For 30 years, Glenn Spiegel has lived with his family on Dell Place, near Irving Street and Route 198 and he can't remember a time when he has not had stray cats around his home.
"There have been long- and short-hair cats and kittens of all colors," Spiegel said. "They are a bit skittish and wild when they first start showing up, but I talk to them and after a while, they calm down and let me pet them. We've gotten some as newborns and because my wife didn't want to get rid of them, we raised them."
Spiegel said he feels sorry for the stray cats because some have been abandoned by their owners and are not wild. He said he spends about $45 a week on food for his own cats and the strays that live under the two sheds in their backyard, and also takes the strays to the veterinarian for shots and to have the females spayed before releasing them.
"Since the economy got bad, over the last three years, people seem to be putting more cats out and I've see as many as five or six back there at times," Spiegel said.
The increase in the number of stray cats in neighborhoods is not just an issue in Laurel, but in Prince George's County as well. Animal control officials think the recession and still-struggling economy are factors, considering that many people have lost their homes and apartments and may have left the cats behind when they moved.
"We've seen an increase in calls from residents about stray and feral (wild) cats," said Rodney Taylor, the county's animal management chief. "We house 50 to 60 cats (weekly) that are strays and are fine, but their owners may have lost their homes and can't care for them. We get an estimated 10 feral cats a week."
In Laurel, Jennifer Volack was hired two months ago as the city's new animal warden. She, too, is seeing numerous stray and feral cats in the city, especially last spring when cats were having kittens. According to Volack, Fourth Street at Route 198 and Fourth at Main Street are areas where many strays have been seen.
"There are a lot of stray cats around and a month ago, I was getting a call every day, but now I get a call or two a week now that most of the cats have had their babies," Volack said.
Volack said she is concerned that some of the strays have not have medical attention and could pose a threat to other residents' pets.
"They could transmit worms or diseases through their feces, or rabies to dogs. Some wild cats could also have feline leukemia and that's very contagious," Volack said.
Volack spends part of her day patrolling streets in her animal control vehicle on the lookout for stray animals. If the animal is on someone's property, she won't approach it, but if it is walking down the street unattended, she has the legal right to impound it.
"A feral cat doesn't want to be approached, so if it is friendly, I'll ask around to see if it belongs to someone and return it to the owner. If the owner is not home, I'll hold onto it," she said.
Volack said Rocky Gorge Animal Hospital, in Laurel, will hold the cats she finds for a day.
When Volack gets a call about stray cats in a resident's yard, with the homeowner's permission she places a trap on their property to try and lure the cat or kittens into a cage. Food is placed in the container and when the cats step on a metal plate placed near the food, the door closes and the cat cannot escape.
Laurel does not charge for this service, but Prince George's County officials, who handle animal control issues in Laurel when Volack is not on duty, charge homeowners $25 to have a trap. Howard County animal control charges homeowners $40 to rent a trap to remove stray cats from their yards.
According to Volack, most of the stray and wild cats in the city are usually spotted in backyards, and she sometimes gets resistance when she tries to trap the cats.
"I've been trying my hardest to capture the strays and feral cats and kittens, but I have just as many people who don't want me to trap them as those who do."
That may be because when Volack captures a stray cat or kitten, she turns them over to county animal control officials and many of them are euthanized, which cat lovers find upsetting.
"I don't want to take them to animal control unless its absolutely necessary, but the humane societies have such high populations of kittens and cats now and it's hard enough for them to adopt out friendly cats, much less the feral or unhealthy ones," Volack said. "We do get a few friendly adult cats and animal control tries to arrange adoptions for them. If the kittens are 6 to 8 weeks old and can live without their mom, are friendly and pass the blood tests, they can be put up for adoption. If they are younger, they are euthanized."
Anna Blanco Logsden has lived on Whiskey Bottom Road near All Saints Road, in North Laurel, since 1995. She and her husband are volunteers with the Washington Animal Rescue League and she said they don't call the animal warden or Howard County officials about the stray cats they see in their backyard daily because they don't want to risk them being put to sleep.
"I'm an animal lover and I don't want to see any animal put to sleep unless it's injured or very sick," Logsden said. "I can't remember not seeing cats around here because we have lots of trees behind the house that provide a great hideout for them. Most of them look healthy. There are a lot of birds, rabbits and squirrels in the woods and they are good hunters."
But Volack, who once worked at an animal shelter, said, "I'd rather see them euthanized than hit by a car or used as bait for fighting dogs, as I've seen at times."
According to Taylor, the cats and kittens that end up at the Prince George's County shelter are given a behavioral assessment and if they are deemed social, they are put up for adoption. Some of the cats are simply lost and they are checked for identity microchips that contain information on the owner, who is given five working days to reclaim the cat.
"We do euthanize the feral ones," he said.
Speaking up for strays
Logsden said that, unlike city resident Spiegel, she does not feed the strays around her North Laurel home, but will trap them in her own trap.
"I don't want to encourage them to hang out here because I have three small dogs and I don't want them interacting with my dogs," she said.
Recently, the Logsdens found several wild kittens in their backyard and had them neutered and tested for leukemia. They placed one kitten with a friend and let the rest go.
Spiegel, who has talked with city and county elected officials about the plight of stray cats, suggested that a shelter be opened in Laurel for the strays.
"I don't believe in killing them and want people to realize that often people get a cute kitten and don't want it when it's grown and throw it out. That's not fair to the cats," Spiegel said. "I keep doing all I can to help them and speak up for them because somebody has to."
Volack and Taylor both suggested that residents should call animal control officials for animal pickups and if they have any questions regarding animal control policies.
"I want people to be aware of us and know that we're not the bad guys," Volack said. "We're here to help and educate the public."
that we're not the bad guys," Volack said. "We're here to help and educate the public."