We thought this would be another sad story about the cats that Baltimore forgot. But as with so many animal welfare stories, it turned into one that shows the best of humanity. There are saints among us, and they include our friends at Community Cats Maryland (CCMD) and the rugged guys who work at the former Bethlehem Steel site in Sparrows Point. Together, they care for an astonishing 200 cats over a 3,100-acre property.
In its heyday, Sparrows Point was the largest steelmaker in the world, employing 30,000 workers. Cats that lived on the land were trapped and killed and the employees who fed them were threatened with termination. Trap and remove has never resolved or eliminated a feral cat population. Rather, Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) is the only proven method for effectively managing the population.
Beth Steel filed for bankruptcy in 2001 and production ceased in 2012. Tradepoint Atlantic currently owns the property and is redeveloping the site. The closure provided the perfect storm for the existing cats to breed, and over the years, the property continued to be a dumping ground for more cats. In a few short years, the population exploded and CCMD heeded the call for help. We are in awe of their efforts and accomplishments and follow their page, The Feral Cats of Bethlehem Steel, on Facebook.
When CCMD first arrived on the scene last summer, they found many pregnant cats and went into high gear to control the exploding population. The ladies of CCMD are TNR experts and they sterilized and vaccinated 170 cats during 4 clinics held at the Baltimore County Animal Services clinic in eastern Baltimore County, while a handful were vetted at MDSPCA or private vet practices in between monthly clinics. Regrettably, at the end of 2016, Baltimore County notified CCMD that they could no longer use their clinic, and while CCMD looks for new space, no veterinary hospital can handle the volume of cats that CCMD is capable of handling. CCMD sterilized 70 cats from Sparrows Point alone at their September clinic, often vetting over 100 cats a month.
We wanted to see firsthand how a small nonprofit such as CCMD could manage such an enormous undertaking. Our friend Michelle oversees the project and got permission for us to follow her one Sunday.
Sparrows Point is a gated, secured property and while businesses such as Under Armour are constructing new buildings, it remains a demolition site that is eerily desolate on weekends. There are humungous pieces of equipment and piles of scrap everywhere. “You’ll need to wash your hair when you get home,” Michelle warned me.
It’s a time-consuming labor of love for Michelle and an expensive program, as the cats consume 175 pounds of dry food and 7 cases of canned food every week. Michelle treats the cats to canned food on weekends, and we watched in amazement as she filled an entire garbage bag with empty cans over several hours. Not only does CCMD continue to manage the vetting of the cats, but when they realized the workers needed financial assistance to continue with their care, they started ongoing fundraising drives to not just provide food, but feeding stations and shelters as well.
Thankfully, the saints of Sparrows Point – Wayne and RJ of MCM Industrial Services and Don of Tradepoint Atlantic, provide the cats with dry food and water on weekdays when they’re not working. A few other guards also help to feed and monitor the stations. Wayne is a skilled mechanic who helped CCMD build several enclosed feeding stations, which Michelle regularly disinfects and power washes on weekends.
There are more saints nearby. Last fall, CCMD joined forces with Local #37, which represents many of the workers at the plant and operates an Engineers Apprentice School a mile away. Charlie McGee, who is well-known in the community and at the plant, generously offered CCMD the use of their heated garage for four weeks. Together they built 75 insulated feral cat houses that provide shelter from the elements. CCMD has microchipped the cats and monitors them for any health issues. They are well-fed, cared for, and safe.
We’ve always had a soft spot for cat guys and it’s no exception with the saints of Sparrows Point. Like our Softies, these guys are tough, yet compassionate to animals. Their actions speak volumes about their character and we are grateful to their employers, who are supportive of their efforts. Tradepoint and MCM are good corporate citizens that recognize that this is a problem that people created and that people should resolve. Sparrows Point reminds us that we can coexist and that we are better when we respond humanely.
Above all, we tip our hats to Michelle. She has a high-powered job, yet, like so many feral cat caretakers, gives up precious time on evenings, weekends and holidays to feed hundreds of cats that did not choose to live a harsh existence. Thanks to her and the saints of Sparrows Point, their suffering has been alleviated. And that may just be the greatest gift any one of us can ever make.
If you would like to help The Feral Cats of Bethlehem Steel, please consider donating food from their wish list. If you’d prefer to make a tax-deductible donation to their veterinary care, please send a check to CCMD, P.O. Box 3637, Baltimore, Maryland 21214, and write“Beth Steel”on the memo line.