Cat trouble - no more Secaucus animal shelter works to maintain cat population
by Al Sullivan Reporter senior staff writer
Nov 14, 2003 | 857 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
At first, you only see the whiskers poking out of the end of a plastic pipe that guards the exit of the shed near the Secaucus Animal Shelter.

Although workers at the shelter have given some of the resident cats names - such as "Six Toes" for the tabby with six toes and such - the cat near the shed is one of the dozen or more wild felines who live in the meadows around the shelter, a population of feral cats that local authorities have been trying to deal with over the years.

The meadows near this section of Meadowlands Parkway have always had their share of wild creatures - skunks, raccoons, opossums - but the population of cats has grown over the last few years, partly because of the shelter and partly because people drop them off near the shelter.

"We wish people wouldn't do that," said Kevin Kessler, who along with Ed McClure and John Thompson, is responsible for the shelter. "If you have kittens to drop off, call the police or us and tell us. Just don't drop them off."

While Kessler admits that rumors of a fox living near Laurel Hill may be true, cats as kittens can be vulnerable to other animals such as raccoons.

More importantly, the shelter - which will be featured by the Geraldine Dodge Foundation in its national magazine next month as a national model for shelters - is struggling to control the cat population as humanely as possible, neutering and giving wild cats in the area shots to keep them disease-free, while allowing them to live in the relatively remote section of Secaucus.

Neutering wild cats

While the shelter houses about a dozen domestic cats for adoption and several dogs, the wild cats come and go as they please, stopping off to feed at the various spots that the staff or its volunteers have set up in the area.

"When you fix them and let them go, they sometimes disappear," Kessler said. "I remember one white cat we let go. I didn't see it for so long that I thought it was dead for certain. Then one day it came to feed."

Although domesticated cats can live into their teens, most outside cats have a tough life and a short life span of five to seven years - subject to attack by other animals, roadway encounters, or poison, not to mention the elements and disease. By neutering the cats and giving them shots, shelter officials reduce some risk. Neutered male cats tend to fight less with other males. Neutered females do not constantly produce additional litters.

Surviving winter is always a chore, and though many wild cats cluster together for survival, often sleeping in bunches to keep warm or burrowing into holes in the landfill that makes up the area, the shelter staff has provided them with a warm, safe structure where they can sleep in relative warmth.

The structure is the kind you can purchase in Home Depot, about seven feet high and three feet wide. Inside, DPW employee Gary Vorst constructed carpeted shelves, ramps and other amenities. The center piece is a full-sized padded armchair that looks slightly out of place in the small container, but gives the space a sense of home. Inside the main building, the staff has a similar set-up for domesticated cats - a bullpen-like area with chairs and other features of a home, but in a larger space.

The shed arrangement has two entrances, including a hole near the rear side that allows cats access from the rear where dishes of food are put. Another entrance leads to a long plastic duct that allows cats to come and go from the gravel drive near the shelter's front gate.

The shed allows shelter employees to monitor the local wild population, and to take note of new cats that might have wandered into the area. These cats are trapped and brought to one of the local vets to be fixed before being returned to wild. The vet also notches one of the ears of each cat that is fixed, so that the staff can determine immediately which felines have been fixed and which have not.

"It saves us the trouble of having to keep catching the same cats over and over again," Kessler he said.

Cats are also treated for fleas and ticks, although it is impossible to keep them flea- and tick-free the way the cats in the other parts of the shelter are.

The shelter has a staging area where all cats are brought initially. All cats caught by the staff or brought to the shelter make a trip to the local veterinarian to be checked for disease and fleas. After that, domesticate cats destined for adoption are moved into the main building, and the wild cats - fixed and treated - are let loose in the area, some returning for food, some wandering off into the meadows where they hunt field mice and other wildlife.

With $30K from Geraldine Dodge

This year, the Geraldine Dodge Foundation awarded the Secaucus Kennel $30,000 to help offset the salaries of the town's Animal Control officers. The town is seeking another grant from the foundation that would offset some of the cost of spaying animals. Currently, the town funds its own program with some donations from local businesses.

"We try to split the cost when someone has an animal problem," Kessler said. "We hope to get a donation for half of what we have to pay for spaying."

While Secaucus often released skunks and other wide creatures into more wild areas near Laurel Hill, cats are different because they are so territorial, so often the animal control officers simply treat them and re release them back where they are found.

Recently, staff members took in seminars in Philadelphia on the humane treatment of animals, and how to catch them and release them with the least impact on the animals and the community. Many of these lessons were not applicable in places like Hudson County, although Kessler said Secaucus tried to catch and treat animals with the least shock possible.

An aggressive adoption program has helped keep down tension among animals in the shelter, giving them more room and reducing the tension overcrowding usually causes.

Thompson often lets the cats out of their cages while he cleans, allowing them exercise and freedom. Volunteers like Tom Ronnel and Anna Rivera often come into the shelter to help with the animals. Adoptions have been helped by the internet, and Kessler often keeps track of former adoptions. One cat was adopted by someone from 20th Century Fox in Manhattan, who sent photos to show how well the cat is doing in the Manhattan high rise. Another cat was adopted by a resident of Maryland, who also sent photos.

"Every once in a while, I go through the files and check on animals to see how they are doing in their new homes," Kessler said. "We try to do the right thing here."

The Secaucus Animal Shelter takes donations of food, money and volunteer services. For those interested in adopting, they can call (201) 330-2080 or go onto the internet at http://www.petfinders.com.
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