Prince Chunk, touted this year as the second-fattest cat in the nation, remains in the limbo of animal foster care as the holiday season approaches.

The feline from South Jersey, originally said to weigh 44 pounds, made headlines and national television in July after being apprehended by a Camden County animal-control officer.

Chunk now lives with the Damiani family in Turnersville. They became the chubby cat's foster parents in August after obtaining him from the Camden County Animal Shelter.

The Damianis want to make the relationship a full-fledged pet adoption, but are unhappy with the shelter's insistence that Chunk make 12 public appearances on behalf of a pet-adoption program.

The Camden animal shelter wants Chunk on display even though he has turned out to be far less chunky than was first believed.

"When we brought him to our house he was allegedly 44 pounds," Vince Damiani, 18, said. "Two weeks after, we brought him to the vet and he weighed in at 22.8 pounds." He said he did not believe that Chunk ever tipped the scales at 44 pounds.

Damiani worked at the shelter for four years and is a freshman at La Salle University. Using Chunk as a promotional tool troubles him and his mother, Donna. "We don't want to exploit him or for him to be known as 'the fat cat,' " he said.

She wants to set up her own foundation to care for pets given up by families who can no longer afford the upkeep of a cat or dog.

Niki Dawson, director of the Camden County Animal Shelter, referred questions about Chunk's adoption to the shelter's board of directors. A request for comment to a board member did not bring an immediate response.

The shelter has 95 stray dogs and 250 stray cats, including animals that are housed in temporary foster homes.

"We utilize foster homes when animals need more care than we can provide in a shelter," Dawson said. "We also use foster homes when we are at capacity to help clear out cage space in the shelter."

Jennifer Andersch, the former shelter director who is now working in retail sales, said taking Chunk to a "couple" of events was not exploitation. The requirement for 12 appearances is spelled out in the adoption contract.

Chunk appeared at one event immediately after he was found.

"It resulted in six or seven cats' being adopted," Andersch said. "That was the plan for the shelter. We wanted to make sure the new owner was OK with bringing him to events, and we wanted to have an agreement with them. I wanted to get that in writing, should I leave the shelter. The agreement was basically there to protect the cat."

Andersch also insisted that when the shelter employees weighed Chunk in July, he was 44 pounds.

"He was put on a scale for larger animals," she said. "The cat scale did not go up to 44 pounds." She could offer no explanation for the cat's apparent rapid weight loss.

Donna Damiani, 41, said her family adopted another cat from the Camden shelter in November with no problem. But that cat, Tito, was not required to make public appearances.

Chunk and Tito share a small hand-built wooden castle, home to their litter box, that is adorned with a wreath for the Christmas season. The felines' fortification is the focal point of the family's living room.

Besides Chunk and Tito, the Damianis own three dogs: an 80-pound Staffordshire terrier named Romeo, a Papillion mix named Marla, and a chihuahua, Noelle.

"Romeo sleeps with Chunk," she said.

Chunk is on a low-calorie cat-food diet designed by his vet. He eats out of a blue cat dish that bears the name "Prince."

Donna Damiani said Chunk loves to cuddle with the family and watch television.

"He has a routine every morning where he sits on my husband's lap after my husband sits down with his coffee, and Chunk gets his rubdown," she said.

She said she never thought she would be in a custody battle over a cat.

"It would be a great Christmas present if the adoption was finalized," she said.