By John Burton
SHREWSBURY — When you call Ruth Rapkin’s Sycamore Avenue home in Tinton Falls, her voice message tells the caller: “I can’t come to phone right now. The cat’s got my tongue.”
But Rapkin and another woman will have an opportunity to talk about cats, or their lawyer will, when the two are expected to appear in municipal court on Tuesday, Aug. 7, on allegations of caring for a colony of feral felines.
Borough Animal Control Officer Henry Perez issued a series of summons charging Rapkin and Jeanette Petti, Oceanport, with failing to have at least five cats licensed and vaccinated against rabies and creating a “nuisance upon public and private property.” According to the summons, the cats allegedly soiled and defiled property, in violation of a local ordinance.
When contacted on Aug. 1, Petti declined to speak specifically about the charges. “I’m waiting for the next court appearance before I make any comment,” she said. “There’s a lot involved. We’re trying to do the right thing.”
Rapkin and Petti’s lawyer, Isabelle R. Strauss, Toms River, did not immediately return a call placed to her office.
Perez, who also serves as Red Bank’s animal control officer, did not respond to numerous calls requesting comment on the matter.
A written request by The Two River TimesTM under the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) provided copies of the summons and a narrative of events and allegations drafted by Perez and Karen Lloyd, an assistant to the borough clerk.
According to the information supplied, the animal control office received an anonymous phone call back in March complaining about a cat colony on Avenue of the Commons.
Perez then contacted the two women in March. Rapkin told Perez that Petti was the primary owner of the property and she worked as Petti’s assistant. Perez indicated he told the women the makeshift cat shelter on the property would have to be removed along with the cats.
By April, according to Perez’s written statement, Petti allegedly told him she was unable to relocate the cats and wanted to discuss the matter with the mayor and borough council.
Mayor Donald Burden also declined to make any public comment on the matter on advice of legal counsel.
In his meeting with the borough attorney and administrator, Perez said in his report, officials were “all in agreement with the borough ordinance due highly to the health issue that this could cause, especially being so close to a school,” presumably meaning the Creative Learning Center, 160 Avenue of the Commons, a private K-1 nursery school.
In June, Jerry Rosenthal, executive director of the Monmouth County SPCA, acknowledged being aware of the Shrewsbury situation, though the agency was not directly involved.
“In terms of the larger issue,” of addressing feral cat populations, Rosenthal explained, “we are advocates of a trap-neuter-return program.”
The program has been formally adopted by Sea Bright, Highlands and Eatontown. SPCA representatives assist in rounding up the wild cats, vaccinate them and help find caretakers with appropriate sites for the animals.
The program has been very effective in addressing feral populations, basically eliminating the problem for a town in a few years, he said.
Beach towns, like Sea Bright, are prone to having a feral cat problem. He said people who come for the summer sometime “leave the cat” when they return home.
“The problem starts off with irresponsible pet owners,” Rosenthal charged, leaving it to his group to work with some private organizations and individuals to remedy it.
Homes can often be found for cats if they are young enough and haven’t become truly feral. The prospect for older ones, which have been living on their own for some time, is more final. “We will have to put that cat down because it’s unadoptable,” Rosenthal said.
“There are always Good Samaritans who take on situations. They say, ‘I’ll feed them and take on the responsibility,’ ” Rosenthal said. “The key thing is are they accepting responsibility for the long term?”