Castaway cats of Canton

March 30, 1996|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

A cat rescue act has been playing in East Baltimore for four years now, easing little of the urban feline overload but lightening the hearts of a few humans and -- the rescuers hope -- the lives of the cats.

The two salvagers are unlikely partners: a retired Highlandtown steel worker who turned his old red station wagon into a welcome wagon for strays and an assistant attorney general from Columbia who litigates cases for the Maryland Port Administration.

Edward Young, 76, feeds wild cats and captures young ones from their dreary habitats on Clinton Street in industrial Canton. Deborah M. Levine, 34, pays for the daily feeding and places young cats -- more than 50 so far -- in caring homes in the metro area.

Like other rescuers working alone at their own expense, Mr. Young and Ms. Levine are a special breed of animal lovers. Moved partly by dislike of people who dump pets when no longer convenient, the two can't abide the miserable life of strays without doing something to help.

Cathy Orleman, principal port counsel, is one happy cat owner as a result.

"Bailey is a real sweetie. She was about two months when Debbie gave her to me in July. She likes to sit and sleep in the

bathroom sink while I get ready in the morning. I'm thrilled with her and glad I saved her from goodness knows what."

The largely hidden world of unwanted wild, or feral, cats and dogs in Maryland is enormous. The Maryland SPCA surveyed public animal control units and found that in 1994, Baltimore took in 15,000 animals, mostly cats and dogs; Baltimore County, 10,000; Prince Georges, 19,000; Anne Arundel, 10,000, and Howard, 3,000.

Most were unwanted and were destroyed.

"Tens of thousands live on Baltimore streets," said Earl Watson, director of the Baltimore Bureau of Animal Control, whose six trucks go out day and night because of "uncontrolled breeding."

The SPCA took in 6,000 animals last year and was able to place in homes the relatively high number of 2,600, reported Deborah L. Thomas, executive director.

Many other agencies and individuals also placed stray animals in homes. But even at the SPCA, whose goal is adoption, not control, most were destroyed. Its facility on Falls Road can house only 160 animals at a time.

Ms. Levine contacted Mr. Young in 1992 after seeing a TV story that followed an Evening Sun column by Jacques Kelly about the rescue efforts.

They came to an agreement and Ms. Levine has since sent

monthly checks for cat food. She pays Mr. Young $50 in the winter and $25 at other times.

"I'll do anything to help animals," Ms. Levine said.

Mr. Young has been feeding the cats of Clinton Street every day since 1991.

"I missed two days this winter during the storm," he said. He

counts 29 cats in three locations. There used to be many more. Many cats probably couldn't take the tough winter and died.

When cats heard the horn of Mr. Young's car one afternoon last week, some emerged from warehouses or simply materialized, one by one. "They know my sound," he said.

Six cats appeared at his first stop, one came out at the next feeding station and seven emerged from the bottom of a warehouse at the third spot.

Because the cats are feral, most kept their distance from even Mr. Young and Ms. Levine. He removed cans from a warm bucket of water where he had placed them an hour earlier at home and put the food out in plastic dishes.

Only one young cat from a litter of five approached for a little quiet stroking from Ms. Levine, who occasionally makes the rounds with Mr. Young. Ms. Levine's face was blank with sadness and her voice showed hurt. "These conditions are so horrid," she said. "One cat is obviously sick."

The rescuers plotted to try to catch the friendly one and a pregnant cat later so Ms. Levine could bring them to a shelter for birth of the kittens and sterilization of the mother. They rescue healthy young cats who are not so wild and have a better chance of being adopted.

Mr. Young catches the felines by putting food in cat carriers. Kittens, 6 to 8 weeks old, are ideal. He takes them to his Boulden Street home where his wife, Evelyn, bathes them. "The neighbors think we're nuts," she laughs.

'Crazy cat lady'

The Youngs then notify Ms. Levine, called "the crazy cat lady" by some friends. News of her voluntary mission has spread by word of mouth. The lawyer has been known to bolt from port business when a match is ripe: a cat ready for adoption by a willing family.

When friends or strangers ask Ms. Levine for a kitten, she checks out the prospective cat owners' homes, gets the animal from the Youngs and gives it free to the new owner in return for a promise that the animal will be sterilized, given shots and cared for properly.

The SPCA's Ms. Thomas said, "Pet ownership is a big commitment but too many people are irresponsible.

"Their cute kitten or puppy grows up. It's not so cute. It gets sick. It costs too much money for vaccination and neutering. The pet is let loose on the streets. It becomes wild."

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