total is far less than 4,000. Mr. Monsma said they do not keep statistics of the number of cats in the city, but estimated that there are probably “thousands” and that not everyone is enamored with their presence.

“Some of the complaints people have about the cats are the messes they leave in yards, they climb on cars, and that they’re scary,” Mr. Monsma said.

But the cats don’t pose a danger to humans, Miss Wilcox said.

“They do not spread diseases that they can transmit to humans,” she said.

Miss Marie has taken a handful of abandoned cats into her home.

“Sometimes you have to take responsibility for the irresponsibility of others,” she said. “The Humane Society’s answer is to kill, and I don’t agree with that at all.”

Alley Cat Allies, along with the D.C. Department of Health and the Washington Animal Rescue League, sponsored a veterinary clinic on Feb. 19 and 20 at John Eaton Elementary School. More than 500 cats were spayed, neutered and inoculated in the school cafeteria.

Officials from Alley Cat Allies said the Health Department suggested holding the clinic at the school, which was shut down Feb. 21 and 22 so crews could professionally clean the building.

“There aren’t enough low-cost spaying and neutering options,” Miss Wilcox. “We don’t want the population to keep growing, obviously. But the city isn’t doing what it can.”

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