Strays and the Samaritan

By Carrie Donovan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 21, 2006

In a dirty downtown alley north of Massachusetts Avenue, two women set up an evening buffet for 10 feral cats. Some tabbies gather on the roof of a nearby garage. A sleek, charcoal-gray cat ventures out to take a mouthful. Later, a Siamese that was not born into the group crawls under a chain-link fence and scares off the others.

"Nobody likes him. He's a bully," explains Marion Del Priore, one of the women trying to trap the cats.

Del Priore discovered the colony of 23 cats six years ago and has spent thousands of dollars and countless hours feeding them, taking them to the veterinarian and finding good homes for as many as she could. But looming construction and unkind acts by passers-by have made her fearful for the safety of the cats that remain. Through word of mouth, she recently found a no-kill, no-cage rescue operation in the Pittsburgh area that has offered to take all of them.

Del Priore just has to catch the cats in cages and drive them there, which is why she is standing in the alley on an overcast evening with Juliette Briscoe, office manager at the Adams Morgan Animal Clinic. The two have set a tray of cat food in the road and another dish of food inside a crate. A female tabby enters the cage but bolts when a man opens his garage door.

The women wait patiently until the man drives away and the cat returns to the cage. Slowly, Del Priore sneaks closer to the door. Bang! She slams the door. Another cat is ready to go to the Pittsburgh cat sanctuary.

Del Priore, who declined to give her age, found the cats when she followed a kitten into the alley behind her studio, where she did decorative painting and faux finishing. A man who ran a flower business in the alley used to feed them, and his homeless brother regularly slept in the garage with some of the cats. But the flower business has gone, and the homeless brother died. Del Priore has taken over the care of the cats, even though she no longer works in the area. Years ago, she allowed the lease on her studio to expire.

It has been a daunting task to care for and find homes for 23 feral cats, animals that tend to be sick, dirty and unsocialized. The task became even more challenging after some became pregnant, and a few interlopers, such as the Siamese, joined the group. But Del Priore has managed to keep the population down by trapping the animals and getting them spayed and neutered. She also has paid for vaccinations.

But this alley is not as safe for the cats as it once was. Land on both sides has been sold. Del Priore fears that the cats do not have much time before their habitat becomes a construction site. Also, the people who live and work in nearby buildings complain about the cats and kick over their water dishes, Del Priore said.

"I'm afraid they're going to be poisoned," she said. "I can't wait until all the cats are gone and this place is infested with rats."

Most people do not understand why she would go to the alley every day, squeezing time out of a schedule that is full from working in Washington and rehabbing investment properties in Baltimore.

She's been called "Cat Lady," which Del Priore does not consider a compliment. But the petite professional woman hardly deserves the fanatical "Cat Lady" stereotype. She keeps two cats at home, neither from this colony. They are 16 and 17. She said she has tried to take another cat home, but one of her pets has "a behavior problem."

With the discounts from the Adams Morgan Animal Clinic, her last bill was still more than $1,100. But Del Priore has received some help from the community.

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