When her cat dashed out an open door a day before Halloween, Logan Square artist Rae Bees turned to her Facebook community for help.
“i’m Reggie and i’m lost (again),” Bees, 30, wrote over a photo of her cat, hoping the tongue-in-cheek meme would help widely circulate her plea for his return. “i don’t have a collar. i coulda been catnapped. i will escape again.”
But her attempt to spread the news of Reggie’s disappearance with some internet humor instead sparked a fierce custody battle with Feline Friends, the all-volunteer nonprofit pet rescue Bees adopted her cat from five years ago. Feline Friends requires its cat owners to keep their pets indoors. When leaders at the pet rescue, which had recovered the cat, saw Bees’ social media — complete with pictures of Reggie with friends in her backyard — they decided not to return the cat.
After attempts to resolve the dispute failed, Bees sued the nonprofit in Cook County Circuit Court, asking a judge to declare her Reggie’s owner. Feline Friends countersued, asking a judge to award it custody based on Bees’ alleged breach of contract for allowing the cat outside.
Since November, hundreds of pages of legal arguments and exhibits have been filed. No ruling has yet been made on custody, but Judge Michael Mullen awarded the agency temporary custody and allowed Bees to have one-hour weekly visitation. She meets the cat — shipped via one of the city’s most specialized couriers — in a Logan Square vet’s office.
“I never fathomed I’d be where I’m at right now – 30 and in a cat custody battle,” Bees said with a sigh.
It’s a rare but growing predicament as more people consider pets as part of their family and are willing to go to court to fight for them. Pet custody cases — typically in domestic situations like divorce — are on the rise, according to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers in Chicago. This month, an Illinois law took effect that allows judges to consider the “best interest” of pets for custody in divorce cases rather than treating them as property.
Even dating couples have gone to court over their four-legged companions. Last month a woman sued her ex-boyfriend in Cook County Circuit Court, alleging he reneged on an agreement to allow her to visit their dog Haley after the two broke up.
Bees’ roughly 15- to 16-pound Maine coon, Reggie — named for the cerebral comedian Reggie Watts — typically spent his days sprawled across a sunlit armchair or patch of floor at Earphoria, a Logan Square guest house for artists and musicians that had welcomed the once-feral feline as its unofficial mascot. “He’s just a fun, very friendly cat,” said musician Rahim Salaam, who lives in the house along with Bees and once recorded a song about Reggie’s wayward ways. “He’s a little mischievous and likes to get out into the world.”
Fellow creatives have started making artwork — including “Free Reggie” stickers and T-shirts — to help cover Bees’ court costs. “I feel really silly being like this is a special awesome cat, but to like 100 people he really is,” she said.
Bees, a painter who co-founded the Black & Brown Babes Collective and also holds a day job as a GrubHub fraud analyst, did a fundraiser for Feline Friends in 2014 that included Reggie artwork, part of a bar night dubbed Pussy Party that featured feline artwork and female-fronted bands.
Feline Friends learned of Reggie’s disappearance after a good Samaritan found the cat and brought him to a vet, who scanned Reggie’s microchip. The chip was still registered to the agency, which took a look at Bees’ social media — and didn’t like what it saw, according to Bees and court filings. Not only were there pictures of Reggie in the backyard, there were posts about him being lost for a few days once before.
Negotiations over Reggie’s return soon broke down. Bees offered to allow Feline Friends open access to the cat’s GPS tracking collar, to post what would essentially be a $1,500 bond paid out if Reggie went missing again and even unscheduled video-conferencing calls to assure the cat adoption agency that Reggie was safe at home. All were rejected, Bees and her lawyers said.
“It was everything short of installing a webcam for them,” Bees said.
Both sides appear to be standing on principle.
“The Cat is unique,” the group argued in asserting its only remedy is to keep possession of the cat, originally named Forrest. “His value cannot be compensated by money.”
The nonprofit’s directors, Lisa Ward and Toni McNaughton, did not respond to an email seeking comment, but the group’s lawyer, Edward H. Williams, acknowledged “there is an ongoing debate in the animal welfare community” over the benefits of keeping a cat indoors versus outside.
But Williams said the lawsuit is not about that debate. Instead it’s about the power animal rescues have to impose certain conditions — such as banning the declawing of cats — on people who adopt their animals. “These contracts, like all contracts, can and should be enforced,” he wrote in an email.
“He wasn’t allowed outside. He was just a Houdini — he would escape,” said Bees, who acknowledges Reggie escaped several times a week. The Logan Square artist goes by Bees but filed the lawsuit under her legal name Rachael Siciliano.
Bees’ attorneys dispute that there was ever a legal contract. “This is not an enforceable contract,” said her attorney, Mariana Karampelas, who said nothing in the document discloses that the cat could be taken away. “It’s a list of aspirations,” said Richard Gonzalez, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law who is working on the case pro bono.
On a recent Friday, Bees arrived at a single-story veterinarian’s office, picked up a blue crate with Reggie inside and carried him to a special waiting room. The trash can full of used tissues indicates this is where pet owners hear difficult news about their four-legged companions.
“Come here,” Bees says, opening the crate and letting Reggie out. “Aww, you’ve gotten so fat! I think he’s stressed and bored (at the cat foster home).”
The two play, and Bees brushes and pets the cat before it’s time to say goodbye.
“I think they thought that I was a simple art kid and would give him up like I didn’t care, but I am just so adamant about trying to get him back,” she said. “He’s like a family member for me.”
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