Strays and the Samaritan
Volunteer Finds Cats Better Homes Than Alley

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.

Volunteers from the Feline Foundation of Greater Washington, based in Merrifield, Va., came out with food and 19 traps in 2000. Members of the Washington Animal Rescue League and the fire department once joined efforts to get a cat out of a chimney in an abandoned building. Briscoe frequently joins Del Priore in the alley and has given some of the cats to clients at the Adams Morgan clinic.

The clinic gives Del Priore discounts, partly because of her long-term business relationship with it and partly because the cats are feral. The clinic also gives the cats free exams and baths, 50 percent off the fee for spaying and neutering, and 35 percent off vaccinations.

"We also give breaks to other people who bring in feral cats, but she's consistent, like family," Briscoe said. "She brings in five or six at a time."

Del Priore heard about the Pittsburgh area rescue operation and called, hoping to find a home for a black cat named "Simon," who was missing an ear. Instead, the operation offered to take all the remaining cats.

The rescue operation houses about 375 cats in a facility on 300 acres, said a steward who spoke on the condition that she and her place not be named. She said she fears the operation would be overwhelmed with calls (and cats) if it were identified. The operation does not have a Web site and does not accept voicemail messages.

Those who get through on the telephone can speak with the steward only between 10 p.m. and midnight, but the line is frequently busy. All referrals come from humane officers and word of mouth.

The steward said the owner of the property donates his income to the operation and that the cats are kept in three heated buildings, where 75 volunteers tend to them. About 500 cats were adopted from the sanctuary last year, she said. She confirmed that the farm is prepared to take all the cats from Del Priore.

"There are six cats for every human alive in the U.S.," the steward said during a late-night phone interview. "As long as supply exceeds demand by six times, I have to fly under the radar."

Del Priore hopes to catch the remaining eight cats soon. She considers one of the cats (a silver tabby with a white bib) "adoptable" and would like to place it with someone locally. She named this friendly cat "Butch," after the homeless man who had tamed him.

And what will Del Priore do when the last cat has been caught?

She plans to get married. She got engaged in February.

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