Jolene Baldwin took the short drive one more time to the cats, to the small stand of trees in Eastern Baltimore County, as she has for nearly a year now. Months ago, she placed a barrel back there stuffed with straw and covered in plastic tarps in hopes the three cats would survive to see a spring afternoon like this.
Holding a walking stick in one hand and a pitcher of crunchy Purina kitten food in the other, she called toward the trees: "Rocky…Rocky…Hey Rocky Rock…"
The three cats that indeed survived the winter go by that name, if they go by any name at all, as "Rocky" suited the story she once told someone in the area about how she was feeding raccoons, not cats. The mention of cats might draw the wrong kind of attention.
Baldwin is being cautious, but that only goes with this pursuit — a "calling," in her word. The 69-year-old former schoolteacher is one of a small army of volunteers in the county who skirt local law and, in some cases, spend thousands of dollars a year to look after cats that in many cases are too afraid of people to be placed in a home.
These feral cats often end up with unwanted pets and other strays at the county shelter on a quiet stretch of road in Baldwin, which took in the animals at the rate of nearly eight per day in the last fiscal year, for 2,893 in all. Two-thirds were euthanized at the shelter, which is about in line with national figures.
Cat advocates say those numbers demand a new approach. Advocates including the Humane Society of the United States are urging county officials to follow the example of Baltimore City and allow volunteers to manage the feral cat population using a practice called trap-neuter-return.
That is, trapping the cats, sterilizing and vaccinating them, treating them for fleas and other parasites, clipping their ears to mark them as part of a managed "colony," and returning them to their turf.
Baltimore City is a bit more than a year into the new practice. Juan Gutierrez, the city's assistant health commissioner for environmental health, says volunteers are now handling many cat complaints, easing the workload for the city's 13 animal control officers.
"It's worked out beautifully for us," he said. "I don't know why Baltimore County is refusing."
Samuel W. Moore, the city's interim animal control officer, gives a more mixed report. He said most of the complaints so far have involved cats using private property as a litter box. He said there's still work to be done in teaching the public how the law is supposed to work and getting the caretakers to keep animals off other people's property.
Baltimore County officially now handles roaming cats much as the city did before the laws there were changed: Responding to nuisance reports, trying to resolve conflicts, imposing fines and sometimes lending humane traps to those who make complaints. Absent a complaint, county animal control supervisor Charlotte Crenson-Murrow said, the county does not send officers out to trap cats nor pursue caretakers.
The trap-neuter-return strategy runs afoul of county animal control laws, which were not written to address this hybrid category: a free-roaming animal living outdoors under a person's care. But the regulations have not deterred volunteers from taking matters into their own hands.
Lisa Snyder cares for two cat colonies in the southeastern part of Baltimore County.
"It needs to be done, because there are so many being killed and thrown out," the Dundalk woman said. "People treat them like they're disposable, and they're not."
Snyder was among several county cat caretakers who showed up at the Maryland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals shelter in the city a few weeks ago for one of the organization's regular clinics offering low-cost sterilization and vaccinations for feral cats. She figures she's trapped and fixed more than 100 cats in the last 12 years.
Sharon Cremen of Sparrows Point brought four cats she trapped in the county, as she has many times before. She said she probably spends more than $5,000 a year feeding her cat colony twice every day.
"People think I'm crazy, OK, whatever," she said. She traces her commitment to her childhood, when she watched as animal control officers swept into her neighborhood and took several cats away.
"It was just something a kid shouldn't see," she said, choked up with tears. "I think that's some of the reason I do it."
In 2009, the city recognized the feral cat as a separate category of animal. City officials now work with Community Cats Maryland Inc., a nonprofit organization, to maintain the volunteer caretaker system and help handle complaints about nuisance cats.