CAPE MAY - In most other cities, cats killing birds would not attract much attention. But this is not most other cities.

Cats are as much a part of genteel Cape May culture as rainbow-colored Victorian bed-and-breakfasts, trolley tours, and cocktails on the porch at sunset.

But Cape May is also one of the prime bird-watching spots in North America; the World Series of Birding is held here each year. And with bird-watching and related expenditures bringing in nearly $2 billion a year to New Jersey's economy, no one wants to kill the golden goose.

This year, wild cats are the prime suspects in the deaths of three endangered birds in New Jersey, including piping plovers. The tiny white-and-black fuzz ball of a bird has led officials to close beaches and stop development projects in the interest of preserving its habitat, and with only 115 pairs left in the state, each death is a big deal to environmentalists.

The federal government may intervene on the side of the birds, setting both fur and feathers flying in Cape May. Cat lovers fear the felines will be euthanized, while bird lovers want to make sure rare species aren't wiped out.

"This is a very emotional issue. This really is a cat town," resident Pat Peckham said. "I think they should leave the cats where they are. I'm a firm believer in letting nature take its course."

That's also what Bill Schemel wants, but for a different reason.

"I think the cats are more of a nuisance than anything else," he said. "They're killing endangered birds that belong out here. Cats are not part of the natural environment. They're here because someone's cat had a litter, and they dumped them out in the woods."

That, agreed Jim Cramer, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is the root of the problem.

"In an ideal world, we wouldn't have feral cat populations," he said. "All cats would be given good homes and be kept indoors. But that's not the reality we're dealing with. We're dealing with a mess."

Few people might have taken notice of Cape May's colonies of feral cats had it not been for the presence of the piping plover, a shorebird that the federal government considers threatened and that New Jersey environmental authorities consider endangered.

The plovers nest in open stretches of beach, making them and their chicks easy prey for a variety of predators, including foxes, gulls, raccoons and cats.

As part of federally mandated beach-management programs, communities with populations of threatened or endangered species must prevent the birds from being harmed. And those measures are paying off: Plover populations along the East Coast have rebounded from 722 pairs in 1985 to 1,743 pairs this year, federal officials said.

When plovers die, cats often are the first suspects. A study by the American Bird Conservancy blamed cats for harassing and killing plovers in Avalon, Townsend's Inlet, Island Beach State Park, Monmouth Beach and Sea Bright in recent years.

For 12 years, Cape May has been trying to keep its cat population in check through a program known as trap, neuter and release, said John Queenan, the city's animal-control officer.

After being "fixed," the cats are quarantined to ensure that they are healthy, then returned to the wild. But a May 18 fire destroyed a trailer that an animal-rescue group had used to house the cats, killing 37 of them. A replacement facility is not ready, and fewer cats are being picked up.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is studying the situation in Cape May, said Annette Scherer, a senior biologist with the agency. Recommendations could include asking the city to require cats to be licensed, prohibit free-roaming cats, and prohibit abandonment of cats and feeding of wildlife, including feral cats.

The issue has cat lovers across the country riled up. Jessica Frohman, an official with Alley Cat Allies in Bethesda, Md., wants to ensure that communities like Cape May will still be allowed to return neutered feral cats to the wild if no one adopts them.

She and other cat lovers don't want to see strays sent to shelters, where most are euthanized if no home is found for them.

"We're intent on protecting all species," she said. "But birds are not somehow more important than cats."

Eric Stiles, vice president of the New Jersey Audubon Society, is working on a pilot project to find a middle ground in the debate.

"It doesn't have to be cats versus birds. It can be cats and birds," he said.

The program, to be introduced this winter, would bring animal-control officials together with bird and cat advocacy groups to share information on known locations of endangered birds and cat colonies. Cats near endangered birds could be relocated, while others deemed sufficiently far away could remain undisturbed.

"Cape May would be perfect for this," Stiles said. "You really can do both."