A group of mostly elderly volunteers have been barred from using a council reserve in Paihia to feed a colony of stray cats.
The decision was made at a meeting of the Bay of Islands-Whangaroa Community Board this week following months of sometimes acrimonious debate and a massive email campaign by cat lovers around the world. Some of the websites behind the email campaign threatened a tourism boycott of Paihia and New Zealand if they didn't get their way.
Wednesday's decision was made behind closed doors under a rarely-used rule to protect members ''from improper pressure or harassment''. The board was concerned that any reports of how members voted could lead to more online attacks.
The meeting itself drew 30 people from both sides of the cat debate but was without incident.
The SPCA, which made a presentation to yesterday's meeting and wants the colony retained, called for the decision to be deferred so board members could have time to digest new information it had gathered. However, some board members wanted the decision over and done with as soon as possible because of abuse they say they are suffering, much of it from cat lovers overseas. At least two have complained to police.
For the past nine years pensioner Betty Chapman and fellow volunteers have fed stray cats at Williams House Historic Reserve.
The cats are trapped, vaccinated and desexed, then re-released. The colony is said to currently number 10 cats.
The colony became an issue last year when environmental group Bay Bush Action, which is working to eliminate pests and restore birdlife in Opua State Forest, pointed out the council could be acting against the Northland Regional Pest Management Strategy by allowing stray cats to be released on public land.
Both sides in the debate have produced masses of evidence showing the cats are or are not a threat to wildlife; the SPCA also presented it own legal opinion yesterday that the colony wasn't a breach of the Reserves Act.
Bay of Islands SPCA chairman John Logie told the meeting the first few strays appeared in 2004 when the SPCA was in no position to help. Mrs Chapman and her helpers had been the ''front line'' in stopping dumped cats returning to the wild, and had desexed and rehomed close to 40.
Mr Logie said the colony had no bearing on the destruction of wildlife in bush. Removing the cats would serve no sensible purpose and only bring other problems such as an increase in rats.
Bay Bush Action trustee Craig Salmon said his group had offered to carry out rat trapping around the Village Green. Leaving rat-catching to stray cats, which also caught wildlife, was irresponsible, he said.
If the Bay of Islands SPCA had already re-homed 1000 cats, as was stated during the meeting, Mr Salmon wondered why it could not rehouse another ten from the Paihia colony.
The community board motion was: ''That the feeding station placed on the Williams House Historic Reserve, which has been used to feed stray cats, be removed and the persons feeding the cats be informed that the council will no longer permit the reserve to be used for this purpose.''
The decision was based in part on a legal opinion that the feeding station is a breach of the Reserves Act.
* A story in Tuesday's Advocate, U-turn on plan over feral cats, incorrectly stated that Bay Bush Action had offered supporters $600 towards the cost of euthanasing Paihia's stray cats. The offer of $600 was to the Far North District Council to help meet the cost of trapping, re-homing and if necessary euthanasing the cats. The offer was revoked soon afterwards.