Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

No room at the inn for cats under church

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Naomi Brookner⁄The Gazette
Sixteen feral cats, and an unknown number of kittens, have been living in a crawl space under the Poolesville Memorial United Methodist Church and an adjacent building.
While the lackadaisical church cat is a fixture at many parishes, the Poolesville Memorial United Methodist Church has a hairier situation. Until last month, about 16 feral cats found its sprawling property a purr-fect place to raise a litter.

The cats that live underneath the church and an adjacent building were recently vaccinated, de-wormed, neutered and spayed. Church members are seeking suitable homes for the six free-ranging felines and other kittens that have not yet been adopted.

‘‘Before, it was kind of overrun with cats, but now it’s at a minimum,” said Jane Horvath of Poolesville, the parishioner who spearheaded the project.

The cats were living underneath the large brick church, entering through a small square-shaped hole near the building’s ventilation units, Horvath said last week. They also set up house in a 5-foot crawlspace below an adjacent building leased by the church to the nonprofit Historic Medley District, said the church’s pastor, the Rev. Ken Fell.

A neighbor of the church decided to take on six of the animals as mice-catching barn cats, and the veterinarian who treated the brood found homes for a few kittens young enough to be domesticated, Horvath said. About six cats — plus an as-yet-unseen litter of newborn kittens — remain on the property, Horvath said.

‘‘Some of the cats are placed, but we have more to go,” Fell said, adding that it’s hard enough to find loving homes for tame tabbies.

Though the cats had been there for a while, Fell said, their numbers began to grow about 18 months ago.

Neighbors began complaining that the roaming cats were a nuisance, and Horvath contacted the nonprofit Metro Ferals of Arlington, Va., to find a humane solution to the problem.

Louise ‘‘Lou” Bowling Steinfort, a longtime volunteer with the organization, stepped in and helped trap the cats in wire cages baited with food over three days in late July.

‘‘[Steinfort] asked, ‘What if they start meowing during church?’,” Horvath laughed while refilling the cats’ food and water dishes last week, a task she has done since the winter.

The cats were then taken to the Peachtree Veterinary Clinic in Beallsville, where they received check-ups courtesy of a church member who wished to remain anonymous, Horvath said. Although one cat had to be put down due to kidney problems, she said, it was discovered that another had given birth in the past week, and the new mother was one of the mousers that returned to the property.

‘‘We’re on kitty-watch right now,” said parishioner Carolyn Cline of Poolesville, adding that the church is still waiting for the hidden kittens to emerge from the crawlspace.

Metro Ferals releases the cats it neuters and vaccinate where they were found instead of relocating them, though the organization made a special exception because the church wants to seal up the crawlspaces in the future, Steinfort said.

The church hopes to trap the kittens while they’re young enough to be socialized and kept as pets, she said, but the older cats must be placed somewhere where they can live outside, such as a farm.

‘‘It’s actually cruel to bring them inside and take away their freedom,” Steinfort said.

Though eager to find the church’s smallest flock a new home, Horvath, who has a black and white cat of her own named Chloe Anne, will miss her furry friends.

‘‘It’s supposed to be a special blessing to have a church cat,” she said.

To adopt a cat:

Potential owners will be pre-screened by Metro Ferals. Cats should be adopted in groups of two or more.Contact Jane Horvath at 301-972-8020.