When her cat dashed out an open door a day before Halloween, 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 meme would bring him back.
Instead it sparked a fierce custody battle with Feline Friends, the nonprofit pet rescue from which Bees adopted her cat five years ago. Feline Friends requires its cat owners to keep their pets indoors. When leaders 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, seeking to get the cat back. Feline Friends countersued, asking for custody based on alleged breach of contract.
Since November, hundreds of pages of legal arguments and exhibits have been filed. Judge Michael Mullen awarded the agency temporary custody and allowed Bees to have one-hour weekly visitation.
"I never fathomed I'd be where I'm at right now — in a cat custody battle," Bees said with a sigh.
It's a rare but growing predicament as more people are willing to fight for their pets in court. Pet custody cases — typically in situations like divorce — are on the rise, according to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers in Chicago.
The dispute between Bees and Feline Friends also is part of a fractured relationship. Bees, a painter, did a fundraiser for Feline Friends in 2014 that included cat artwork.
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. 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 a GPS tracking collar, to post what would essentially be a $1,500 bond to be paid if Reggie disappeared again and even video-conferencing calls to assure the cat adoption agency that Reggie was safe. All were rejected, Bees and her lawyers said.
The nonprofit's directors, Lisa Ward and Toni McNaughton, did not respond to a request seeking comment, but the group's lawyer, Edward H. Williams, said the dispute is about animal rescues' right to impose conditions such as banning declawing. "These contracts can and should be enforced," he wrote in an e-mail.
Bees' attorneys dispute that there ever was a legal contract, and she said she's not backing down. "I think they thought that I 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."