OCEAN CITY - Alley, a gray cat with white markings, sat calmly on a perch near a window at the Humane Society of Ocean City, took in the view of the outside world and soaked up some rays.
Alley got her name because she was found in an alley last September, after the summer residents who had been feeding her had gone home, said Mark Fischer, assistant manager of the Humane Society's shelter. She was friendly and had already been spayed.
"They thought they'd find where she belonged (before they left), and that didn't happen," Fischer said. "People feed a stray all summer, and when they leave, that's when we get everything at once."
Next to the cage Alley has called home for 11 months is Melanie. A landlord brought her to the Humane Society with a hand-written note saying, "Another tenant abandoned," Fischer said.
"We're bracing for the end of August, the beginning of September," Fischer said. "Every year in the fall, we get dozens of phone calls about animals left behind."
Last September, the Ocean City Humane Society took in 25 abandoned and surrendered felines, about three times the number in an average month, Fischer said.
This happens every year. As the days grow shorter and the nights cooler, summer residents pack up their beach chairs and bathing suits and return to their hometowns. And the pets they cared for all summer are left behind, along with the expired beach tags and broken boogie boards.
Fischer said the Humane Society gets frequent calls from landlords and real estate agents who come in to clean up or show a unit and find a cat inside. Or a new tenant comes to the house and finds an animal living in the shed.
"I can't put a number on the animals who are abandoned in apartments or buildings or put outside," Fischer said. "I can't even wager a guess because the numbers are so high."
The end of summer also means more stray cats on Long Beach Island, said Brian Lippai, spokesman for the Ocean County Health Department.
"We do see a trend in some of our vacation spots during the winter, getting a little more of an increase in animals coming from that area," Lippai said. "When the summer's over and people shut up their homes, we notice there's a lot of cats roaming the streets."
Several factors may contribute to the peak in the number of stray cats every fall, Lippai said. Some people may have taken in a cat for the summer and left it behind when they went home. Others might have been feeding feral cats, who then must find a new food source once their benefactors leave for the winter.
Other people might bring their cat with them for the summer and let the animal roam at night, Lippai said. By time the season ends, the cat has taken up with a colony of ferals. It then becomes a problem for the Health Department and the county shelters, as the cats are seldom neutered and vaccinated, Lippai said.
Judy Cantin of Ocean City, director of Cape-Atlantic Citizens Altering The Strays, said her group gets calls every October from Cape May County campgrounds to pick up the cats apparently abandoned by visitors.
Several cats up for adoption in the group's Mew to You thrift shop in Ocean City were found in trash bins, Cantin said. Some of them may have jumped inside looking for food and couldn't get themselves out. But one litter of tiny kittens was found last year in a box inside a Dumpster in Woodbine, and they were definitely thrown away, she said.
It's impossible to tell who was responsible for the discarded kittens, Cantin said.
But other areas seem to be largely immune from finding abandoned animals in the fall.
Steve Dash, executive director of the Humane Society of Atlantic County, said it has been several decades since it has seen a lot of animals abandoned in the fall. That's because shelters do a better job of screening people who adopt pets.
Judy Davies-Dunhour, director of the Cape May County Animal Shelter, said more animals are brought into her facility in the summer than in the fall. Her biggest problem is not visitors abandoning their pets, but unspayed cats giving birth to litter after litter of kittens.
Cats are almost always the pets that end up in shelters in September, animal rescuers said. They rarely get an abandoned dog.
People often pay more money for a dog than a cat, and that may be why they are more reluctant to abandon canines, Fischer said. Many people believe that cats are better able to take care of themselves. That may be true, but a cat that's grown accustomed to living indoors and being fed regularly can't suddenly fend for itself on the street or in the woods.
Some people see cats as part-time pets, Lippai said. They'll feed them in the yard but not let them inside.
But it all comes down to responsible pet ownership, Lippai said. Adopting an animal means a long-term commitment, up to 20 years for a cat or small dog.
"Certainly not on summer vacation, and leave it behind hoping someone else take care of it," he said.
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