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As coronavirus boosts feral cat population, Catonsville women address colonies at Spring Grove Hospital

Catonsville resident Karen Kalczewski Cerkez carries water and cat food to one of the feeding stations for feral cat colonies at Spring Grove Hospital Center. Cerkez leads a modest group of volunteers feeding and managing the population of the estimated 70 cats who live there.
Catonsville resident Karen Kalczewski Cerkez carries water and cat food to one of the feeding stations for feral cat colonies at Spring Grove Hospital Center. Cerkez leads a modest group of volunteers feeding and managing the population of the estimated 70 cats who live there. (Casidy Cerkez / Baltimore Sun)

While packing several 35-pound bags of cat food into her Walmart shopping cart, Karen Kalczewski Cerkez gets asked the same question.

“People always say, ‘Are you a cat lady? How many cats do you have?’ ” the Catonsville resident said over coffee at Atwater’s in late February, weeks before the coronavirus pandemic upended daily life.

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“Actually I have none, but I feed around 30,” she’ll say.

Cerkez is the lead organizer of Cats on the Grove, a group of just a handful of volunteers who, often at their own expense, feed and shelter feral cat colonies at Catonsville’s Spring Grove Hospital Center. It’s an effort that, like many other facets of life, has been made difficult by the coronavirus, even while their work has become more critical as animal advocates expect wild animal populations to rise during the pandemic.

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One of the feral cats at Spring Grove Hospital Center prowls around the Catonsville campus.
One of the feral cats at Spring Grove Hospital Center prowls around the Catonsville campus. (Casidy Cerkez / Baltimore Sun)

“That does seem to be the case here in the county,” said Baltimore County Department of Health spokeswoman Elyn Garrett-Jones in an email.

“Shelters and surgical facilities across the state are seeing the same increase,” she wrote.

Cerkez solicits donations to build small shelters with hay for comfortable cat naps as well as for cat food, which costs between $100 and $150 to provide for roughly 30 cats, but donations are scarce these days, leaving volunteers to more often than not pay out of their own pockets.

The group also could do with more volunteers to cover feeding times and reduce the cost burden on current volunteers.

Given the additional restrictions implemented by local government animal services’ departments with sterilization programs, Becky Robinson, founder of the Bethesda-based nonprofit for feline welfare Alley Cats Allies, said there likely will be increased populations of feral cats.

The nonprofit is also getting more calls from people who have seen feral cats in their neighborhoods — or what are known as “community cats” within some animal rights groups — but that is likely due to more people being at home to notice them, she said.

But “even before the pandemic, there were not enough programs and groups to meet the needs of community cats,” Robinson said. “This is a movement: We’re working to create programs for cats that didn’t exist before.”

A feral cat sits in front of Spring Grove Hospital Center in Catonsville. Wild cat colonies have proliferated on the sprawling campus, but a coalition of volunteers dubbed Cats on the Grove has stepped in to manage the population through Baltimore County's Trap, Neuter and Release program.
A feral cat sits in front of Spring Grove Hospital Center in Catonsville. Wild cat colonies have proliferated on the sprawling campus, but a coalition of volunteers dubbed Cats on the Grove has stepped in to manage the population through Baltimore County's Trap, Neuter and Release program. (Casidy Cerkez / Baltimore Sun)

Founded in 1797, Spring Grove Hospital Center is the second oldest psychiatric hospital in the U.S., and is owned by the Maryland Department of Health.

An ad-hoc group of volunteers, initially organized by the hospital’s chaplain, first began caring for more than 100 wild cats roaming the campus in 2014, at the time a growing nuisance for hospital administration.

Some fear disease spread among wild cats, which can contract and spread feline AIDS and rabies, and the potential impact on local wildlife due to their natural predation.

The goal then, as it is now, is to contain the feral population by capturing cats that wander onto the grounds and having them spayed, neutered and vaccinated before they reproduce, and adopting out the younger kittens so they can be socialized, which generally must happen before they’re 10 weeks old.

That was two years before Baltimore County Animal Services began its Trap, Neuter and Release program, in which volunteers will trap feral cats and take them to Animal Services, which will then sterilize and vaccinate them, treat them for fleas and other parasites, have them microchipped for tracking purposes, clip their ears to mark them as part of a managed “colony,” and return them to their turf.

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After noticing the cats on her work commutes between Catonsville and Washington in 2018, Cerkez quickly became the lead caretaker and feral cat wrangler of, she estimates, about 75 cats who roam the hospital campus, and who she speculates have been there “as long as the building itself.”

Karen Kalczewski Cerkez, creator of the ad-hoc Cats on the Grove volunteer group, completes her rounds, filling three feeding stations with food for 30 of more than 70 feral cats that roam the grounds of Spring Grove Hospital Center in Catonsville. Cerkez feeds the cats twice daily, first at 6 a.m. and again in the evening on her commute home from Washington, between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Karen Kalczewski Cerkez, creator of the ad-hoc Cats on the Grove volunteer group, completes her rounds, filling three feeding stations with food for 30 of more than 70 feral cats that roam the grounds of Spring Grove Hospital Center in Catonsville. Cerkez feeds the cats twice daily, first at 6 a.m. and again in the evening on her commute home from Washington, between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. (Casidy Cerkez / Baltimore Sun)

“We’ve always had community cats,” Robinson said. Some of those cats existed in the U.S. long before colonization in the 16th century. More of them came to America by way of European ships.

Garrett-Jones said the department doesn’t track the number of complaints regarding feral cats, but last year performed 711 sterilizations.

It’s uncertain exactly when the feral cat colonies began flocking to the campus, although the hospital’s chaplain, Dennis DuPont, speculates they’ve been there for more than 50 years, and may have been related to abandoned domestic cats that were left on the 200-acre property, he wrote in an informal history of the campus.

And if you ask their caretakers, like Cerkez and Martha Zammarella, each of those cats has a distinct personality.

The ginger tabby Bill, for instance, has a quietly commanding presence. Feral cat colonies are thought to have a matriarchal hierarchy, Cerkez said; as the offspring of a colony matriarch who “kind of rules everything,” Bill also may have an elevated status within the colony’s ranks, given the way other cats step aside to allow him to eat first when he politely butts his head against theirs, Zammarella said.

After one year of Zammarella maintaining three feeding stations around the grounds, stopping in once a day at 10:30 a.m. to clean their bowls and leave fresh chow for the roughly 20 cats, Bill will now rub against her legs, a sign of feline affection.

“It’s a big compliment” to earn his trust, she said.

Cerkez doesn’t name all the cats, but each of the scrappier, more standoffish cats in two colonies whose territories cover the wooded area of the campus are named after a Game of Thrones character — Tyrion is among her favorites.

Efforts to manage the cats prior to 2014 had been haphazard, with volunteers occasionally leaving out food, and hospital staff and psychiatric patients attempting to catch kittens young enough for adoption and trap adults for neutering, DuPont wrote.

“One female cat can produce generations and generations” of offspring, Cerkez said. When possible, the group tries to keep a mother cat with her kittens, and connect with a program that takes in feral cat families.

Given that the average adult feline can birth up to five litters a year, with anywhere from four to 12 kittens in a litter, and the speed at which female cats in that litter can reach maturity — about six months — before they start being able to reproduce, “if we don’t catch that one female, it could be chaos,” Cerkez said.

But catching the cats is no easy task, one that involves trickery. Feeding stations were set up around the grounds to more easily corral the cats to trap them.

One of the feeding stations set up throughout Spring Grove Hospital Center, established around 2014 to feed the feral cats who live at the Catonsville hospital and to make it easier to trap and capture them with the goal of sterilization.
One of the feeding stations set up throughout Spring Grove Hospital Center, established around 2014 to feed the feral cats who live at the Catonsville hospital and to make it easier to trap and capture them with the goal of sterilization. (Casidy Cerkez / Baltimore Sun)

Currently, Cerkez estimates there are about 10 cats on the campus who have not been apprehended and sterilized, a problem that seems to persist despite the volunteers’ successes because of neighboring cats who wander onto the campus.

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But since Baltimore County Animal Services has imposed restrictions amid the pandemic, including no walk-in drop-offs and no services for at least two weeks for animals that may have been exposed to the coronavirus, Cerkez said it’s been more challenging to get the cats sterilized.

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She now takes feral cats to the Cat and Dog Hospital of Columbia, which (like the county) performs the procedure at no charge, but only allows her to bring in one cat per week.

“It’s not all doom and gloom” though, Robinson said.

The bright side of cat welfare during the pandemic is that fewer cats are being impounded, which means fewer cats are being euthanized, a method of population control she says is not effective given its “vacuum effect,” which leaves the unprotected food sources of those now-dead cats up for grabs by other feral cats, who move in to those territories and repopulate them.

Still, trap-and-kill methods are the most common in the U.S.

As the world adapts to functioning during a widespread health crisis, Robinson said community cat protection groups are no exception.

“Spay-athons,” for example, in which groups may organize a day to galvanize volunteers into bringing in cats for sterilization, may be more common to manage an increased wild cat population once the pandemic subsides, and Robinson doesn’t expect the proliferation of feral kittens to be long lasting.

For Cats on the Grove, the pandemic may be a bump in the road, but the dedication to the mission remains the same.

“We’re almost at a controlled population,” Cerkez said. “The goal would be to have them all through the TNR program. If we can get these last 10 [cats], that would be incredible.”

To donate to Cats on the Grove, go to their GoFundMe page at gofundme.com/f/cats-on-the-grove. To read more about how to care for community cats, go to alleycat.org.

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