A Cat Tale

Trying to get the General Assembly to make the calico the state cat is a purrr-fect way for youngsters to learn about government.

March 24, 2001|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

ANNAPOLIS - January Mullen looks ready, primed for her testimony before an important Senate committee. She's smiling, posing for pictures while she waits. But she confesses: She has a stomach ache.

Nervous? Surely not the founding member of the Cat Club from Westernport Elementary School, which took Annapolis by storm last month with its proposal to make the calico the state cat. Their bill won a "yes" vote in the House of Delegates. And now, with three weeks remaining in the legislative session, club members should be sitting in the catbird's seat.

But even their mascot, "Maggie," appears nervous.

January has noticed that the calico, making its second appearance in a Capitol hearing room, is shedding. As if to say: In these fast-moving final weeks, nothing is a sure thing.

A bill to make the Raven the No. 2 state bird? Dead. One to designate the pink azalea the state shrub? History. Who knows? Even a sly political move by the principal may not ensure victory for the Cat Club.

Principal Stephen E. Wilson has arranged for kids from their sister school, Beach Elementary in Chesapeake, to join this appearance before the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee. Wilson knows the sister school just happens to be represented by the state Senate president.

The desks of the senators are primed with brochures, copies of the kids' testimony, and a campaign button: Vote Yes for the Calico Cat. Plus, the senators have been provided with poll results from the secretary of state's kids Web site: with 731 voting, 98 percent of respondents think it's a good idea for Maryland to have a state cat.

January - who was born in February but due in January - is dressed, like the other Cat Club members, in a black skirt, a black turtleneck and a vest covered with cats. Posing for pictures with their principal, one member says "meow" instead of the "cheese."

Oops, the senators are arriving.

January opens testimony with a big smile and steady voice. She explains why her group chose any cat with the calico color pattern over a particular breed.

"It can be either long-haired or short-haired," she says. "Calico cats can be found as calico Persians, calico Siamese, calico exotic shorthairs, calico sphynx, or calico Maine Coon. We feel that the fact that the calico cat is a color pattern is a definite advantage. People who admire certain breeds of cats can be happy."

For a girl of 10, she is pretty comfortable speaking in public, particularly about cats. When she was little, she visited the animal shelter to pick out cats for her two grandmothers and an aunt. She has two herself, one of which is pregnant. She reads about cats constantly, draws them, buys posters of them. Paw prints decorate her bedroom and her dance bag; cat faces even peek out from her sock drawer. Living as she does, in what she calls Cat Heaven, it is not hard to imagine her reaction when she learned on a class trip to Annapolis last spring that Maryland has a state dog, bird, insect, and even a state dinosaur.

WHAT? NO STATE CAT?

The injustice so vexed January and her friend Molly Nelson that when they got home they created the Cat Club. Three other girls joined, and for months the five members complained about the state's oversight. Finally, a teacher told them it was time to move on - or take matters into their own hands.

That was all they needed.

For the next several weeks, during recess, they pored over library books and Internet sites in search of the perfect cat. Finally one morning before school, leafing though an encyclopedia, they found their state symbol: the calico. At first, Molly recalls, they were looking at cats on either side of the calico, but then someone noticed the calico's bright colors - colors found in the state flag, the state insect, state flower and even state bird - reds, blacks, whites and gold.

The cat passed the dog in popularity in the 1980s and now holds a margin of popularity of more than 5 million," Lexi Gentry tells the senators. The chairman would thank them for choosing his committee, bringing a little glamour to an otherwise tedious day.

But glamour was the last thing on the girls' minds once they settled on a cat to promote. What they needed was a workhorse to shepherd their idea through two houses of lawmakers.

Their social studies teacher, Willeda Mosser, proofed their letter to Kevin Kelly, the House of Delegates member whose district includes Westernport. When he agreed to sponsor the bill, they expanded their research.

Scientists have found that petting cats can lower the blood pressure of elderly patients as well as those in children's wings of hospital, Abby Rawlings next tells the committee.

Making it to the Senate committee on Thursday took about a year. After Kelly gave his support, the girls had periodically entered the words, "calico cat" on a Web site that tracks state bills. Nothing came up. A week after the legislative session opened in January they wrote the lawmaker again.

You promised! They reminded him.

In writing!

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