Categories: ownership

The impossibility of proving cat theft and sharing cat ownership

A retired police detective inspector in the UK, Colin Butcher, who has dealt with many thefts believes that about 50% of cats have a second home they frequent regularly. He said that he’s heard of four people believing that they own the same cat. How many cat owners inadvertently share ownership? We are talking about so-called “cat ownership”. They say you can’t own a cat, you can only possess that cat for long as the cat wants to be possessed by you. This is not ownership.

The difficulties in proving cat theft between neighbours. Photo in public domain.

There have been several stories on the Internet recently about neighbours acquiring cats belonging to other neighbours. It can look like cat theft but in the Western world, where the legal concept of theft is very similar, it is tricky to prove that somebody has stolen your cat when it is a neighbour who has allowed their neighbour’s cat to wander in their home where they feed them. My neighbour’s cat wanders into my home and she feeds on my cat food! I allow it. I don’t ask for ownership though.

A recent case highlights this, about which I wrote a little while ago. A handsome, Maine Coon cat likes to wander. His name is Ozzy. He “belongs” to Mr and Mrs Hall whose neighbour, Nicola Lesbirel, I would suggest, took a fancy to him. It just so happened that he wandered into her home and I’m guessing but she must have liked interacting with him. It got to the point where she put a collar around his neck which contained her phone number and the words “My home”.

Mr and Mrs Hall were going to sue Lesbirel for an injunction but the matter was settled, thankfully (but will it last as Ozzy is not part of the agreement!?). They had employed a QC to represent them in court who worked pro bono for them. He says that there are few legal options for someone wanting to stop their neighbour “stealing” their cat. I don’t think you can call it stealing in a strict sense because what happens is that neighbours can gradually, over time, end up adopting someone else’s cat. This may be, in a technical sense, theft but the police won’t get involved, that’s for was sure. They’d call it a civil matter and wash their hands of it as fast as possible. The criminal standard for proving theft is that you have to establish that the person intended to deprive the owner permanently of possession. Even putting a collar around a neighbour’s cat may not be sufficient to prove it.

I don’t know of a case (or can’t remember one) where a neighbour has successfully sued another neighbour for the civil theft of their cat under these circumstances (the standard of proof is lower for civil theft compared to the criminal version). Thefts do take place on a commercial scale and these are clear-cut cases (unfortunately out sight with little evidence) but between neighbours the circumstances are often slightly vague and quite different.

Mr Butcher, who I refer to above and who runs The Pet Detectives calls it ‘cat seduction’. This is when neighbours allow a cat and into their home and feed it. At what point does it become theft? There must be a line which is crossed but who is going to try and prove it in court?

You can probably tell if someone is interfering with your cat because he or she may gain weight and you may be able to smell the neighbour’s scent on your cat’s fur. It may be that the person involved is a woman and that she wears perfume. How many cat owners smell their cat as a check on whether he/she is being looked after by a neighbour? And if your cat is not fastidious about grooming and she comes back from an outing newly groomed then these are obviously good signs that something is afoot.

People who feed a neighbour’s cat don’t consider it theft. After all, the cat comes into their home. They want to be there. A kindhearted person and an animal lover will simply respond to that in a kindly way. You can’t blame them. But then the owner will come around or telephone that person and complain about it. You end up with a neighbour dispute. Wondering domestic cats can be the source of neighbour disputes, there is no question about it.

Rarely, you might bump into a person who is deliberately setting out to entice neighbours’s cats into their home. Carolyn Sherlock’s cat Tigger was stolen by such a “cat collector”. The cat collector had a play shed for cats in her garden where she would feed them roast lamb. One day Sherlock went around to her neighbour’s house on an unrelated matter and was very surprised to see Tigger on a rug in front of the fire. The cat collector admitted that he had been living with her for a while and one reason was that he liked the underfloor heating in her conservatory.

Sherlock had been looking for her cat four weeks and she was annoyed that this person had failed to contact her. Apparently her house was full of what she described as “waifs and strays”. There were and are other people’s cats. When Tigger died he was buried in the “cat collector’s” garden. He has changed his owner who had given up by the look of it.

At root, disputes between neighbours over wandering cats is, quite clearly, not about cats. The cat cannot be blamed. That’s pretty obvious. This is about people and so-called cat ownership. This is not true ownership of an item because cats are sentient beings with minds of their own. If they want to wander into somebody else’s home for a large chunk of the day then they will do so if they are allowed to roam freely. In the UK almost every cat owner allows their cat to roam freely and therefore these difficult disputes and alleged cat thefts between neighbours are a predictable fallout of this British culture.

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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