Yanking off duct tape wound tightly around a large plastic tub marked "donation," Moira Liskovec expected to find pet food for her cat-rescue operation.
Instead, she lifted the lid to reveal a live black cat.
"Can you imagine?" Liskovec said, still taken aback a week later.
The Ellicott City resident said it was dumb luck that she had decided to open the bin right after it had been plunked down by the animal cages minutes earlier by an anonymous donor who dashed off without speaking to anyone.
Otherwise, the makeshift carrier with no air holes would have quickly become a coffin.
"People can really be ignorant when it comes to animals," she said. "They treat them like they're disposable."
Liskovec, a lifelong animal lover, ought to know.
Over the past three years, she has rescued and adopted out 2,000 abandoned cats and kittens through her home-based nonprofit organization, Small Miracles Cat Rescue.
Yesterday, she and half of her 30 helpers were to hold a grand opening for her first storefront location in Ellicott City, where she began officially conducting business Jan. 9.
"I'm so excited that I'm having a hard time sleeping at night," Liskovec said about securing a site for her operation along U.S. 40, next to an emergency animal hospital.
Now, the all-volunteer group can show and adopt out dozens of cats every day but Sunday. Previously, four adoptable cats were housed free of charge at two Petco stores in Ellicott City and Columbia, and their customers were directed to contact her.
Spaying and neutering services are expected to be offered on the premises within a month, once the shelter's application for an animal hospital license is approved by the state, she said. Dr. Rose Smiley, a veterinarian and vice president of Small Miracles' board of directors, will handle surgeries.
But even as Liskovec upgrades her operation and joins other shelters in the area, she said the problem of abandoned cats remains nearly insurmountable and is worsened by the effect of the slumping economy on owners.
"People can't afford to feed their cats and often put them out on the streets when they're pregnant," Liskovec said. "It's amazing that their kittens survive."
Most of her shelter's 30 cages already house felines - from 9-week-old siblings Doodle, Dimple and Duffle, to Teddy, a yearlong boarder awaiting the right owner. Handwritten signs detailing the animals' stories were to be placed on each cage during yesterday's celebration to tug visitors' heartstrings and spur adoptions.
Many of the cats that Liskovec receives come from the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter, where city residents bring in about 17 unwanted or stray cats every day, said BARCS' executive director, Jennifer Mead-Brause.
"We took in 6,161 cats last year, an increase of 460 over 2007," said Mead-Brause, who is in frequent contact with rescue operations to board and adopt out her organization's constant overflow of animals. BARCS can house 400 animals, she said.
"More people who surrender their animals to us are saying they can't afford to take care of them," she said.
At Howard County Animal Control, off Route 108 in east Columbia, employees have seen no increase in the number of animals they've taken in related to the recession, said administrator Deborah Baracco. The facility is run by the county Police Department and also conducts rescue work. "But we have received more calls for assistance in obtaining pet food," she said.
Animal Control sets aside some of the donated food it receives and is able to pass it on to people having trouble feeding their animals, Baracco said.
It was an inhumane act in 2006 that put Liskovec on the road to founding her rescue service, she said.
When a client at the veterinarian's office where she was working brought in a pregnant cat to be euthanized, she experienced a defining moment.
"That was a changing time in my life," said Liskovec, a native of Britain who came to the United States in 1992. "I knew I had to step up to the plate and help save animals."
She immediately quit her job of eight years to embark on her mission, to which she now devotes 50 hours each week, and makes herself available to answer phone inquiries from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. She said she takes Sundays off but usually finds her way into the office.
And Liskovec wouldn't have it any other way.
"I love cats, but I love being a volunteer just as much," she said.
Liskovec's dedication has earned her a well-deserved reputation, said Mead-Brause, adding that "everyone loves her and trusts her to do the right thing."
One thing Liskovec would like to do now is to sit by BARCS' entrance, swooping cats and kittens from customers' arms to prevent them from taking the felines inside, where they could contract respiratory illnesses because of the large number of animals there, she said.
"They told me they'd love for us to do that," Liskovec said, so she has placed that objective on her lengthy to-do list.
"Both my volunteers and my husband - whose belief in my passion for this work allows me to continue doing it - keep me going," she said. "I wouldn't be sane without them."
Small Miracles Cat Rescue, 10236A Baltimore National Pike, is open weekdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Animals available for adoption through the nonprofit organization can be viewed online at www.petfinder.com. Information: 410-274-3530.
Is there a noteworthy person or event in your neighborhood? Contact Neighbors columnist Janene Holzberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or 410-461-4150.