When it comes to dogs and cats, Camden has long had some of the strictest ordinances in the state, including one requiring all owners to spay or neuter their pets.

In fact, until recently, Camden was the only municipality in New Jersey with such a mandate. This month, after city officials became aware the ordinance was more restrictive than state law, City Council voted to amend it. Now, the city no longer tickets pet owners who don't fix their dogs as long as those dogs are licensed.

City officials said they made the change because the current system didn't reduce the number of strays in the county shelter, and because the old ordinance punished those who were abiding by state law, which does not require sterilization. The city will develop programs to educate residents about the benefits of spaying and neutering, said spokesman Vincent Basara, and will work to make those services more accessible through mobile veterinary clinics and the like.

Local animal protection activists, however, fear the decision could lead to more strays roaming Camden streets.

Kathy McGuire, founder of the nonprofit NJ Aid For Animals, said the city's strict law had helped advocates make progress controlling the stray population. For a decade, McGuire has helped families get dogs and cats fixed by picking up the animals, driving them to a shelter, and returning them home - a process she said saves the city money and helps residents unable to drive to a shelter or clinic.

"Things seem to be going OK now," she said. "If we have more animals being born, you're going to start seeing more of a burden on the shelters, more demand for services, and fewer resources."

When McGuire spoke against the decision at the council meeting this month, council president Frank Moran said the city was trying to solve the problem without going after licensed dog owners.

"You don't want to penalize people when they're doing the right thing," he said.

John Micklewright, the animal control officer contracted by Camden, also opposed the decision. In a letter to the council, he wrote that he picks up 100 stray dogs in a busy month, and that changing the ordinance would lead to more euthanizing and higher animal-control costs.

"Anyone who has ever spent any time in an animal shelter to witness the large number of animals coming in will understand that the repeal of this ordinance will greatly contribute to making a bad situation worse," he said.

Last week, Micklewright said he would follow the amended ordinance without complaint.

"They made the decision, and I respect it," he said.

Like many urban areas, Camden has for years been populated by stray dogs and feral cats. Thanks to lobbying from local animal-rights activists, the city established strict ordinances decades ago - the spay/neuter law had been on the books since 1996.

The ordinances came under review after complaints were raised about another provision that deemed all pit bulls in the city "dangerous." As only a Municipal Court judge can deem an animal dangerous, council members removed that section this year.

The city has also received complaints over the years from pet owners who were ticketed for having dogs that were licensed but not spayed or neutered, Basara said.

"Such licensed dog owners query exactly what they are paying for when they properly obtain a license for their unsterilized dogs, as allowed under state law," he said.

Council members worked with representatives of the Camden County animal shelter in Gloucester Township to develop an updated ordinance, said county spokesman Dan Keashen. They learned that the American Society for the Protection of Animals does not support spay/neuter laws, recommending a focus on community education instead.

Camden's ordinance has also been difficult to enforce. City Clerk Luis Pastoriza said the city last year collected about $3,500 from Municipal Court fees related to dogs and cats, a fraction of the approximately $451,000 Camden spent in 2014 on animal control, shelter costs, and more.

And despite the ordinance, Camden sends about 2,000 animals per year to the county shelter, Keashen said, most of which are feral cats.

"We're seeing the same numbers every year," Keashen said. "The status quo isn't working, and the shelter numbers corroborate that."

The county shelter last year launched a $1.5 million expansion project, which includes a new adoption wing and room for more dogs and cats. McGuire said she hoped the city would continue to identify ways to make it easier for families to get their pets fixed.

"You can build the biggest orphanage in the world," she said. "But unless you educate people on responsible birth control, the orphanage is always going to be full."

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