May 26, 2024
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May 26, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

A Cat-Astrophe of Solomonic Proportions

Our pets are a part of our families. But sometimes families have disagreements. Sometimes they even break up. When they do, it can be problematic to figure out what to do with the animals who have become members of the household, our friends, even sometimes our “fur babies.”

Under the general principles of law in American jurisprudence, the pets that we own are possessions; they have no particular unique rights of their own except to be treated humanely. That means the people who bring the typical dog or cat, or other pet, into our households are deemed as the animal’s owners with full dominion over the pet’s being, including determining the pet’s general health, or concluding that the animal has lived its natural lifespan. And yet.

As a society, although this established law has been designated, courts are not always comfortable with this determination. This conflict came to life most recently in Long Island where there was a conflict between a homeowner and the nanny who was hired to take care of the children, but ultimately became the savior of the family cat.

The conflict involved a 15-year-old tabby named “Tigger,” a pet owned by Julie and Russell Berman of Merrick, New York. The couple had determined their elderly cat was terminal and this summer had plans to euthanize it.

However, their nanny, Rebecca Katz, who had been in the Bermans’ employ for 15 years, pretty much the cat’s entire life, believed otherwise. When she learned that the Bermans were planning to kill the cat, she asked permission to take the cat into her custody. The Bermans refused.

Katz, however, would not take no for an answer. She showed up at the Berman residence one day when they were not home and let herself in using the key the Bermans provided to her. Then she left a note saying “I can’t let this happen.” It was effectively her resignation letter. She absconded with the cat.

The Bermans filed a criminal report. Katz responded with a veterinary report that the cat was not about to die. Katz was arrested and charged with petty larceny for taking the animal.

Katz did not dispute the charges. She copped to taking the cat, but added that she did so in defense of the animal after the cat was condemned to an unwarranted death sentence—according to the nanny, without cause.

Katz was consumed with righteous indignation. While admitting to criminal larceny, she told the police that she was willing to “sit in a jail cell” in order to protect the animal.

In a separate civil action, the Bermans filed a motion seeking a judicial order forcing the return of their property. Katz retained legal counsel and her lawyer made the statement to Judge Rhonda Fischer that the Bermans sought the return of the animal simply for the purpose of killing it. Judge Fischer was initially sympathetic to the conundrum and issued a restraining order against either party harming the cat until its fate could be decided. While Fischer’s ruling is in stark opposition to existing law, Judge Fischer considered the nanny’s plea, at least temporarily, and told her she would consider her application in considering custody of the cat. She also ordered temporary custody in favor of Katz, although Katz had no verifiable ownership interest, pending a final determination.

That encouragement was enough for Katz to take care of the elderly Tigger, and not just her general food and maintenance. Katz took her to an independent veterinarian who did diagnostic testing to review Tigger’s condition. In total, Katz spent more than $1,000 out of pocket on the cat’s care.

Nothing was decided for a month. The parties appeared in court. It remained a stalemate. The Bermans wanted their cat. Katz opposed. The judge ordered the status quo. They left the court with the criminal court case pending—until the next day.

That is when the police showed up at Katz’s house with a warrant. Tigger was evidence in a criminal case. Katz had admitted to the crime. Probable cause existed—motives be damned.

The officers forcefully removed Tigger from Katz’s residence and promptly returned him to the Bermans. The Bermans now say that they have no intention of putting the cat down. They said that they would respect the veterinary medical tests. That was good enough for Judge Fischer, who marked the matter moot and dismissed the claim.

The cat is currently alive and well with its owners. Meanwhile Rebecca Katz, the nanny who saved Tigger’s life, spent more than $1,000 proving the cat was not dying. She succeeded. But as a result, she lost the cat. She lost her job and she is still facing criminal charges. Katz says she would do it all again.

By Stephen Loeb, Esq.


Stephen Loeb is an attorney and owner of the Law Office of Stephen R. Loeb based in New Jersey and New York. He can be reached at [email protected].

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