There are two words one does not dare whisper at Anna Brigg's Loudoun County home: "Here, kitty."
At last count, there were close to 300 cats -- tabbies and calicos, Siamese and Burmese, alleys and toms -- ensconced at Briggs' farm, one of the largest animal shelters on the East Coast.
"I try to make this as homelike as possible," says the 70-year-old owner, obviously well used to her guests' penchant for scratching the rugs, hanging from the rafters, dozing on the linoleum floors and generally getting underfoot. It's a New Yorker cartoon come to life.
"We're never positive how many there are," she says. "They have babies and then it's hard keeping track of them."
Known as The Peace Plantation, the 22-acre refuge is tucked away at the end of a long, unpaved road outside of Leesburg. Started in 1965 as a sancturary for stray or unwanted pets, the rural retreat is the last resort for many forgotten felines who might otherwise end up at the local pound.
"Some shelters put them to sleep," says Briggs, a grandmotherly, gray-haired woman with an impish smile, who estimates that Peace Plantation places approximately 3,000 cats a year in foster homes. "I run this type of shelter because it's the kind I like."
The combination orphanage-adoption agency is funded in part by a $60,000-a-year trust fund established by the late Alice Morgan Wright, a noted New York sculptress and suffragette. The rest of the cost -- including 125 cans of cat food a day and 50 pounds of kitty litter a month -- come out of Brigg's pocket.
"I get some pretty nasty letters from people who say 'You spend all this money on animals instead of people.' They cannot understand that you're helping people when you help stray animals," she says. What's more, adds Brigs, there's the emotional comfort to think about.
"I believe God gave us animals to enjoy. And that means accepting the responsibility to care for them."
Which is what Anna Briggs does best.
Her guest enjoy large indoor-outdoor pens, some with wooden bars, but all with plenty of playground-like structures to while away the country afternoons. wThey dine on "Puss'n Boots", "Nine Lives" and cheaper brands of pet food mixed with fresh vegetables from nearby farms. "I feel I'm a gourment for those who never had a choice," she explains.
One-third of the cast at Peace Plantation are strays found by Briggs and her assistants in Manhattan's Grand Central Station. A humane agency notified Briggs that cats were infesting the pipes under the building. Since 1972, Briggs has brought 72 of them by station wagon to Peace Plantation where they are housed in a special area for wild cats.
The bulk of the boarders are given up by owners who cite allergies, housing restrictions or financial burdens as the reason.
"I feel that when children have to give up a loved pet, it angers them," says Briggs, who has established regular visiting hours for both former and prospective owners. "And then I see old people giving up the last of their friends. These are the things that break my heart."
Because of tight space and finances, Brigg is forced to turn some cats away. Their names are added to a long waiting list. When one cat is adopted, another is welcomed into the menagerie.
"Animals are getting more difficult to place because apartment houses are shutting them out," says Briggs, who managed to find homes for only 30 percent of the animals this year compared with 50 percent 10 years ago. 30 years ago in Sterling with her two assistants. But the arrival of Dulles International Airport sent property taxes soaring and Briggs was forced to move.
Ask Anna Briggs if cats are her favorite animals. "No," she says with a wry smile. "Dogs."