Grand Central's Flea-Ridden Cats Are Tomorrow's Fresh-Air Kitties

updated 09/24/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/24/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The labyrinthine lower levels of Manhattan's Grand Central station are quiet on weekends, and down on the tracks Anna Briggs is stalking her prey. Cats are her game, and she traps them in the gentlest lightweight traps she can buy. Her objective: to have them wormed, flea-powdered and neutered, then seht to a farm near Walton, N.Y., where they will be safe from the capricious lightning of the third rail and the crushing wheels of the 12:29 from Rye.

And why are there cats in the Grand Central tunnels? Because rats preceded them there, and 20 years ago railroad workers brought in the world's oldest rat-catching device to get rid of the rodents. Since then the flea-ridden descendants of those feline exterminators have grown too fat and sassy to chase any but the most somnolent rat. Cat lovers ply them with chicken, fish, saucers of milk, even full cans of cat food. "Those cats have the biggest smorgasbord in the world," says Dr. John P. Herrlin, medical director for the Metro-North Commuter Railroad, who treats employees bitten by the cats' fleas. "The rats clean up what the cats don't eat, and what's left over the roaches get."

When Grand Central's custodians set traps for the cats this summer, kitty lovers sabotaged the effort by springing them. Enter Mrs. Briggs, who captured 75 cats for the railroad 12 years ago. "Grand Central is not a healthy environment," she says. "Back in 1972 some of the cats we trapped were so inbred that their equilibrium was bad and their eyes were failing."

Briggs is adamant that none of her captives will be killed or sent to laboratories. A vegetarian from the age of 16, she was born 74 years ago in Washington, D.C. and founded the National Humane Education Society in 1948. Two years later she started her first animal sanctuary in Virginia. Her late husband, James Briggs, was a lawyer who also ran an animal shelter when they married in 1927. "The Depression forced him to close it in 1931, and it all but broke his heart," she says.

Living now in Leesburg, Va., Briggs will soon move to the 120-acre Peace Plantation in Walton, where some 150 of her furry charges—dogs included—are already in residence. All she wishes now is that Grand Central cat fanciers would stop providing weekend snacks for her quarry. "If people wouldn't feed the cats on Fridays," she says, having scored only three felines one recent Saturday, "I'm sure we'd have better results the next day."

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