By JOHN T. WARD
Jeanette Petti of Oceanport and Ruth Rapkin of Tinton Falls say they will appeal the verdict by municipal court Judge James Berube, as well as his order that they each pay $650 in fines and relocate the colony. That, their lawyer said, would be a “death sentence” for five cats the women feed and provide medical care for.
“We should be considered heroes, not criminals,” for ensuring the health of the wild felines and thus, the community, Petti told redbankgreen after a two-and-a-half-hour trial at a special session of the court.
The verdict followed testimony by just two witnesses, both for the prosecution: borough Animal Control Officer Henry Perez, and Bonnie Pauska, owner of the nearby Creative Learning Center, a childcare facility for children through kindergarten age located in the office park where the cat have found refuge, on Avenue of the Commons.
Pauska testified that cats once jumped out of a communal dumpster she’d opened, and cited complaints by parents worried that their children were being exposed to cat urine and feces in the school’s playground.
Though the cats have been cared for dating back 20 years, the colony was reported to Perez in 2010, and he didn’t see the felines until last March, he testified. That’s when he embarked on what he said was 49 days of negotiations with Petti and her “assistant,” Rapkin, about relocating the colony, perhaps to another town, such as Tinton Falls. There, he said, there is no prohibition on their activities and plenty of land where the cats would not come into contact with humans.
The women refused, Perez said, so he filed summonses against them for harboring a nuisance and keeping cats that were both unlicensed and unvaccinated.
The charges regarding vaccination were dropped before the trial, when the women produced proof that the cats had their required rabies and other shots. Through their lawyer, Isabelle Strauss, Petti and Rapkin also maintained they’d tried to get licenses for two of the cats named ‘Trouble’ and ‘Clyde’ but had been rejected by the borough clerk because neither of the women lived in town.
Still, Berube found Rapkin and Petti in technical violation of the licensing law because the women had acknowledged ownership responsibility for the cats, he said. That cost each woman $150 in fines.
Another $500 was added for creating a nuisance by harboring the cats.
Berube’s ruling on that charge followed legal tussling over whether Petti and Rapkin had permission to care for the cats from the office park’s manager they said they did, and were prepared to put on a witness to testify to that effect and thus not in violation of the ordinance.
But prosecutors James Ronan and Marie Accardi argued, and Berube agreed, that cat ordinance barred even property owners from allowing wild cats to “soil and defile” property.
“An owner of property cannot permit others to violate an ordinance” meant to protect the health and safety of a community, Ronan said.
In imposing sentences, Berube said he recognized that the care Petti and Rapkin provided the cats was “a labor of love” undertaken “with no intent to violate the ordinances.”
Afterward, Petti told redbankgreen she began caring for the wild cats some 20 years ago, when she had a business in the office park. At first, there were five or six cats, but the population soon grew to 13, she said. That’s when “I learned to spay and neuter,” Petti said. “I’ve kept that colony down.”
Under what the women characterized as an unsanctioned version of Sea Bright’s trap, neuterand release program, the cats are also vaccinated and tagged for identification, Rapkin and Petti said. Shrewsbury officials, Rapkin said, had “refused” to sit down with cat advocates to discuss adopting a program like Sea Bright’s, which has been taken up in Atlantic Highlands, Eatontown and elsewhere, and has been endorsed by the Monmouth County SPCA.
Regarding Berube’s order that the colony be relocated, “we don’t just take these cats and plunk them down in another town.”
Strauss, president of Lawyers in Defense of Animals, said she would file appeals of Berube’s rulings.
“Not only did we not create a nuisance,” she said. “we did the exact opposite.”