EPPING — The feral cats living at the town's recycling center will soon be on their own for food, water, and shelter.
In a unanimous decision, selectmen voted Monday to end all care for the cats, meaning they can remain at the facility but residents will no longer be allowed to give them food or water. A small cat "condominium" that's provided shelter will be removed.
"They're used to living off the land. They'll be fine," Selectman Jim McGeough said.
But members of a local feral cat organization disagree.
"It's really disappointing they're being so naive about the whole thing. These cats will starve to death because they won't have somebody feeding them," said Michelle Gorneau of North Hampton, treasurer for Seacoast Area Feline Education and Rescue, a Hampton-based nonprofit volunteer organization that traps feral cats, provides medical care, including rabies shots and other vaccines, and spays or neuters them before releasing them back to their home territory.
Monday's decision follows disagreements in recent years over whether the town should allow residents to care for the eight to 10 stray cats that have made their home at the recycling center at 135 Old Hedding Road.
Selectmen didn't mind them at first because they helped control the rodent population; residents were allowed to supplement their natural diet with cat food. Some selectmen have voiced concerns about overfeeding, which they have said could make the cats less likely to hunt for rodents.
"The cats were there because they were mousers and that was a good thing," Selectman Karen Falcone said. "Now we're feeding the cats, watering the cats, and they have a cat condominium. I have a problem with that."
But taking away their food, water and shelter could be considered animal cruelty under state law, said Steve Sprowl, humane agent for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Stratham.
"They need to do something with them other than just leave them there on their own," he said Tuesday.
Earlier this year, selectmen agreed that it was time to move the cats out of the recycling center to a new home. However, at Monday's meeting, they decided against creating a new shelter elsewhere and relocating them.
According to Lynn Barrett, president of SAFER, the town made an agreement with her group in 2008 when it helped trap the cats and had them spayed, neutered, and given shots. Barrett said that under SAFER's agreement, the town agreed to allow the cats to be returned to the recycling center, where volunteers not affiliated with SAFER would coordinate the food, water and shelter.
By taking away the food, water and shelter, Barrett said the town is reneging on its deal.
Gorneau said feral cats can't catch enough rodents to survive on their own.
Even with the cats hanging out at the center, the town is still paying for an exterminator to provide rodent control, according to Dennis Koch, the town's public works coordinator.
Selectman Tom Gauthier, board chairman, also expressed concern about the town's liability if a cat bites or scratches someone visiting the recycling center.
At one point during Monday's meeting, Falcone suggested rounding up the cats and delivering them to the SPCA, but her motion failed 2-2.
Sprowl said Tuesday that even if they had voted to bring them to the SPCA, the organization wouldn't take the cats because they're feral.