Cats Against Churchgoers

Congregation Says Attempt To Help Feral Animals Has Gotten Out Of Hand

Cat Lovers Protesting

July 17, 2009|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,

The cats know her motor's rumble.

As Denise Farmer pulls her truck down the alley behind Northside Baptist Church in Northeast Baltimore, cats materialize from the scruffy woods, first a black one with a white ruff, then another, and suddenly there are five hovering by a feeding stand, waiting for kibble that Farmer has brought them every weekend for two years.

Church officials, however, wish Farmer and the others who feed the approximately 40 feral cats in the area would stop bringing food because, they say, the animals are out of hand, leaving droppings across the religious organization's expansive, grassy grounds and unnerving parishioners.

Two weeks ago, the church forced Farmer to dismantle a feeding station on its lot. Since then, Farmer, a chemical engineer from Parkville, has picketed the church during Sunday services, parading back and forth with one sign reading "Northside Baptist Denies Food to Animals," and another saying, "Practice What You Preach: Compassion for All God's Creatures."

This Sunday, she's hoping animal advocates from across the city will join her. Cat rescue groups have been spreading the word to hundreds of their followers on Facebook and through e-mail messages.

Since the church ordered the feeding station dismantled, Farmer isn't sure what has become of the cats. There is another feeding area nearby that belongs to another colony but, she says, that colony wouldn't welcome new cats. She fears "her children" are starving.

"It's heartbreaking," says Farmer, who has six cats of her own, tearing up while talking and leaning against her kibble-strewn SUV. "It's completely unbelievable how cruel these people are."

The Rev. Reginald Turner, Northside's pastor, disputes the cruelty tag. He says he tried for two years to work with Farmer's program, which aims to trap the cats, neuter them and then return them to their territory. But now, with cats "running rampant" across church property, he has lost patience.

"I've got members who are not cat fanciers, and we're trying to be as patient as possible," the pastor says. "Yet we're the bad guys in all this."

Animal control officers estimate about 185,000 cats roam Baltimore's streets and back alleys, taking refuge where they find it.

Just two years ago, the city passed a law making "Trap-Neuter-Return," commonly known as "TNR," Baltimore's official policy for dealing with these feral cats. That's what Farmer says she was doing on the church property: trying to keep the feline population from expanding, but caring for and feeding the existing cats.

"There's no other way to address feral cats," says Lizzie Ellis, the founder and president of Feline Rescue Association in Baltimore, a group that spayed and neutered 600 cats last year and found homes for 450 of them.

Darlene Harris, a Glen Burnie software consultant who belongs to Baltimore City Animal Response Team and also volunteers for TNR projects, has been trying to spread the word about the situation at the church.

"These poor cats," she says. "This is a church and we want to respect that, but we also want them to have some respect for animals."

Turner insists the church has tried to cooperate - even offering, to no avail, Farmer and her helpers an area farther away from the main building and the parking lot to place the feeding station. Farmer says she doesn't know of the alternative location.

He and McKinley Watson, a church deacon and trustee who also handles the grounds, say they thought that with TNR, the cats would eventually die off.

Now, they fear as long as people in the neighborhood keep dumping cats, new cats will join the colony.

"We were told we would be feeding them for our lifetime - I'm like, 'That's a scary thought,' " Watson says.

"They're only here to feed the cats and protest. They don't care about this place," he says. "What happened to love your neighbor as yourself?"

Not everyone in the neighborhood dislikes the cats, though.

Greg Eames, who allows the second cat feeding station on his property, calls the cats "a blessing."

"We don't have a mice problem anymore - in the entire neighborhood," he says.

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