“I feel privileged to serve them. I’ve even buried a few of them,” said Connie, known to many in D.C. as the Cat Lady. She began her mission on July 13, 2013, when she found a large colony of feral cats in Southeast Washington, D.C. She began feeding these cats and notified the D.C. Humane Society (now the Humane Rescue Alliance), which began trapping, neutering and releasing the cats.
“I have compassion for these cats,” she said. “They don’t have the choices people do.” She knows that although she is homeless, she can go to a hospital if she is ill, can go to a church for a meal, can temporarily stay with relatives or in a homeless shelter. “Cats can’t do this,” she said. Because she has been homeless, she has great sympathy for feral cats. “If I can get a home for a kitten, then they have a home, a real home, before they become feral.”
Occasionally people have gotten angry at her for feeding these cats. Two years ago she was feeding feral cats in a small colony in Southeast. She could access their location only by walking down an alley, of which there are many in D.C. Because these are service alleys that are used by sanitation trucks to collect trash, they are public property. One day a man whose home backed up on the alley challenged her and told her to stop feeding the cats and stop using the alley.
She reminded him that the alley was a public right-of-way and feral cats are protected under D.C. law. He sprayed her in the face with a hose. She called the police. Upon arrival, the Metropolitan Police officers explained that killing feral cats or interfering with someone trying to feed feral cats is against a municipal ordinance. The man was told that if he interfered with her again, such as spraying her in the face with his garden hose, they would arrest him. He stopped hassling her.
In 2008, Washington D.C. Animal Control Act of 1979 was amended to promote the policy of trap-neuter-return; the municipal code was changed to support “utilization of trap, spay or neuter, and return practices as a means of controlling the feral cat population; provided, that all efforts shall be made to adopt out a trapped, tamable kitten.”
This has become the subject of great controversy. Local biologists now estimate there are 40,000 feral cats in D.C. and some alleged this ordinance is responsible. According to Biologist Dan Rauch of the District’s Department of Energy and Environment, quoted by WJLA in a February, 2017, story, “It’s going to come to a tipping point.” Rauch said feral cats and D.C.’s native species cannot co-exist, remarking that “One hundred and thirty species of bird, small mammals, amphibians and reptiles [are] in the U.S. National Arboretum and they are all in trouble.”
Organizations on different sides of the issue vehemently disagree over the effect of the ordinance as well as the number of feral cats. “The number of felines in the city is ‘impossible to say,’” says Lauren Lipsey, the vice president of community programs at the Humane Rescue Alliance. The disagreement over the number of feral cats is such that over the next three years an organization known as Project Synopsis, funded by a group of wildlife conservation and animal rights groups, is going to spend 1.5 million dollars to attempt a “D.C. Cat Count.”
Connie stays away from anything controversial. She focuses on feeding her cats and reminds everyone that these are feral cats, not domesticated house cats. You should not pet them because if you do they will most likely perceive that as an attack and scratch or bite you. She gives every cat a name based on their temperament or personality, and once they trust her, they will come when she calls. Because she feeds as many as 63 cats a day, seven days a week, they quickly recognize her. They will walk to her and brush up against her legs.
“There is such a wide variety of cats, it’s amazing,” she said. “Blue-haired Persians, Bengal cats, long-haired cats. Every type.” She can only feed them in daylight because predators come out at night—raccoons (which are often rabid), an occasional fox, even possums. They can all be dangerous, she says, not only to the cats but to her. Other predators include dogs and, of course, people.
Connie identifies colonies of feral cats and reports the locations to the appropriate agency. Further, to reduce the population of feral cats, she sets approved humane traps, which she baits with tuna or sardines. After Connie traps a cat, she contacts the Washington D.C. Humane Rescue Alliance. Their trained employees respond and take the cat to their veterinary hospital where the cats are spayed and checked for distemper and rabies. In accord with the D.C. ordinance, the Humane Rescue Alliance has a policy of trap-neuter-return.
Connie is committed to her work of feeding these cats that are scattered in three of the four quadrants of the District of Columbia. She pays for the cat food, her transit costs, as well as a special gel she places on the backs of the necks of her cats to kill fleas, ticks, and mosquitos. This amounts to several hundred dollars a month that comes out of her small disability check.
At a terrible moment in her life some years ago, Connie lost her camera with 11,000 photographs of cats and relatives. She suffers from bouts of depression and became so depressed over the loss of these photographs that she contemplated suicide. But she kept asking herself who would take care of her cats if she did kill herself. No one. Because her nuclear family is dead except for her daughter, the cats she feeds are her family. She said, “When feeding cats there are no humans, no noise. It’s peaceful.”
She has signed up for the next round of the D.C. Homebuyer Education Course to help her buy a house, which she ultimately wants to turn into a cat sanctuary. “Even when I die, cats will have a place to go. It will be my legacy for them.”