by Mike Phillips, NYC Feral Cat Initiative
Seemingly overnight in July 1990, AnnaBell Washburn became a face for the fledgling movement advocating humane care for feral cats in the United States. That month, an article recounting her Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) work at Martha’s Vineyard, MA, was published in Cat Fancy magazine. Although the article also mentioned the work of many other groups and individuals around the country doing TNR (some already for 20 years), the focus of the article was on AnnaBell, whom the author, Ellen Perry Berkeley, described as “capable, determined, enterprising and charming.” Though TNR was already a proven-effective method abroad, in America, the neutering of street cats to humanely reduce their numbers was relatively uncommon, without a name, and had no standardized approach. The Cat Fancy article was a watershed moment, fostering clarity on why and how TNR works, and showcasing what one person with conviction could do to implement it. Via this one article (in a magazine primarily devoted to pet cats and celebrating purebreds no less), others sharing the same quest that had driven AnnaBell were provided with information about TNR.
AnnaBell had begun to “consider it my calling” after hearing TNR (then known as the WSPA Method) described by British cat expert Peter Neville, at the 1984 World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) international convention in Boston. AnnaBell immediately recognized TNR as the humane solution she had been seeking to help the cats reproducing exponentially on Martha’s Vinyard. Over the next four years, she and a handful of volunteers completed TNR on 200 feral cats. The TNR project on Martha’s Vineyard was overseen by P.A.W.S. (Pet Adoption and Welfare Service), which AnnaBell had already founded there in 1980. During her tenure as its president, P.A.W.S. saved more lives of unwanted or lost cats and dogs than any shelter in the state through adoptions promoted by dramatic advertising.
Reaction to the Cat Fancy article and the momentum it created resulted in AnnaBell being awarded a Presidential Citation for her outstanding record of community service in 1991. In the citation, then President George H.W. Bush wrote: “Many of America’s most pressing social problems can best be solved through a renewal of the values on which our nation was founded: duty, acceptance of personal responsibility, commitment and a respect for every individual that expresses itself in direct or consequential action on behalf of others. Efforts such as yours are evidence that these values remain firmly embedded in the American character. I commend you for making a difference in the life of your community.”
This capable heroine to forgotten felines was born Anna Bell Leinbach in Reading, PA, on February 22, 1927. Before cats occupied her thoughts and actions, AnnaBell’s family was primarily oriented to the appreciation of canines. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1948 with the class motto, “Forty-eight, we are great,” AnnaBell showed her inherent mettle by moving alone to NYC to seek her fortune. As fellow residents of International House, AnnaBell and the yet unknown superstar of the opera world, Leontyne Price, became great friends and even sang duets in I-House performances. After graduation from >Teachers College, Columbia University with a degree in Speech Pathology, AnnaBell was hired to join the elite teaching staff of the legendary John Robert Powers School. A credit to her own unique and effortless charm, the school had the reputation of turning out the most interesting, articulate, and appealing young women to be found anywhere.
With this sterling endorsement on her resume, AnnaBell was subsequently recruited by the quickly expanding Pan Am Airlines. Her assignment was to devise an enhanced training program to imbue their growing number of international stewardesses with poise and refinement. Pan Am executive Stanley Washburn fell in love at first sight as elevator doors opened one day to reveal the delightful AnnaBell, and they were married on March 26, 1966.
Feral cat advocates couldn’t have dreamed up a more eloquent spokesperson to champion their cause. Over a lifetime of service, AnnaBell’s ebullient enthusiasm has served well to motivate and elicit support from others for her many charitable and philanthropic pursuits. With husband Stanley, they became a dynamic team, and even vacations were devoted to benefiting animals. After learning that feral cats inhabited three large resorts on Virgin Gorda, in the British Virgin Islands, they enlisted Tufts University’s Chairman of the School of Veterinary Medicine, James N. Ross, Jr., and raised the funds for an annual TNR pilgrimage there starting in 1986. During the first four years of the project, the TNR of 361 cats was completed on the island, while also providing invaluable training for Tufts’ senior veterinary students in spay/neuter surgery.
The legacy of AnnaBell’s work includes so many wonderful results, some singular and others immense in magnitude. Perhaps most poignant was the validation that her visibility gave to so many isolated individuals who had already been neutering street cats, even before any kind of organized movement. Many others were made aware for the first time of a proven-effective approach they could present when lobbying for the humane treatment of free-roaming community cats. In 2015, 25 years after the article featuring AnnaBell’s work appeared, Alley Cat Allies lists scores of groups around the United States currently devoted to the implementation of TNR. AnnaBell demonstrated to all what the determination of a single person can achieve when they set their mind to improving the world. Today, AnnaBell continues to enjoy the revered status as America’s most visible elder stateswoman of the TNR movement. She shares her UN Plaza apartment of many years with a delightful and devoted tuxedo cat named Sally. AnnaBell has two devoted nephews, Thomas, Jr., and Tyler Leinbach, residing respectively in Norfolk, VA, and New York City.
Thank you, AnnaBell!