Fur flies over private cat shelter

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:53

    Sussex n The adage, "between a rock and a hard place," succinctly describes the situation that Laurie and Stan Walsh are in. The shelter they have built for stray cats from their borough of residence and Wantage has been forced to close. They have been advised that as part of the requirements for them to maintain the shelter, which is called C.L.A.W.S. (Cat Lovers Adopt Wantage-Sussex), they must obtain a license from their borough. But, there is no such thing as a license for their operation since the borough does not prohibit cat shelters on residential property. Faced with legal ramifications and penalties that have effectively closed their rescue operation, the Walshs have been advised by the state to seek the advice of a lawyer. In October, they received a letter from the Sussex County Department of Health and Human Services that begins: "It has come to the attention of this department that you are operating a proposed cat shelter." It goes on to say that the department will review the situation and will require certain certificates and permits before approval can be given. It specifically requests the permit, which does not exist. What began as a simple gesture of "feeding a few strays in downtown Sussex" has grown into a full-time operation, housing an average of 60 cats at any one time in two sheds at the Walsh's home on Clove Road. Laurie feeds the animals, medicates their illnesses and cleans their cages. As they have done since they began taking in the area's stray and abandoned cats, the Walshs continue to have the cats vaccinated, spayed or neutered and care for any medical problems the cats may bring with them to the shelter. Although the Walshes get some donations, they pay most of the expenses out of their own pockets. Adoption days, which were held twice monthly, were successful in placing 78 cats with families. Previous publicity regarding the Walsh's work produced not only adoptive families, but also volunteers to help care for the animals and a driveway filled with donations of food and other supplies. The New Jersey Herald has reported that the borough's animal control officer, Karen Reed, has directed individuals to Laurie because "Sussex Borough only picks up stray dogs, not cats," adding that "only sick or injured cats qualify to be taken in." Walsh also said she has the support of borough Mayor Katherine Little. Active with local 4H clubs, Walsh regularly instructs 64 children from grades 1-7 on socializing with cats and protecting them from disease. "It is also a nurturing experience," Walsh said. She cherishes a letter she received from a second grader that says, "If they close her down and stop her from doing this, it will be very terrible. There will be sick, hungry, and dead cats all over Sussex and Wantage. I would hate for something like that to happen." Walsh said she is considering applying for a permanent variance with the Sussex Borough Planning and Zoning Board of which she has been a member for more than a year. Ironically, she believes that a fellow board member is responsible for starting her problems with the county by filing what she says are numerous false complaints. Even more paradoxically, while she may not run a shelter in the borough, the borough also continually refers calls it receives about stray cats to her. The borough Planning Board has known about Walsh's problems since October but has tabled any discussion of the licensing procedure until after the new year. Walsh said she has given up her regular job to tend to the animals. Most recently, she received some assistance from a shelter in Bergen County, but the money that she and her husband have spent to maintain the shelter is well into the thousands of dollars. To contact Walsh, call 973-875-8540.