Cape May takes action against cats

March 4, 2008 3:09:20 PM PST
Having learned a lesson about the birds and the beach, Cape May acted Tuesday to protect both by keeping cats away from them.

The move was necessary to protect endangered shore birds like the piping plover and the least tern, both of which nest in the sandy ruts on Cape May's popular beach.

Because the birds are considered to be endangered, federal environmental officials threatened to withhold Cape May's federal beach replenishment money if the city refused to protect the birds.

"It's important to protect our beaches," said Councilwoman Linda Steenrod. "At the same time, it's important to protect life. That means all life. I think we have a good compromise."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had wanted feral cat colonies banned within one mile of the beach - something that would have eliminated all wild cats in Cape May. The compromise calls for a 1,000-foot buffer zone from known bird nesting grounds, while letting the city continue its trap, neuter and release program.

That program has cut Cape May's wild cat population from 450 to about 100 over the past decade.

Becky Robinson, president of Alley Cat Allies, a national cat advocacy group based in Maryland, said Cape May's cat control program is a worldwide model.

"To hold beach replenishment money over the heads of a city that has done everything right is simply misguided," she said.

About 40 cat-lovers picketed outside City Hall before Tuesday's vote, chanting, "Feral cats won't go away. revise the plan and let them stay."

Melissa Holroyd, who has trapped 53 wild cats since November and paid to have them neutered, said the compromise is a good one.

"This such an emotional issue here," she said. "I can feel my heart racing right now, but continuing to trap, neuter and release is a step in the right direction."

Deputy Mayor Neils Favre received 600 e-mails against the cat relocation plan on a single day last month. He said the compromise leaves the door open for either the city or federal or state wildlife officials to revisit the plan if it needs to be changed.

Federal authorities have said they are not thrilled with the compromise, believing it still allows wild cats too close to nesting birds on the beach, but are willing to try it for a few months this spring and summer to see how it works.

"We're still protecting the endangered wildlife on our beaches and still getting our beach replenishment to continue," Favre said.