Troy Farrell’s cat, Nubbins, has been missing since October.
Neighbors told the Sonoma man that a couple who rented an Airbnb two houses down the street had been asking about the nearly tailless tabby and had seemed fond of her. That was Farrell’s only lead, but the owner of the Airbnb rental wouldn’t tell him who rented the place at the time Nubbins vanished.
When I read about Nubbins my first thought was that she was probably snatched up by people who thought they were doing the right thing by “rescuing” a neglected cat.
It turns out that’s exactly what happened.
First a veterinarian from Long Beach, more than 400 miles away, called Farrell and told him Nubbins had been brought into the vet’s practice for a health checkup. When they scanned the kitty’s microchip, Farrell’s contact information came up.
Farrell says he thought his ordeal was over, but the veterinarian — citing obligation to the client — wouldn’t tell him who brought the cat in. Instead, the vet said she’d pass along Farrell’s contact information and ask the couple to return the cat.
When they didn’t return Nubbins, Farrell filed a police report with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, hired a private investigator and implored the local district attorney to look into the case.
“Those are evil people,” Farrell told an interviewer in late January. “Those are people without a conscience, those are people without a heart.”
He said he’s been lost without Nubbins.
“I don’t have kids. She’s my kid and she’s seen me through so many things. And they took her, and I want her back,” Farrell said. “The second I’d open that door or drive up the driveway or go out back … There’s Nubbins just in my lap.”
The ‘catnapper’ comes forward
Now there’s a new development in the case: A man has come forward and admitted he took Nubbins, describing her as a neglected street cat who had been left outside to fend for herself in the cold without access to food or water.
The man detailed the allegations in a letter to Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick, and he’s not hiding his identity or denying he took the cat without asking Farrell. He identified himself as James R. Wakefield, an attorney in private practice out of Irvine, California.
“[W]e were never going to let that cat get put back in the living condition she was in without a fight,” Wakefield wrote in the letter to the sheriff.
While vacationing at the Airbnb in California wine country, Wakefield encountered Nubbins, saying she was “obviously hungry” and “she scarfed down the food” the vacationing couple gave her. Wakefield said that when he asked the Airbnb’s owner about the cat, the man said she was a local stray who needed a home.
Describing him and his wife as “70-year-old catnappers,” Wakefield said they’d do “everything in our ability to protect” Nubbins.
Farrell disagrees. He said the stumped tail and damage to Nubbins’ lip were from her days as a stray, when she escaped California wildfires several years ago and wandered into Farrell’s neighborhood. He took her in, he said, and she’s been his cat since. Nubbins is allowed in and out of the home as she pleases, he said, and always returns after she’s had her day’s adventures.
Nubbins refuses to be an indoor cat, Farrell said, and is well known to neighbors on the block, who also feed her and look out for her. It’s not uncommon for outdoor cats to make small circuits around their neighborhoods, visiting friendly neighbors for snacks and scritches before heading home for the day.
“That cat lives so large it’s not even funny,” Farrell said. “That cat has so many houses, so many people, so many little girls to play with down the block.”
That appears to be true: Farrell’s neighbors have backed up his story to the press, there are videos of the beloved cat hanging out in yards on the street, and one concerned neighbor even wrote a letter to the local newspaper imploring the police to get the situation sorted and return Nubbins to Sonoma.
The police have told Wakefield to return the cat to Farrell, while a spokesman for the district attorney told the Sonoma Index-Tribune that the DA is still reviewing the case. Like many other states, California considers pets as “property,” and authorities would have to determine if Nubbins is “worth” at least $950 to file criminal charges.
If Farrell can’t get Nubbins back via law enforcement his remaining recourse would be a civil trial, the newspaper noted.
Is it ever okay to steal someone’s pet?
This case raises some thorny questions. Farrell seems lost without his cat and has been clearly emotional in interviews with reporters as the saga of Nubbins has stretched on over the months. Meanwhile, I don’t think there’s any doubt Wakefield and his wife thought they were doing the right thing.
At least part of this standoff can be chalked up to misinformation and a lack of information: Matthew Knudsen, the man who rented the vacation home to the Wakefields, told them Nubbins was a stray who didn’t belong to anyone, according to Wakefield’s letter to the sheriff. Farrell said Knudsen owns and rents the house two doors down but doesn’t actually live in the neighborhood and doesn’t know how well Nubbins is cared for.
So from the Wakefields’ point of view, they thought they were rescuing a neglected cat and doing a good thing. At the same time, any cat servant should be able to empathize with the anguish another cat lover feels if their beloved feline goes missing or is stolen.
It’s easy to read the details and think maybe Farrell wasn’t doing right by his cat, and as readers of this blog know, I’m a strong advocate of keeping cats indoors for a long list of reasons, including myriad dangers to outdoor cats and the damage cats can do to local wildlife like birds, small mammals and lizards.
But I also know how easily people tend to toss out accusations of animal abuse and/or neglect. One reader was very upset with me when I posted a photo of Buddy with his paws stuck in the screen door that opens from the living room to the balcony. She strongly felt I was abusing Bud by allowing him to hang there for a few extra seconds while I snapped a few photos.
Context is important in that case too. Buddy loves to lounge on the balcony in the summer, and he’s gotten his claws stuck on that damn door more times than I can count. (The many claw marks on the screen attest to that.) When he gets stuck he cries pitifully until I drop whatever I’m doing, lift him gently off the ground so he can unhook his claws without hurting himself, and reassure him in a soothing voice that he’s okay. It’s the cat dad equivalent of putting a band aid on a scraped knee.
No matter how many times Buddy gets stuck, no matter how many times I tell him “No!” and try to discourage him from scratching the door, he won’t stop doing it. He’s even got a four-foot-tall, sturdy scratcher literally a foot away, just a step inside the door! Clearly he has alternatives.
Not only is Buddy incredibly stubborn, but the day I took the above photographs, he’d already gotten stuck twice — including 20 or 30 minutes prior.
So yeah, I took the photos. Does that make me an animal abuser or guilty of neglect?
That woman thought so. If she’d been in a position to take Buddy, maybe she would have.
At the very least, the saga of Nubbins provides another good reason to keep cats indoors, even if they’re former strays who like to go outside. (Easier said than done, I realize.) But I don’t think there are any bad guys here, just people who thought they were doing the right thing without complete information.
PITB readers: What’s your take on this story?