SACO — Jerry Chevalier used to find litters of kittens under a pile of old lobster traps, and feces strewn across the lawn of his family’s home.
For the past couple of years, he’s noticed fewer feral cats in the narrow alleys, on the jetty and around the pier of Saco’s coastal Camp Ellis neighborhood.
“I still see a lot of cats, but nowhere near the number I used to see,” Chevalier said Thursday as he sat outside Chevy’s Bait and Tackle. “They’ve been disappearing. I thought nature was taking care of its own.”
There likely will be even fewer cats in Camp Ellis when city officials begin a court-ordered plan next week to permanently remove the feral cat colony.
Feral cats have been here for decades. Residents and volunteers tried in recent years to reduce the size of the cat colony, but it wasn’t enough to head off a lawsuit by a resident who was fed up with cat feces on his property.
Robert Bourque and his family, who own two homes on Bay Avenue, sued the city and their next-door neighbors, Colin and Linda Wormwood. According to documents in York County Superior Court, the Wormwoods have fed cats at their home and their business, Wormwood’s Restaurant.
The cats “do not contaminate just our personal property, they present a risk to the public at large due to the fact they defecate on the beaches as well,” the Bourque family said in a letter to the city in December.
The Bourques, the Wormwoods and city officials are prohibited from talking about the lawsuit or its resolution under the terms of a consent judgment and order signed Aug. 21.
But the city must begin removing cats by Tuesday and take them to the Animal Welfare Society in West Kennebunk. The shelter will keep the cats until they can be placed in homes.
In the past two years, the cat population at Camp Ellis has been reduced significantly under a trap-spay-neuter-release program led by volunteers from Friends of Feral Felines, said Eleanor Saboski, a volunteer with the organization.
Since September 2010, she has trapped 61 cats, 26 of which were considered unadoptable and released back into Camp Ellis after they were vaccinated and spayed or neutered by veterinarians. Saboski, who continues to monitor the cats, said she believes fewer than seven remain.
Saboski is leading an effort to stop the cat removal and has gathered more than 1,000 signatures on an online petition. Supporters will meet at Wormwood’s Restaurant this weekend for a rally, she said.
The complaints in the lawsuit aren’t the only ones that have been lodged with the city. Complaints date back at least a decade, said Police Chief Bradley Paul.
Before 2003, the city got complaints from residents about the number of cats, including some that regularly defecated under a home. Paul said the city dealt with the problem but he doesn’t know if any cats were removed at the time.
Paul issued a statement Wednesday asking Camp Ellis residents to put collars on their pet cats to help the city avoid bringing them to the animal shelter. The city will provide collars to residents whose cats don’t already wear them.
“We are very concerned with people who have outdoor cats,” he said. “We don’t want to remove people’s owned and cared-for outdoor pets.”
Kellie Perrault Mueller, who has lived in Camp Ellis for more than 40 years, doesn’t see problems with cat feces in the area and doesn’t want the cats removed because they keep the rat population in check.
When she was young and there were few cats in the area, neighbors would shoot river rats that ran around the neighborhood at night, she said. That’s no longer necessary.
Perrault Mueller and other residents regularly feed cats, which they have given names such as Momma Hoodie, Batgirl and Spots. She said the trap-neuter-and-release program has caused the cat population to “dwindle immensely.”
“I think we’re heading in the right direction. To now trap these cats and remove them is defeating the point of the trap-and-release program,” she said. “By pulling the cats out of this neighborhood we’re going to have more cats” from feral colonies nearby.
Saboski, a retired college professor, said the cats that live in Camp Ellis are free roaming cats, not feral, because they interact with the people who feed them regularly. Feral cats generally do not socialize with people.
She said she knows of three other feral cat colonies in the coastal section of Saco, where the animals have not been vaccinated or fixed.
“I’d like to see this whole thing stopped,” Saboski said of the removal. “It’s going to create more problems than it’s going to solve by bringing in feral cats who are unhealthy.”
Patrick Coomer, a resident who owns one cat, said he is concerned about the removal of the feral cats, which often congregate behind his apartment building.
“It’s a family. They interact with one another. They all have personalities that are notable,” he said. “It’s odd, because to me, they really do not cause a nuisance there at all. It’s just disturbing to me that the colony — that family — is going to be separated. They’re the best neighbors that you could ask for.”
Roger Fournell, Chevalier’s brother and the owner of Chevy’s bait shop near the pier, said there have been problems with feral cats, but he said the number has decreased noticeably in the past couple of years.
“This is the first year I haven’t seen any small cats,” Chevalier said.
Fournell used to arrive each morning to find piles of cat feces on the lawn behind his business. Cats would get into boats, sheds and garages in the neighborhood. He still sees signs of the cats, but not to the same extent, he said.
Chevalier said his 90-year-old father, Lionel Chevalier, moved to Camp Ellis in the 1950s and had problems with an “unbelievable amount” of cat feces on his property over the years.
This year, a neighbor who was opening his home for the summer found eight dead cats in the basement, he said.
Chevalier said he isn’t surprised that someone would complain about the cats. He’s just surprised that it took so long.