Bethany Bridgham spent eight years with Harry. She made dinner for him, played with him, and looked after his every need. Bridgham used to spend a lot of time with Harry outside, enjoying the picturesque foliage in the back yard of their American University Park home. But on the night of March 23, during one of Harry’s neighborhood rambles, he vanished without a trace. Bridgham was heartbroken.

She and her roommate went all around the neighborhood, checking in the smallest of bushes and even “in people’s garages.” But after seeing other signs for missing companions in the neighborhood, she realized she was not alone in her aloneness—other cats from the area had gone missing. Bridgham quickly decided there was a conspiracy behind the absence of Harry and other felines in the neighborhood.

A total of 16 cats have disappeared in Ward 3 since the night of March 9, according to Bridgham. She runs off the names, dates, and brief bios of all the cats, and from which intersections they disappeared. Eight vanished from the vicinity of AU Park between Massachusetts Avenue and River Road, she says as she runs her finger along 46th Street. Another two disappeared as recently as June 6 from the same area.

As a result, Bridgham has became a self-appointed cat sleuth, an Ace Ventura without the rubber facial expressions. A lawyer with American University, she has been waging her investigative assault ever since Harry went AWOL.

Like any good lawyer who’s on the case, she has amassed several inches of information, which she calls “the cat file.” Bridgham’s data includes a carefully diagrammed map, pinpointing the precise location of every single catnapping case.

She’s got telecommunications covered, arranging a catnapping hotline with Bell Atlantic. Local media giants have spotlighted the thefts in newspapers, and on radio and television. Bridgham even has the information superhighway covered, posting pictures of the missing cats on the Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s missing pets web site.

And just in case all of that doesn’t impress you, there is a $4,600 reward on any information leading to the cats’ discovery—more than four times what the District police usually offer for suspects who are alleged to have murdered humans.

Like any good detective, Bridgham is working on a number of theories:

The Wild Kingdom Theory

Bridgham admits it’s possible the cats could have strayed and met their match in the wild. Did Harry become dinner for a dog, fox, or raccoon?

“They probably would eat cats,” Bridgham says. “But they wouldn’t eat everything. You would find a head, paws, an ID collar, a tail, or something!”

The Roadkill Theory

The car vs. kitty theory was quickly discarded by Bridgham’s posse after they called the Department of Public Works to find out if District sanitation workers had found any kitty carcasses. They hadn’t.

The Scumbag Theory

Bridgham believes there may be darker forces at work—a conspiracy of “scumbags,” as she repeatedly refers to them, who are stealing the cats for evil thrills or commercial gain. She figured the most effective scumbag bait was a big reward.

“Scumbags associate with scumbags, and for $4,600 we figured someone would turn someone in,” Bridgham says hopefully.

The Lab Theory

After consulting her allies at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and In Defense of Animals, Bridgham found out that most stolen animals end up in research laboratories, sold by class B animal dealers. These dealers, known as “bunchers,” are licensed by the USDA to obtain animals from any source. For a $50 fee, anyone can obtain a USDA class B dealer license, according to PETA.

Bridgham immediately obtained a list of all 75 research labs in the District and Maryland, and mailed every one of them a letter asking them to keep a heads-up for the Northwest cats.

“As you can see, there are a lot of labs in Rockville,” Bridgham says, perusing the list. Her eyebrows rise as she sees the number of cats used by Johns Hopkins University.

“747 cats,” she says. But isn’t Baltimore a bit far for thieves to travel?

“It’s an hour,” she responds coldly, the picture of sleuthing detachment.

She points out that the District has no pound seizure laws under which bunchers could obtain their prey from animal shelters. The District’s pounds do not sell their animals, which could be why catnappers are plundering the back yards of residents.

“The labs should ask for bios [of the cats],” Bridgham says.

Gretchen Hersman, manager of the stolen pet program at In Defense of Animals, claims bunchers sell the cats for as much as $150-$250 apiece. Her organization has contributed $2,500 to the $4,600 reward.

One logical suspect would be the massive National Institutes of Health (NIH), just up Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda. But Dr. Louis Sibal, director of the office of animal laboratory research at NIH, says its labs only buy animals from reputable, class A dealers.

“Most scientists don’t do such a thing,” Sibal says. “It’s a mystique created by animal rights groups. Scientists like cats, too.”

The Pit Bull Theory

Donna Marsden of the Washington Humane Society says at least one pit-bull fight is reported to her organization almost every day, and “it’s a huge problem in the city.” Just this spring, several puppies were stolen from some yards in the District to be used as bait for pit-bull fights.

Marsden believes cats are often used as bait to train pit bulls. She says treadmills with caged kitties at the end are employed to build stamina in the fighting dogs.

The Satanic Ritual Theory

“I hate to say this—this is very painful,” Hersman says with a nervous stutter. “They could have been used in satanic worship.”

There haven’t been any reported satanic rituals in the area in the last several years, but Marsden cited one case involving an Adams Morgan man practicing Santería in his apartment. Police found him boiling a cauldron filled with beads, feathers, the head of a ram, and various animal guts. The Humane Society seized the shrine to “Chango,” but they kept it in a freezer because they could not destroy the man’s property. No cats were involved.

“Typically, Santería involves farm animals, not cats,” Marsden says. She also points out that satanic rituals are most often performed in graveyards, and carcasses would have been discovered by now.

The Misfelinist Theory

Lorrie Marcil, owner of the vanished Raja, says it’s possible the disappearances could be the work of an individual with a deep hatred for cats.

“There’s the poison theory—someone who just doesn’t like cats,” Marcil says. “But we haven’t found the bodies.”

She believes there might be someone out there who is sick of the cats attacking birds in the area—an orniphile gone wild—and has decided to kill the killers.

“The possibilities are just so horrible that you hope they’re at peace in their own little world,” Marcil says.

None of the theories have yielded any clues, let alone suspects, but a dim hope still lingers, especially after the Mittens case. Mittens disappeared the night of April 18. Six days later, a woman called the hotline while Mittens was in her back yard. Mittens, it turned out, had ended up at a home half a mile from her owners and across the busy thoroughfare of Wisconsin Avenue. Following her mysterious ordeal, Mittens was never the same.

“She’s a lot more shy than she used to be,” says Wystan Lewis. “She didn’t want to go in our car. She jumped out when we brought her in.”

Most of the owners have come to grips with the likelihood that Mittens’ return was a miracle and that they will never hear the shredding of furniture or ear-piercing meows from their family felines again. Bridgham remains undaunted and is in the midst of another round of calls to the dozens of labs that never responded to her letter.

“I’d really like to meet one of these class B dealers,” Bridgham says in a voice that makes you think it probably wouldn’t be pretty. And as for Harry, she hopes he’s earned a nice, soft lap in kitty heaven. “As much as I love him, I pray to God he’s dead, and not in some laboratory.”CP

Contact the Lost Cat Hotline at (202)966-3982.