They're matchmakers. Busy ones, too.
But they're not quite like those who sometimes advertise their services in the lonely hearts columns.
The love affairs that Stephanie Erthein, Susan Friedman and Dorothy Rochlin promote are between people and cats.
Since starting a program called People and Cats Together five years ago, they have matched about 600 cats with two-legged pals.
"We've placed everything from beat-up tomcats to nasty adults females," Erthein said.
The women hold a cat adoption fair every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Manhattan Village Mall in Manhattan Beach.
The 20 or so cats available every weekend are combed, dressed up with ribbons or scarfs and placed in cages lined with colorful cloth. "We want this to be a fun, uplifting experience," said Erthein, "and we try to make sure that people who adopt have enough information on food and health care so that they can be good, responsible pet owners."
The group asks for a $35 donation for kittens, which includes three shots, an exam by a veterinarian and spaying or neutering. The donation for adult cats is $25 and includes one shot. If a kitten is too young to be spayed or neutered, the new owner gets a voucher to have it done later.
Although matching cats and people is the part of the job that makes the women happiest, Rochlin said the main purpose of the nonprofit group is to get the new owners to spay or neuter their cats so unwanted kittens won't be taken to the pound and put to sleep.
Don Anderson, operations director for the Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which provides animal control services for most of the South Bay, estimated that "roughly 85% of the 12,836 cats that came into our shelter between September, 1985, and August, 1986, were put away."
Although he does not object to the group's activities, Anderson said it should work with the animal control agency to ensure that lost pets are reunited with their owners, who may not know where to search.
Erthein said her group is sensitive to that concern.
"If someone says, 'I found a lost cat,' I will not take it unless they have advertised for at least a week in a local newspaper and put up signs," she said. "It would be terrible to take someone's cat and place in another home if it's truly not an abandoned animal. We're very careful about that."
Some cats brought into the weekly adoption fairs seem to have survived in the big world by a mere whisker.
On a recent Saturday, a litter of six 13-week-olds was brought in by one of the group's volunteers. She said they had been born to one of the wild cats she and others had trapped. They took care of the kittens until they were old enough to be adopted.
"In the San Pedro/Wilmington area where I live, there are always strays, sometimes kittens thrown in trash cans," the volunteer said.
Love One, Try Two
One recent weekend, Carole and Tom Diamond of Manhattan Beach had been in and out of the pet store several times, waiting for the right cat to come along. As she cuddled a kitten from the litter just brought in, Carole said, "We used to hate cats . . . but we live in a house where there's no yard, and we wanted a pet. So we decided that a cat we could keep inside would be best."
A week earlier, they had adopted a gray and white tabby. "He's getting so spoiled because there are four people in the house just loving him to death, so we thought we'd get another one," she said.
They left with the new kitten snuggled in Carole's arms.
Although kittens are more cuddly, the women say some people prefer to adopt adult cats because their personalities show. "A kitten is a 'cat in a bag,' you're not quite sure how it will be," Rochlin said.
Friedman recalls, "We had Zoe, who snarled at anyone who came near her. Finally, we had a couple come in whose cat had died, and they adopted Zoe because she reminded them of their cat . . . a little on the snippety side."
Erthein credits her 23 years as a flight attendant with giving her an ability to size up potential cat owners. "You get a gut feeling when they walk through the door," she said. "I know good or bad within a few seconds."
Suzie Baumann, owner of the Touch of Class pet store where the exchange sets up shop, enjoys watching the weekly mini-dramas. "It's very entertaining. It's like watching television and it's always very active," she said. "Sometimes we have as many as 20 to 30 people just looking at the kitties."
Baumann has no regrets over granting Erthein's request to hold the cat fairs at her store shortly after it opened last July. "I feel that the store and PACT both really do well for each other," she said. "I get a lot of people coming by and saying, 'Thank you so much for doing this.' They can stay here as long as they like to."