ATLANTIC CITY — It was getting to be around noon — lunchtime — so that meant that Rusty, a rather portly orange tabby cat, would soon emerge from beneath the Boardwalk and make his way into a nearby apparel store for his midday meal.
Mostly unnoticed by the throng of pedestrians, bicyclists, and rolling-chair drivers, Rusty left the security of his feral cat colony and scampered across the crowded plank into Fashion Island.
Store owner Sam Mohammad grabbed a pink cat bowl from behind the counter and filled it with the usual: cold milk from the store fridge. Mohammad then hustled a second bowl brimming with tuna-flavored cat food mixed with some dry kibble he fetched out of the back room.
Welcome to the lifestyle of Atlantic City's feral felines.
Rusty lives among a colony of 100 feral cats known as the Atlantic City Boardwalk Cats Project, administered by the Bethesda, Md.- based Alley Cat Allies, which has evolved over the last decade and a half to be unlike the practices in any other Jersey Shore town.
In Atlantic City there are 15 feral cat colonies along the two-mile stretch of Boardwalk. There are official feeding stations and cat condos supervised by the Boardwalk Cats Project.
There are as many as 100 towns in New Jersey participating in active trap, neuter and release programs, which allow volunteers and animal-rights groups to care for feral cats in outdoor colonies. But most Shore towns have sought to eradicate their feral populations.
Last summer, Seaside Heights adopted an ordinance to deal with as many as 300 feral cats that were roaming the streets of the one-square-mile borough.
Some Seaside Heights residents wanted the town to trap and remove all the cats. But after much debate — and animal-rights groups gathered more than 12,000 signatures on a petition against the plan — officials amended the law to contain a provision allowing residents who have undergone formal training to establish feral cat colonies outside the tourist and business districts, away from the beachfront. So far, local groups have been working with the town to try and save as many of the feral cats as possible, but some of the cats have been euthanized.
Cape May in 2008 moved a colony of about 100 feral cats away from its beachfront because of concerns about shore birds, like the endangered piping plover, interacting with the felines.
"I can't speak about how other towns have handled this issue, but I know that here in Atlantic City, with the help of Alley Cat Allies we have embraced these feral cats," said Joe Kelly, executive director of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce. "I think the city has taken something that could have been an issue and turned it into a positive thing for visitors and a humane way to handle the feral cats."
On the Boardwalk, the business of caring for the cats continues daily.
Rusty lapped up his bowl of milk and chomped on the kibble, oblivious to anything around him. He then took a nap beneath a canopy of racks of tie-dyed tops and flouncy summer dresses at Fashion Island. Eventually he scampered down a sandy footpath back to his straw-bedded cat condo colony.
A half-dozen signs posted along the Boardwalk explain to passersby the cats and their unusual beachfront presence. If visitors look closely, they may see cats lazing on or under the Boardwalk or the areas where ACA has set up their feeding stations and bedding.
"I'm personally not a cat lover…, but they are innocuous enough," said Arnie Jenkins, a retired postal worker from New York City, who recently visited Atlantic City to gamble. "I guess you notice them if you want to, or you can just ignore them if you're not into them. Either way it's cool."
Alley Cat Allies began its Atlantic City trap-neuter-return project in 2000. The feral cats are "ear-tipped" — a small notch is made in an ear — to indicate they have been spayed or neutered and vaccinated before being returned to their oceanfront home. The cats are brought in twice a year for vet checkups, and receive daily feedings administered by ACA volunteers. The TNR method has halted the breeding cycle of the Boardwalk cats and no kittens have been born in the colony for years. The advocacy group says it involved with about 650 smaller TNR feral colonies nationwide, including at Coney Island in New York City, where a small monitored colony was launched on the boardwalk there in 2014.
So beloved have the Boardwalk cats become that visiting them has become its own tourist attraction, with the cats winding up on various blog "Top 10" lists of Atlantic City must-sees, according to city officials.
"Atlantic City's project has become a model program nationwide, mostly because of the amazing interaction between the cats and humans," said Matthew Wildman, a cat behavior expert and ACA's senior project coordinator in New Jersey. "The cats have really become their own famous and beloved part of the Atlantic City Boardwalk scene."
Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian called the cats a "beloved part of the fabric of the community" and in an ACA-produced video in June noted that when everyone else had evacuated the barrier island after Hurricane Sandy, the volunteers remained behind to take care of the cats.
Wildman said that's why so many people were outraged in March when three of the cats from the nearby Vermont Avenue colony were killed. Until then, none of the cats within the colony had ever been harmed, officials said.
The police department on July 18 posted surveillance photos of the alleged perpetrators — three men — on its Facebook page in the hope that someone will identify them. The same day, ACA offered a $5,000 reward to anyone providing information leading to the arrest and conviction of the alleged suspects. So far, police are mum about whether they've received any tips, but no arrests have been made.