When someone adopts a dog or cat from a shelter, they’re trying to do the right thing. They’re happy to pay the fee, sign an adoption contract and hurry home to toss a Frisbee to their new rescue dog or watch their kitten bat a ball across the rug.
But how much control of that family member remains in the hands of the rescue where they adopted the pet? And what happens if the adopters break one of those rules from that list in the contract?
Just ask Gene and Nancy Whipple of Lake County, Illinois. The couple filed a lawsuit last month against Save-A-Pet Inc., a no-kill animal rescue near Chicago, where they adopted their slinky black cat, Newman, in 2008. The Whipples claimed in the suit that Save-A-Pet “repossessed” Newman — four and a half years later — after “stalking” the Whipples’ home, waiting for the amber-eyed feline to step outside.
The Whipples had no idea that Newman would one day be the catalyst for a lawsuit alleging that one of the largest no-kill rescues in Lake County staked out the home of one of its adoptees. That is, not until they decided to adopt another homeless cat from Save-A-Pet. Like all potential adopters, the Whipples sat down with an adoption counselor for an interview.
“It was more like an interrogation,” says Nancy of the interview. Everything looked promising for adding another cat to the family. Then Nancy says the counselor asked the Whipples what she calls a “trick” question: “This cat will be outside, right?”
“If our cat gets out, we make sure he gets safely back inside,” the Whipples told the counselor, speaking of another cat they owned that sometimes prowled their six-acre property. At that point, the interview skidded to a halt, according to Nancy: “They heard the word ‘outside’ and told us, ‘No, you can’t adopt a cat.’”
The Whipples say they called Save-A-Pet the next day, hoping a supervisor might okay the adoption anyway. After all, they were excellent cat owners. Instead, she says, the rescue pounced on the Whipples with alarming news: Save-A-Pet wanted Newman back. Letting him outside had violated the rescue’s adoption contract.
“They’re just kidding, right?” Nancy asked her husband after he hung up the phone.
“No,” Gene told her. “They’re serious. They’re going to come and get Newman!”
Nine months passed, but no one came to retrieve the contract-breaking cat. The Whipples had no plans to return Newman to Save-A-Pet. It seemed the whole tussle had blown over like a fur ball in the wind – that is, until September 16 — when Newman mysteriously vanished after he inadvertently slipped outside while the Whipples were out of town.
The Whipples immediately suspected that Save-A-Pet might be behind Newman’s disappearance. They contacted the local Sheriff’s Department, which confirmed that Newman was indeed being held in “quarantine” at Save-A-Pet’s facility. Although Newman was microchipped as the Whipple’s cat, the rescue refused to return him.
Newman may have gotten snagged when he slipped outside, but he wasn’t neglected or abused. He was a cherished part of the family. In fact, the Whipples’ veterinarian gave the couple and their cat a glowing review: “I consider Nancy Whipple to be one of the best pet guardians I have as a client,” wrote the veterinarian in a letter supplied to the Whipples’ attorney. “Newman…is in excellent health. He is kept up-to-date on vaccinations….and is always impeccably clean and well-groomed.”
It’s not like Gene and Nancy were eager to slap a lawsuit on the animal rescue group. Nancy says she tried to resolve the situation like a reasonable person when she went to Save-A-Pet, toting a cat carrier and armed with a microchip scanner loaned by her veterinarian (in case a staffer tried to pull a black cat switcheroo).
“I asked if I could pick him up. They told me no,” says Nancy. “I asked if I could at least see him. They said no. At that point, I knew they were going to play hardball.”
Fearing that Save-A-Pet might adopt Newman to another family, the Whipples contacted attorney Jim Kaiser, who got an emergency injunction to keep the rescue from placing Newman into another adoptive home. A few days later, Nancy and her attorney headed to court.
Kaiser and Save-A-Pet’s attorney resolved the situation that day after the two determined that Newman’s repossession was based on a “misunderstanding,” says Kaiser. The adoption interviewer had wrongly assumed that the Whipples were talking about Newman (an indoor cat) when they were actually referring to their other (indoor/outdoor) cat. The parties agreed to dismiss the lawsuit, as long as the Whipples signed an affidavit promising that Newman would be an exclusively indoor cat – barring accidental door bolts — and allowing Save-A-Pet to come and do a wellness check on Newman at any time over the next year.
Newman, who now spends his afternoons stretched out on a comforter in a patch of sun – inside the house – doesn’t seem too damaged by his stay in quarantine.
“Poor little Newman was trapped in a cage for nine days,” says Nancy. “But he’s like a kitten again.” Maybe Newman just figures if he can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. Several people have asked Nancy why she and Gene went to so much trouble “for a cat.”
Filing the lawsuit wasn’t just about Newman, says Nancy, who spent more than $2,000 in legal fees and postponed a vacation to Germany to get her kitty back.
“We need to make these shelters accountable. They need to be using their donations doing what is best for animals who are actually homeless,” she says. “Not taking animals out of loving homes.”
Save-A-Pet staff declined to comment for this article.