washingtonpost.com  > Metro > Columnists > Courtland Milloy

If Only Kids Were More Like Fluffy

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, February 23, 2005; Page B01

I thought everybody understood that cats come before kids. But the parents at Eaton Elementary in the District apparently didn't hear the news. They are actually upset that the school cafeteria was turned into a cat hospital for a couple of days.

"Why would D.C. school officials and Department of Health officials use a grade school cafeteria as a veterinary clinic?" Terry Lynch, a parent at the school, said in an e-mail to me. "They should have identified an appropriate location with the proper health and safety controls."

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But let's look at the other side. A group called Alley Cat Allies wanted to hold a Feline Frenzy, at which about 500 stray cats would be neutered and spayed. All they needed was a cat MASH unit. So they got some D.C. government official to approve the use of an elementary school cafeteria.

It's a no-brainer.

Apparently some people just don't realize that cats are people, too, only better. Ever heard the saying, "Well-fed cats, hungry children?" That could be the District's unofficial motto. In this city, some stray cats are so fat they don't even bother to chase rats, which eat just as well.

On the other hand, about 11,500 District children live in families with insufficient income to buy adequate food, and more than 3,000 go without at least one meal a day, according to Jonathan M. Smith, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia.

Did you know that 94 percent of pet owners surveyed last year by the American Animal Hospital Association believed that their pet had "human-like personality traits," such as being emotional or sensitive, outgoing, inquisitive or stubborn?

You sure can't say the same about the way children are regarded in the District -- certainly not when violence is the leading cause of death among the city's adolescents.

Last year, 24 juveniles were slain in the District, compared with 13 in 2003. Mayor Anthony A. Williams said this month that he would soon unveil a strategy to address the increase in juvenile homicides, which he called a "very serious, grave and disturbing issue."

Come on. If 24 cats had been shot up in the city last year, that would be called unacceptable, not an "issue," no matter how grave, and the entire region would be lathered up over it.

At the start of the school year, 434 District kids showed for classes without proof of immunization. As a result, they were sent home, and their parents were summoned to Family Court and faced the possibility of being charged with child neglect.

Deborah Wexler, an advocate for childhood immunizations, said lost records and missing immunization documents are common in low-income urban school districts, "where many families lack consistent access to preventive health care."

Not so for pets. Did you know that 94 percent of cat and dog owners take their pets for regular veterinary checkups?

As for the concerns of Eaton parents whose children are allergic to cats or have asthma and other respiratory ailments, let's face it: If the powers that be really gave a hoot, the Washington area wouldn't have some of the nastiest air in the country.

By the way, who could look at the television news broadcasts of wide-eyed feral cats being shaved and prepped for surgery -- hairballs flying all over the cafeteria -- and not applaud the wish to humanely limit their numbers? Eaton parents included.

But one parent said she could spend only a few minutes inside the school during the clinic because "the smell of the ether and other chemicals overwhelmed me."

Another mother declared after a visit to the school: "The air was thick with the smell of urine. I'm shocked that they would . . . cut up a cat in a school cafeteria."

Some parents complained that they were not told about the cafeteria cat clinic, while others were upset because cheerleading and basketball practice had to be canceled.

Obviously, they are out of touch with the cats-come-first mentality.

Still, those who approved of the school cafeteria cat clinic know what really matters, and although some city officials have apologized for the decision, priorities do have a way of speaking for themselves.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

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