Lucia Van Pelt knows how to keep busy.
In addition to working computer security at the FAA William J. Hughes Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township, the Galloway Township resident owns the South and Central American-flavored gift shop the Smiling Llama and spends her spare time navigating crawlspaces for her nonprofit cat rescue initiative called HI Arbor Cares.
"I call this my hobby job," Van Pelt said at her store, which is located in Historic Smithville in Galloway Township. "The job at the tech center is my real job, and my cat rescue is my passion and my calling."
Van Pelt has been interested in South and Central American art since she was a child growing up in Houston. As an artist and art lover, she said she's always had a special appreciation for the bright colors and unique designs that come out of these cultures.
She opened the Smiling Llama in 2008 and sells a variety of reasonably priced goods such as clothing, jewelry and ornaments imported from Argentina, Guatemala, Panama, Mexico and more. Among the most popular items she stocks are her Aly Marka sweaters, made of hypoallergenic alpaca wool.
Sales clerk Lynn Bishop said Van Pelt goes to great pains to ensure the authenticity of the wares she stocks.
"Much of everything in the shop is handmade, and we're very careful to make sure that everything we bring in is authentic," Bishop said. "We try to deal with artists when it's possible, and if not, we make sure that everything we bring in is everything it should be."
HI Arbor Cares was established in 2001 by Van Pelt and her sister Roxanne Gasaway, its name derived from a grape arbor where the sisters played as children. The group initially specialized in vegetarian and hearing-impaired advocacy, but soon shifted to cat rescue, Van Pelt said, because other, larger organizations already had these areas covered.
Van Pelt runs the organization with help from Roxanne, her daughter, Anna Lisa Van Pelt, and Vicki Phillips, who owns Animal House Grooming and Pet Supplies in Absecon. Through the organization, Van Pelt tracks down feral cats, captures them, rehabilitates them if possible, and puts them up for adoption through Animal House.
"It gives me joy," Van Pelt said. "Cat rescue can be simultaneously heartbreaking and infinitely rewarding. The ones that I like to talk about and brag about are the ones I find homes for, and I'm up to around 35 for this year."
Van Pelt has worked closely with the Humane Society of Atlantic County over the years, using it for the bulk of her rescues' medical needs.
Steven Dash, executive director of the local branch, said Van Pelt has been an ideal partner because she doesn't take on more rescues than she can handle and ensures all are spayed, neutered, physically healthy and temperamentally sound before she adopts them out.
"We partner with many different groups, both large, national groups and smaller groups and private rescue groups, and she definitely has a very good group," Dash said.
While the feral dog population in Atlantic County has dropped in recent years, cat overpopulation remains a big issue, Dash said, which means the Humane Society needs all the help it can get.
Van Pelt, for one, is glad to do her part in the effort.
"The problem is so great," Van Pelt said. "I don't know how they find me (for rescues), but they do. The work that needs to be done, there's just no end to it. I don't know how to explain how much work needs to be done to control the cat population in Atlantic County. Spay and neuter your pets."
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