Tracey Benson, Miriam Wolff and Jeannie Ripley decorate their offices at the College Park Municipal Building with cat calendars and stickers, framed cat posters and snapshot montages of cats.
The office workers took their feline fanaticism one step further in the past few years: They "adopted" two abandoned cats and even established a placement service to find homes for dozens more.
But not everyone in the city government was happy about the new tenants, and their complaints led recently to a special meeting of city officials that nearly cost the cats their home.
Sauntering out from behind a file cabinet on a recent morning, Charlie, a sandy-colored cat whose real name is Charmaine, eyed the busy office workers skeptically and sniffed a stray rubber band. Gray-haired Nikki trotted past the jumble of desks, phones and computers to curl up in her favorite chair in the office of the director of public services.
Nikki, who was abandoned by a family that moved away, was adopted by city employes three years ago. Since then, she has rested at the feet of the members of the city's Board of Trade during meetings and has visited aerobics classes held in the building.
A year ago, a family that was moving dropped off Charlie at the municipal building and said they could not take her with them.
Benson and Ripley, employes in the department of public services, and Wolff, who has been city clerk for 16 years, pay all of Nikki and Charlie's living expenses, including food, medical expenses, scratching posts and toys. They care for the cats on their own time, although they admit they take a break occasionally to pet or play with the cats. "It's a great stress reliever," said Wolff.
The three women said they have taken on the responsibility of finding homes for 40 to 50 stray kittens and cats in the city, which experienced a stray cat population boom last summer. While they await placement, the cats are housed in cages in a back room of the municipal building.
The controversy over the cats began this spring when several city officials expressed concern that cat loving might become a condition of employment and that cat hair could clog up office machinery.
An informal meeting was held with the building's staff and City Council members in April to determine the fate of Nikki, Charlie and the other strays. Wolff, Benson and Ripley wrote letters to the council, pleading that the cats be allowed to stay.
"I don't think business and animals mix . . . especially in an office that serves the general public. But the minute I say that I'm perceived as not an animal lover, and that's not true. I have pets of my own," council member Anna Owens said in an interview.
"We have an obligation to the people who come into the office who may not like cats," council member Dervey Lomax said recently.
Council member Joseph Cotter said the debate over Nikki and Charlie grew rather heated at the meeting, but finally a compromise was struck.
"I brought up a compromise: Why don't we keep old Nikki and Charlie, and when they die we just won't replace them," Cotter said.
Under the compromise, Nikki and Charlie were allowed to remain in the office, but the placement service will end after homes are found for the remaining stray cats.
Since the meeting, Nikki and Charlie have had to undergo a change in life style. They are confined to the Department of Public Services office, which is in the basement of the building, and a "Cats on Premises" sign on the office door alerts those who might be allergic to or afraid of cats.
All this means no more visits to board meetings or aerobic classes, no more naps on top of warm computers, no more traipsing across desks or rides on the lid of the copy machine as it moves back and forth.
But Nikki and Charlie do not seem to mind. They are content to sit on a window ledge, sleep in the boss' chair and wait for the maintenance man, who brings jingling keys to play with.