Cat calls have had Alexandria in a feline frenzy for the past few weeks. Last month, pet owners and a cat-loving city councilman got wind of an upcoming animal shelter campaign to cat-nap the estimated 700 stray cats in Alexandria.

Some feared that family pets might get nabbed in the process, however, so the plan had cats' (and owners') hair standing on end on tin roofs and alleys from Old Town to Arlandria. And it prompted a round of debate on such feline matters as whether cats should be registered with the city, wear collars or maybe even be walked on a leash.

In the end, the Alexandria City Council voted 5 to 2 last week to allow shelter officials to begin trapping stray cats in four areas of the city beginning Jan. 4 and to have them report back on their findings.

The vote came after a month of heated controversy about the kitty crisis, centered mainly on how difficult it is to distinguish wild cats from domestic ones.

"I don't know how you tell the difference between a pet and a wild cat," said Lee Gough, a member of the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria. "You know how cats are when they get together."

In a memo to the City Council, City Manager Douglas Harman wrote, "I am confident that the Animal Shelter staff can separate the wild and domestic cats."

Councilman Carlyle C. Ring disagreed. "I have never bought the argument that it's possible to absolutely identify a domesticated cat from a feral cat."

Ring, who owns three cats, was leery of the trapping proposals and would have preferred requiring registration of cats in the city. According to Ring, state law does not give localities the power to license cats as they do dogs, so the council would have to change the city charter before it could require cat registration. He wanted to do that, but the rest of the council didn't.

Ring originally brought his cat crusade to the council's attention in early November after he got a phone call from a citizen concerned about the shelter's plan to start trapping cats that month. It was nearing midnight at the Nov. 10 City Council meeting, an hour when many in the audience were catnapping, when Ring decided to bring up the trapping.

"While it is a serious matter, there are also some humorous aspects to it," said Ring. But discussion of the cats was put off until the next meeting two weeks later, allowing time for the whole issue to heat up.

Gail Snider, Alexandria's superintendent of animal control, said 15 people in Alexandria were bitten by feral cats (wild stray cats) during the past year. Although none of those cats were rabid, she said, two wild cats in neighboring Fauquier County and one pet cat in Loudoun County recently were found to have rabies, adding to the risk that a local cat might be carrying the disease. Though nearby Arlington and Fairfax counties say they do have some problems with wild cats, officials there say that Alexandria's situation is the worst.

"This year, we have gotten many more calls and taken in many more feral cats, which indicates that the numbers are getting very high," said Snider. Shelter officials did an extensive study of the options available to them to rid the city of the roving bands of untamed cats, mapped out 16 areas where the problem was most severe and prepared to begin trapping on Nov. 14.

But then the council stepped in.

Under the revised plan adopted by the council last week, cat trapping will begin in four areas: two sections in southern Old Town adjacent to Jones Point, the north waterfront in Old Town and a small area in the west end. Before any traps are set, a flyer will be distributed to all residents of the targeted area. It will indicate the dates trapping will be done and urge cat owners to keep pets indoors during the period.

Snider said the traps, with one-way doors, will be baited with "good old tuna cat food. It draws them out of the woodwork."

When the cats are collected, "we are going to let everything out of the trap that we do not consider a feral cat," said Snider. "If it has a flea collar, if it's a nice tame kitty, we will let it go." This was one change brought about by council discussion, since the original plan had been to take all cats trapped -- except those with collars -- back to the animal shelter, where they would be held until their owners claimed them.

"We would rather let a borderline feral cat go than confiscate anyone's pet cat that just has poor manners," added Snider. Now all cats brought to the shelter will be held for five days and then killed if not claimed.

According to Snider, feral cats develop characteristics that show they have "not had a lot of human contact in a certain part of their life." She described them as timid and terrified of people, sometimes having dilated pupils, usually throwing themselves around when caged. Most, she said, are young and very leanly built, with coats in poor health. Many breathe heavily because of upper respiratory infections.

Snider said her office has been busy answering calls about the cat situation.

"We've had two types of calls. Some people are very upset that their neighborhood has not been listed as a target area and they want their feral cats removed. Then there's the other type: 'Are you going to trap and kill my pet kitty?' "

"We do not want to kill your pet kitty," said Snider. "We truly don't."