Lee May was sad. The woman loves cats—not only is she a Washington Humane Society (WHS) volunteer, she runs Capital Street Cats from her home and cares for a colony of feral cats in her neighborhood. And this feliphile was smitten with Misty, a kitty in lockup at WHS’s New York Avenue NE shelter. Misty, says May, was “extremely sweet, extremely pretty, and extremely pregnant. She was a stray, obviously, and was sick with an upper respiratory problem.” With all those crosses to bear, Misty was a certain candidate for the shelter’s death row.

But Jill Gross, a woman who foster-cares for WHS, volunteered to take Misty in and help find her a home. However, much as Texas Gov. George W. Bush did in the case of Karla Faye Tucker, WHS denied requests for a reprieve, insisting that Misty be put to death.

“They said, ‘No, that cat’s gotta die. We don’t need any more babies,’” May recalls. “But this time of year there aren’t a lot of kittens, and the phone’s ringing off the hook—people want kittens. This cat was placeable.” So, after a great deal of volunteer caterwauling, WHS’s leadership finally threw May and Gross a bone: The volunteers were given until the end of the day to find Misty a home. There was one other condition, too: They had to find a veterinarian to abort the late-term pregnancy. “This was a very poor medical judgment,” May says. “It was just through luck—and I believe in a cat god—that Misty’s life was saved. The woman even offered to take the cat with the pregnancy, so the kittens would live.” No deal—the kittens had to be aborted, WHS ruled.

Such is a dog’s life at WHS, where the fur has been flying between employees, volunteers, and others in D.C.’s animal-loving community. At the center of the storm is Pam Chapman, director of the WHS animal shelter, whose judgments and decisions are being attacked with pit bullesque ferocity.

“She’s needle-happy,” says a WHS volunteer who asked to remain anonymous so she can continue working at the shelter. “Pam Chapman is really pro-, pro-, pro-euthanasia,” the volunteer adds. Donna Wilcox, co-director of Alley Cat Allies, an organization that cares for feral cats, says, “I believe [Chapman] does put down animals too quickly.” Susan Nelson, director of Feline Urban Rescue Inc. on Chesapeake Street NW, adds “Obviously, it can’t be a no-kill shelter. But there’s never been an emphasis on adoption. It’s begrudgingly done….They think it’s easier, quicker, and better to kill them.”

Chapman’s defenders, and there are plenty of them, say that her critics are feline fetishists who have lost the ability to understand that in many instances the way to look after D.C.’s cats is to make sure there aren’t too many running around making more unwanted babies.

“Euthanasia is a lousy, sad, wretched thing that they absolutely have to do,” says Ingrid Newkirk, co-founder and president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

“They have a thankless job, and I thank them for rolling up their sleeves and sometimes doing a dirty deed….Anybody who’s criticizing the Humane Society needs to come up with a solution,” says Newkirk, who supports Chapman and who worked for WHS in the ’70s. Newkirk clearly feels that stray cats are better off dead. “I’ve never seen an old feral cat,” she says. “The world isn’t kind to them; they suffer.”

Chapman’s twitchy needle finger has been sending animal lovers into a tizzy for several years. Before she joined WHS in 1996, Chapman supervised the Prince George’s County animal shelter, where she came under fire for her alleged predilection for sodium pentathol. A March 9, 1995, article in the Bowie Blade-News titled “County Animal Shelter Manager Portrayed as Uncaring” had Prince George’s residents screaming about Chapman’s “lack of compassion for animals.” Said Labrador retriever-saver Cathy Burdett, “This shelter believes that if a dog has the slightest problem, it should be put down. There’s no excuse to put a dog down if someone is willing to adopt it.” Animal activist Nancy McNamara added, “I have begged and pleaded with [Chapman] for litters of kittens. They were euthanized even though I had people waiting for them.”

In 1995, P.G. County resident John Tomlinson, then 84, got a little more than he had bargained for when he brought his Chihuahua “Nut” to the Prince George’s Animal Shelter so Nut could bond with a canine friend that Tomlinson intended to subsequently adopt: Nut, instead, was put to sleep. “The whole staff was extremely upset,” Chapman told the Blade-News. “It truly was miscommunication….We were in a position where we could not bring the animal back to life.”

When Chapman joined WHS, “various people from Prince George’s called to express their displeasure that she had been appointed head of the shelter,” acknowledges a Chapman defender who works with WHS. Another source is less diplomatic: “She was run out of PGC,” the source says.

George Whiting, Chapman’s boss at the P.G. County Animal Management Division, says suggestions she was ousted are dead wrong. “She was employed by a contractor who was employed here…and that contractor lost the contract. It had nothing to do with Pam Chapman. Where do people come up with these things?”

Whiting says any animal shelter director is in the business of managing a very precious, finite resource. “When you have to walk through a shelter that is totally overcrowded and look at an animal and say that this one is going to have to go today, it is not taken lightly,” Whiting says.

But Chapman’s critics say that part of the reason that the shelter is so crowded is WHS’s miserable adoption rate. In 1997, WHS placed a mere 15 percent of its roughly 12,000 animals in adoptive homes. The Montgomery County Humane Society, by contrast, last year placed 48 percent—5,217 out of 10,704—of its animals, according to statistics supplied by the county. Animal-rights activists hold out the San Francisco shelter—which last year euthanized only 61 of 4,732 animals—as a national model.

“Could WHS do better? Yes,” acknowledges Franklin Maphis, who worked at WHS for 10 years. “But could almost anything be done better? Could you write a better article?” Healey points out that at least WHS is on the right track: Its adoption rate has risen from 10 percent to its present level in only a few years.

Cat lovers bemoan WHS’s tendency to execute animals that have the pet equivalent of the common cold. “If a cat sneezes, it’s a death sentence,” says Wilcox. “I’ve heard of specific instances when there was an adoptive home, and [Chapman] would not let the animal go.” Chapman and other WHS officials declined to discuss any such “specific instances.” The city’s contract with WHS requires that employees receive explicit permission from the government before responding to media inquiries—permission that was not granted for this article. According to Mary Healey, executive director of WHS, Chapman was unwilling to answer questions about the shelter.

To prevent upper respiratory diseases from spreading, WHS banishes sniffling kitties to a sick room, out of public view, which essentially kills the pets’ chance for adoption. And animals that wind up at WHS are particularly disease-prone, according to volunteer May. “It’s an extremely old building, and their heating system is by space heaters, and there isn’t any ventilation,” says May. “Most of the cats come in healthy, and after a few days they become sick. Then they go into the sick room, where people aren’t allowed to see them, and then they just euthanize them.”

May argues that WHS is overwhelmed by the District’s stray animal population, and WHS officials agree. Each year, an estimated 12,000 animals—cats, dogs, raccoons, and birds—enter WHS’s custody. One thousand eight hundred of those animals are adopted. And, according to Healey, “The shelter can house between 50 and 70 dogs at one time, and 30 to 40 cats at the most, and that’s pretty packed.”

Chapman’s defenders insist that it’s really just a matter of simple math. “You can’t save them all,” says Maphis. “There’s just not room. Sometimes you have to make very logical and rational decisions on a very emotional-type issue, and that’s hard for people to understand. And when people [make these decisions] too quickly, it’s sometimes misinterpreted that they don’t care.”

The New York Avenue shelter is described as cramped, run-down, and malodorous, though WHS refused to take Washington City Paper on a tour of the facility. On the outside, three dozen dogs bark from outdoor kennels while an older woman hoses off the ground; inside, cats huddle in their cages in an adoption room, curled up in roly-poly balls, enjoying the heat, oblivious to the ticking clock. “It’s so overwhelming because of the number of animals that come in….You could always do more, but the Washington Humane Society extends the appropriate resources to adoptions, is open to new ideas, spends a lot of its own money on advertisements to post for adoption…but the main emphasis is on quality of homes and what is best for the animal,” Maphis adds.

What’s not best for the animal, say Chapman’s defenders, is the squalor that stinks up the homes of overzealous cat lovers. “There ought to be a lot more Pam Chapmans in the world. These people who are complaining are collectors,” says Judy Marion of Kensington, Md. “You should go into their homes and see how they live. The ‘fosters’ don’t want to kill anything.” She describes the home of one of Chapman’s P.G. detractors: “[She] had too many cats in her home. The conditions in her house were not right. Some of the fosters go overboard and don’t even know where the animals are. I do cruelty calls for the SPCA, and these people need cruelty checks. When they are overloaded, the conditions aren’t proper.”

Adds Whiting, Chapman’s former boss, “We had a lady that had a couple of hundred cats. She did not want to see any cats dead….I would rather have them euthanized than live in those conditions, than have them catch [feline leukemia], live in urine-soaked boxes. When you do run into what we call a collector or a gatherer, most of the time you can smell the house from the outside. You walk in, and the floor feels spongy because it’s soaked with litter, urine, God knows what else. We went into a home that housed 300 animals, and one of my people got ammonia burns in his lungs because of the smell. Gatherers can be extremists.”

The debate rages and the question lingers: Is a cat happier on the street, in a crowded, feces-caked home, sick in a shelter, or dead? Says Healey, “It’s a question that can’t be answered simply. I’d like to see all animals off the streets and in good homes.”CP