Tangier cat airlift: Baltimore man helps rescue island-dwelling cats

The pilot loaded up his plane Saturday with a bag of Meow Mix, a bag of Cat Chow and two 50-pound bags of kitty litter. On an island in the Chesapeake Bay, there were cats that needed homes and cats that needed food.

And so, David Johnson, a retired 70-year-old Fells Point adman was headed to Tangier Island, Va., off the coast of the Delmarva Peninsula, a place so isolated that some experts say the local accent comes from English settlers who first arrived in the 17th century.

There’s also lots of cats.

“There are more cats than people on the island,” said Helen Woods, 42, a flight instructor who lives in Laurel. She flies regularly to the island as part of her work with the annual holly run, a long-running tradition in which pilots fly boughs of holly to Tangier in time for Christmas.

She estimates there are just over 500 cats on Tangier and fewer than 500 people.

Woods is a serious animal lover. “I have friends who go and see movies,” she said; but her hobby is helping animals. She recently added an additional mission to the holly runs: flying cats off Tangier Island. December 2017 marked the first-ever catlift.

“Cats were kind of infesting the island,” said Rebecca Dunivan, 45, who runs Tangier Island Animal Rescue, an organization that aims to find homes for the many feral cats in the area. She moved to Tangier two years ago and was horrified by the conditions of the stray felines.

Just before Christmas, a resident of the island died suddenly, leaving her 14 cats stranded without a home.

Woods emailed all the pilots she knew with a plea: Could they help airlift the homeless cats off the island?

And, by the way, could they bring some cat food, too?

With much of the Chesapeake Bay frozen over during a cold snap, the island has had a hard time accessing supplies — including cat food and litter. The National Guard had to airlift groceries to the islanders. On an island like Tangier, said Dunivan, you can’t run out to Walmart.

“If you run out, you’re out,” she said.

Johnson, who has participated in the holly run in years past and flies to Tangier Island regularly, agreed to go, along with three other pilots.

“I have a special place in my heart for Tangier,” he said.

The flight from Martin State Airport to Tangier Island took just 45 minutes, affording a sweeping vista of the Chesapeake Bay.

“Flying at a lower altitude you get this beautiful view,” he said.

After dropping off the cat food, he loaded up the plane with two cats: one was named Miss Lucy. He flies a Grumman Tiger single engine airplane, which seemed fitting for the occasion.

“A cat rescuing a cat,” he said.

With his feline cargo safely stored in carriers, Johnson flew back to Maryland Airport near Indian Head, where someone from a local animal shelter picked up the kitties. The cats seemed to handle the flight just fine, he said.

He and his wife have two cats at their Fells Point home, but Johnson said he wasn’t tempted to bring another.

“Two cats is plenty,” he said.

ctkacik@baltsun.com

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