ATLANTIC CITY — The city was receiving regular complaints a decade ago about feral animals beneath the Boardwalk and around the beachfront, with the stray-cat population estimated as high as 500.
Now there are fewer than 200, and most have been neutered and vaccinated as part of a project to humanely reduce the number of wild cats and to stop the spread of disease.
"It's a win-win from my perspective," said Ron Cash, the city's director of Health and Human Services. "We're promoting a healthy, nonlethal way of dealing with animal populations."
Atlantic City's chapter of Alley Cat Allies is celebrating its 10-year anniversary, having worked with the government since 2000 to keep feral colonies under control and educate people about how they contribute to the problem. It is common in resort areas for people to leave behind their pets at the end of their visits, with barrier island towns along Long Beach Island and down to Sea Isle City and Wildwood all having a history of strays roaming their streets.
"They pack up their cars and whatever doesn't fit they leave behind," said Amanda Casazza, a project manager for Alley Cat Allies.
Decreasing feral cat numbers is not only a public health and animal welfare concern, but is also part of the overall effort to make the tourist destination more attractive.
"I think that we needed to find some type of solution to people who were dumping their cats on the beach and Boardwalk," said Atlantic City Special Improvement District Executive Director Don Guardian. "This is a group of very dedicated individuals trying to find a humane soluti on to the problem."
Guardian learned of the program when his agency started removing Alley Cat Allies signs along the Boardwalk as part of a plan to unclutter the ocean view. Those signs, put up just this summer, will be reinstalled on posts near the dunes and facing the city.
The signs will instruct people not to feed the cats or to leave any others there, and will warn them they face fines of as much as $1,000 for animal abandonment.
One of the signs remains at the end of Vermont Avenue, outside the improvement district and below the glimmering blue walls of windows that surround the stalled Revel casino. That massive project, delayed due to financing problems, represents a major part of the city's revitilization plan, while the Boardwalk Cat Project taking place a block away is one of the myriad smaller pieces that fit into the puzzle.
On Monday morning, Casazza, 32, of Egg Harbor Township, parked her group's white van at the end of Vermont Avenue, where they have placed portable shelters for the cats. She started with the group as a volunteer about six years ago, feeding and providing shelter for the city's feral dogs and cats as more than 50 other members do daily.
Casazza took out a can of wet food and scooped it into a dish sitting in the sand, and eventually a handful of cats crept out of the shadows and gobbled it up. One was orange with faint white stripes, another was white with black splotches and another was various shades of gray.
Casazza said the goal is to protect the animals, sustaining them to live their lives until they die of natural causes.
Government-contracted animal control officers would normally capture feral animals and take them to the animal shelter in Pleasantville, where Casazza said they would be euthanized after a week. Alley Cat Allies has an agreement with the county, however, so that officers largely leave the beachfront population alone and allow volunteers to proceed with their project.
Cash explained that when he first started working with the group they explained to him what he called "the vacuum effect." If groups started removing cats, the ones that remain have less competition for food and territory and begin repopulating.
By sustaining neutered colonies, though, the cats fight and roam less looking to mate, and self-regulate the size of their groups. Alley Cat Allies cites several international studies on its website demonstrating this.
"You have some colleagues of mine who think it's a waste of time," said Cash, "but I don't think it's a waste."
Feral cats are infamous among area naturalists, though, since they are known to attack migratory, and sometimes endangered, birds that visit the state's beaches and other animals.
Cape May Point has worked for years to rid its beaches of feral cats to protect endangered piping plovers, while wild cats also prey on diamondback terrapin turtles nesting in the dunes.
The New Jersey Audobon Society has a Cats Indoors! program to educate homeowners about keeping cats inside to keep them from attacking birds, and it also partners with feral cat programs to find ways to humanely reduce their numbers for the same reason.
Casazza said the effort to reduce their numbers is a long-term one. Since the project began, volunteers have named some of the more notable and longest living cats they have assisted.
Farrah Fawcett, Jane Fonda and One-Eyed Willie are a few of the more colorful names Casazza could remember. Ms. Piggy was a tubby cat some locals were particularly fond of, although she had a reputation for giving birth to large litters until she was spayed.
Ms. Piggy died last winter, Casazza said, and a commemorative plaque now sits on the boardwalk out front of the Trump Taj Mahal where she lived.
Another plaque sits on the boardwalk at New York Avenue, that one in memory of James Christopher "Jimmy" Wilkins, a bathroom attendant who also cared for the cats nearby.
They are there to demonstrate that people care about these animals. One of the stated values of Alley Cat Allies is that these thinking, social creatures should be respected and valued, rather than diposed as if they are just part of the trash that litters the streets and vacant lots.
"Cats nap, only humans put them to sleep," read a bumper sticker on Casazza's van, followed by, "Sterilize, don't euthanize."
In the next decade, Steve Dash, the Humane Society of Atlantic County's executive director, said he hopes to see the feral cat numbers in Atlantic City be halved again, if volunteers can continue to keep wild cats from breeding and educate people to stop adding to the problem.
"It's really hard to say what the next ten years will bring," he said. "It should certainly bring less cats."
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