Tourism boycott threat over cat colony

By Peter de Graaf -

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 after 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 drew 30 people from both sides of the debate but was without incident.

The SPCA, which wants the colony retained, called for the decision to be deferred so board members could digest new information it had presented. However, some board members wanted the decision made as soon as possible because of abuse they were suffering, much of it from cat lovers overseas. At least two have complained to police.

For nine years, pensioner Betty Chapman and fellow volunteers have fed stray cats at a Paihia reserve. The cats are trapped, vaccinated and desexed, then released; the colony is said to now number 10 cats.

The colony became an issue last year when environmental group Bay Bush Action, which works to restore birdlife in Opua State Forest, said the council could be acting against the Northland Regional Pest Management Strategy by allowing stray cats to be released on public land.

That group had earlier offered $600 to the Far North District Council to help meet the cost of trapping, rehoming and if necessary euthanasing the cats. The offer was then revoked.

Both sides have produced masses of evidence on the threat, or otherwise, to wildlife; the SPCA also presented a legal opinion 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. Removing the cats would serve no sensible purpose and only bring other problems such as an increase in rats.

The 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 breached the Reserves Act.

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