LIMA, Peru — It's the cat's meow, a corner of the central park of Lima's upscale seaside Miraflores district.

About 120 felines populate the sidewalks and grass, lounge in the trees and shelter behind the grates of at the Church of the Miraculous Virgin, where they are fed by devoted volunteers.

Tourists pose for pictures with the cats, which are generally friendly and accept the caresses of strangers.

But they are not universally adored. Local resident Mariano Lindley said the smell of cat urine and excrement can be overwhelming. "When they proliferate, they spread disease," he said.

Every once in awhile, unknown cat-haters poison their food, killing a few. And every September, when a cat-eating festival is held south of Lima in the town of Canete, volunteers pull guard duty to ensure they don't become someone's lunch.

"Unfortunately, we are in Peru, a place where I think we could use a little more civilization and humanity," said Natalie Sanchez, a member of Miraflores' Voluntary Feline Defense Group.

The 12-member group banded together in 2000 to care for the cats and put some up for adoption. Members gather donations to sterilize the animals and treat them for parasites.

Some of the cats descend from a pair municipal authorities introduced in the late 1990s to control a rat infestation. Others were abandoned by people tired of caring for them.

After a local TV feature this week focused attention on the cat colony, a top official at Peru's environmental health agency, Micaela Talavera, announced a commission would be created to determine whether they posed a health risk.

Sanchez called the announcement an overreaction, saying the cats get constant veterinarian attention.

"The cats of Miraflores' park are part of Miraflores. They are a Miraflores tradition," she said. "They've already been living there for 15 years. You can't call them a scourge or a plague."