Jane Baetjer, a daughter of Prince George's County, wants to come home after eight years away in Florida. She misses her mother, father and brother who live in Riverdale. The problem is that she wants to bring along her 15 "kitty cats," as she calls them.
Those cats happen to be Florida bobcats, Leopard and Geoffrey's cats -- small breeds of exotic cats -- and an ocelot named Christian. The bobcats weigh in at 20 to 30 pounds each when full-grown; the others, about 10 pounds. Baetjer says that they would rather "head for the hills" than get involved with a human. But her prospective neighbors in southern Prince George's feel that exotic cats belong in the wilds of places like Florida and not in their farming community of Baden.
Baetjer is nearly ready to complete the purchase of a 95-acre spread on Baden-Naylor Road to be called "Christian's Compound for the Breeding of Exotic Cats," named after her favorite ocelot.
She says she has the necessary permits from the Department of Agriculture and the Maryland Wildlife Administration to start building her cages this spring, but Baden residents fearing anything larger than a tabby in their midst asked the county Animal Control Commission for a hearing on the matter.
At the hearing last week, residents marshaled 15 speakers, including County Council members William Amonett and Sue Mills, to speak against the cats.
"If something happens (such as a cat getting loose), I can't call Davy Crockett or Tarzan or Daniel Boone to come to my rescue," said Jesse Turner, who farms tobacco on 50 nearby acres that have been in his family almost 300 years. "I work with just my hands out there. I can't work with a gun strapped to my back."
"I have three children," said Phillip Walder, who lives on Baden-Naylor Road. "My youngest child is 7 years old. Since toddling age he has been accustomed to playing in the woods. I would not feel comfortable having him do so with these cats around."
Residents said that the animals would threaten students at nearby Baden Elementary School, lower property values, howl, scream and smell. Heather McGriffin of the Humane Sciety of the United States told the commission that Baetjer's program does not meet the society's standards and that zoos can do a better, more humane job of breeding the cats.
Baetjer insists that misinformation and fear are to blame for the negative reactions.
"I just wish I could show everybody what it looks like down here. They'd change their minds in a second," she said in a telephone interview from her 35-acre compound in central Florida, 20 miles from Vero Beach.
"The worst (sound) my little bobcats make is a tiny meow like a house cat or a little bark like a puppy. They're not as noisy as my dogs," said the 32-year-old Bladensburg High School graduate who conceded that she has learned about breeding cats through experience and does not have a college degree in the field.
She got her first exotic cat, an 18-pound bobcat named Tippy, after a trip to Florida in 1972 and brought it home for a summer with her parents in Riverdale.
"She's loved animals since she was born," said Baetjer's mother, Wanda Saglinbene. "She's always had a kitty cat."
It didn't take them long, her parents said, to get used to the cats. One of them, a 10-pound bobcat named Bobby, used to suck Wanda Saglinbene's thumb while taking naps with her on the living room couch when she visited Jane in Florida.
Charles Saglinbene, who runs a roofing business in Prince George's, said he had hoped his daughter would continue her free-lance photography, but in 1972 Baetjer went back to Florida to learn how to raise small cats.
Baetjer said that in her eight years in Florida, she has had no trouble with her neighbors, the Florida Game and Wildlife Commission or the Department of Agriculture, which has licensed her as a dealer in wild animals.
Her parents said they are backing her "100 percent" in her effort to bring the cats home by helping her finance the purchase of the land and by representing her at public meetings.
Baetjer said that her cats, which are fed a diet of raw chicken necks and vitamins, are kept in their cages at all times. She plans to expand the variety of rare small cats for breeding purposes. She said she sells only to zoos and "capable breeders."
Amonett said he has asked the general counsel of the Park and Planning Commission for an opinion on whether Baetjer's compound would be a permitted use of the land, which is zoned for rural and agricultural purposes. Baetjer has received a letter from park and planning staff member Richard Castaldi saying that as animal husbandry the proposed compound would be a permitted use.
Baetjer's lawyer, Lawrence Taub, said that because she has licenses from state and federal authorities the animal control commission has no jurisdiction over the matter. Baetjer is seeking its approval as a courtesy "to live well with her neighbors," said Taub. Clifton Grandy of the county legal office would not comment on the jurisdictional question because the commission is still considering the matter. Its decision is expected within a week.