At first, a band of stray cats occupied the filthy basement of the abandoned house on Camden's Lansdowne Avenue. Then, when the weather turned unforgiving, a pointy-eared shepherd mix and striped-nosed pit bull chased the scraggly felines out a cracked window. Now, they had a warmer place to crash.
The pair roamed the yard and howled through the nights, next-door neighbor Anthony Jones said on a frostbitten afternoon last week in the Whitman Park neighborhood.
"I would have called somebody," said Jones, 33, who has lived on the street his whole life. "But with all the layoffs, I didn't know who to call."
Camden's two animal-control officers lost their jobs in January budget cuts that slashed about a third of the city's staff, nearly one-half the police force, and a third of firefighters. The city is in the process of transferring animal control to a contractor.
So Jones was glad when Kathy McGuire, president of the nonprofit NJ Aid for Animals, came to investigate a tip about neglected dogs.
McGuire regularly patrols Camden a few times a week. Given the city's situation, she has stepped up her visits.
She climbed over an icy back-porch railing and entered the cobwebbed dwelling. On her stomach, she leaned down the cellar steps. The protective shepherd mix bounced and barked, guarding the sad-eyed female pit in a mound of trash.
Weighing the options of leaving the canines to the elements and dangers of Camden, or enlisting care and possible adoption from a shelter, McGuire stepped outside and dialed 911. The dispatcher told her to call the city police. Reaching them, McGuire listened to a long list of recorded options, none related to animals.
After a third call, a police officer said he'd send out a cruiser. Unsatisfied, McGuire called a private animal-control contractor.
"I'm not the person to call," he told her, saying police had to summon him.
"A regular person would have given up by now," McGuire said in frustration.
As she waited, another large hound appeared from a scrum of dead trees in a vacant lot across the street. The furry beast was chasing a skinny cat.
"What the . . .," yelled McGuire.
McGuire's persistence on Lansdowne Avenue eventually paid off. Police and then the contractor responded, and within a few hours the dogs from the dirty basement were receiving care at the Camden County Animal Shelter. On Tuesday morning, after a seven-day mandatory hold, shelter officials will decide whether the dogs are candidates for adoption or have to be euthanized.
The episode provided a window into what some call an uncertain state of animal welfare in Camden.
An advocate like McGuire, who has city numbers programmed into her cell phone, might be able to get help, but less-informed citizens could struggle in neighborhoods where strays roam and animal abuse is rampant.
"The problem is how to get through all the red tape," McGuire said. "If you aren't a diligent and persistent and tenacious citizen, you might not get action."
Privatizing animal control was a necessary cost-cutting measure given Camden's $26.5 million budget deficit, city officials have said.
"Nothing has changed," said Iraida Afanador, director of Camden code enforcement. "Citizens should still call 911 for emergency [animal-control] issues. The same quality service will be provided."
The New Jersey SPCA stopped investigating Camden animal-cruelty calls shortly after 2004, when the city created its animal-control unit. The city is not asking the SPCA to return, Afanador said.
Rather, Camden has accepted a bid from Available Animal Control, a Blackwood firm owned by John Micklewright. A certified animal-cruelty investigator, Micklewright would handle all calls and animal-abuse investigations, Afanador said.
Before the layoffs, Micklewright provided service on mandated city furlough days and in the past covered holidays and weekends.
His bid of $190,970, which would include full-time on-call coverage, is expected to be approved in the coming weeks, Afanador said. According to city records, that price is $20,000 more than the city paid in salaries and benefits for its two animal-control workers in 2010. Using a contractor will reduce overtime and other expenses, Afanador said.
Micklewright declined to comment further until his deal is inked. In the meantime, he has been handling emergency calls, such as the one on Lansdowne Avenue.
According to his bid proposal, Micklewright's firm, which has a staff of four, already covers 18 towns, including Gloucester Township, Voorhees, Cherry Hill, and Lindenwold.
Animal control in Camden is its own time-consuming beast, said Chris McGarry, the former supervising animal-control officer, laid off in January.
"We couldn't handle it with two full-time people, patrolling the street daily," he said.
The unit, which was housed in the renovated police stables in Dudley Grange Park, averaged 15 to 20 calls between the day and night shifts, McGarry said. Officers dealt with dog bites and fighting, animals chained in the cold, dead animals in the streets. McGarry remembers responding to a call after two rabid raccoons fell through a child's bedroom ceiling.
On call 24/7, officers did not carry guns, but assisted police by safely removing animals from crime scenes and searching pit-bull collars and doghouses for hidden drugs, McGarry said. They also pursued animal-cruelty complaints in municipal court.
And there was the occasional pet alligator or Burmese python discarded in an alleyway, he said.
For a time, the city had four full-time animal officers, McGarry said, but the number dwindled through attrition.
With the police and animal cuts, McGarry worries that response times will lengthen, and gains the city made against dogfighting could weaken.
Randy Primas, Camden's chief operating officer while the city was under state control, oversaw the creation of the animal-control unit.
"We found that privatization was more expensive then," he said. "And it was an area that citizens did not feel they were getting the quality of service they wanted."
Wild dogs roaming neighborhoods were a top complaint then, he said.
Steven Bordi, a Camden animal-control officer before retiring with a pension last year after being hurt on the job, pushed for in-house animal control back in 2004.
Now he's advising Micklewright.
"There might be a temporary bump in the road while we get the system back on track," he said.
For her part, McGuire, who said she enjoys a "positive and cooperative relationship" with Micklewright, worries that patrols could suffer in the new agreement.
"The eyes and ears need to be out there 24/7," she said.
She has started an action group, hoping to encourage reports of abuse and neglect.
"If you see an animal suffering and you call for help and don't get the answer you want, just keep calling," she said.
As for the Lansdowne Avenue shepherd-mix and pit bull, McGuire visited them in the shelter late last week. They are friendly, playful, and in good health, she reported. For the time being, shelter officials have renamed them June and Johnny Cash.
"Adopt them," McGuire said. "Do it now."