Forget teenagers with asbos or improperly demarcated boundary fences. Cats are the great neighbourhood menace of our age, as likely to rip apart once-harmonious communities as Japanese knotweed. They pad between homes, destroying civic feeling, pitting us against each other in our search for their devotion. Think politics creates division? Cats are worse.
Last week, it was reported that a Hammersmith couple, John and Jackie Hall, had waged a legal battle to prevent a nearby resident, Nicola Lesbirel, from stealing their maine coon, Ozzy. The Halls accused Lesbirel of repeatedly feeding Ozzy, taking him into her house and replacing Ozzy’s collar with one that had Lesbirel’s phone number and the words “My home” on it.
As the situation escalated, emails were exchanged. “He is very loved and well cared for and he is very attached to his territory, and to me,” Lesbirel wrote. “Surely leaving him where he is determined to be and where you can be reassured he is settled and happy and healthy is the best thing for everyone involved, both feline and human.” Jackie responded: “He is not your cat and we are not just giving him over to you.” In a subsequent email to Lesbirel, she wrote: “‘The question we all have asked ourselves year after year: why doesn’t Nicola just get her own cat? Why can’t she just leave ours alone?’”
“It’s a sad case,” says the Halls’ barrister, Tom Weisselberg QC. “If she’d seen sense, everyone’s time and money would have been saved.” He worked pro bono on the case, because the Halls are friends. There are few legal options for someone wanting to stop their neighbour stealing their cat. Technically, it’s theft, but generally the police won’t get involved. “You have to show that they intend to deprive you permanently of possession,” Weisselberg says. “That’s a high threshold to satisfy.”
When he was a junior barrister, Weisselberg worked on a legal dispute between Kuwait Airways and Iraqi Airways. The Kuwaitis argued, successfully, that the Iraqis had in effect stolen some Kuwaiti planes, because they had painted their own colours on them, thereby converting them. “I said: ‘Look, if the Kuwaitis can say the Iraqis converted their aircraft by putting different colours on the planes, why can’t you say the defendant has converted your cat by changing its collar?’” Weisselberg planned to use this precedent in court but, at the courthouse door, Lesbirel agreed to a number of restrictions on contact with Ozzy.
Ozzy isn’t the only cat tearing communities asunder. “We thought it would be our forever home,” sighs Lana, 49, a company director from London. In 2017, Lana, her husband, their children and their three cats moved to rural Scotland. It was a stretch to take on the mortgage, but it was the home they had always dreamed of and the neighbours were welcoming – at first.
In October, however, the shooting season started. “A neighbour said: ‘I’d keep your cats in. We know the groundskeeper has shot 12 cats to stop them taking the game birds.” Lana and her husband were appalled, but thought that, if they reasoned with the local landowner, he would have his gamekeeper leave the cats alone. They were wrong. “He said: ‘It’s my land, I’ll do what the hell I like. Who do you think you are? You’re not even from round here!’” Once-friendly neighbours took his side. “We were shunned. He had a lot of influence in the community.”
Fearful for their cats’ safety – they were worried the gamekeeper might shoot into their garden – they erected a six-foot fence. Being ostracised in a close-knit rural community took its toll. “No one would talk to us. You’d go into the pub and people would turn their backs on you. From a mental health point of view, it impacted us a lot.” They started finding rocks on their driveway. Eventually they sold up. They now live in a rented house in France, where their cats are free to roam again.
Sam Francis’s garden is constantly under attack. The assailant is an unneutered tom cat whom she has nicknamed Little Big Balls. “At first I thought he was quite cute,” says the 43-year-old arts producer from Weston-super-Mare. “Then the bullying started.” Little Big Balls is a remorseless playground thug. “He would run across the garden and just go for my cat, Moustachio. If Moustachio was outside, Little Big Balls would attack him.” Moustachio became too terrified to go outside.
After doing some research, Francis bought a small water pistol; she would spray Little Big Balls when he swaggered into her garden. It seemed to be working – until his owner got wind of it. “He ripped into me,” says Francis. “Saying: ‘You’re terrorising my cat, you’re obviously an animal hater.’ I said: ‘I’m just trying to protect my cat,’ and he said: ‘Cats can go wherever they like!’”
For a while, Francis and Moustachio mostly stayed indoors. Francis was avoiding her neighbour and Moustachio was fearful of Little Big Balls. But now Francis is venturing outdoors again. “I can’t be held hostage by a cat,” she says. “But there’s still a flutter of discomfort when I’m out in the garden.” When Francis tries to shoo Little Big Balls away now, he doesn’t even move. “He doesn’t care. He knows I’m not a threat to him.”
“He’s so naughty!” says Gina Burnside, a 33-year-old payroll processor from Darlington, of her shorthair rescue cat, Hector. Naughty might be an understatement: Hector is one of the reasons Burnside moved house, after her relationship with the elderly couple who lived next door became unbearably tense. Why? Because Hector is about as expansionist as Napoleon, only more merciless. First there were the frogs. “They had a frog pond until Hector moved in,” Burnside groans. “He caught every single one.”
Burnside apologised, but the couple were clearly annoyed. Dumping Hector back over the fence, they would make passive-aggressive remarks. “They’d say: ‘Here he is – again,’” Burnside says. “But I could tell it wasn’t a joke.” Things became so fraught that Burnside would watch their movements out of the window, so that she didn’t put the bins out at the same time. Then came Hector’s most aggressive move yet. “My husband came in one day and said: ‘Hector’s eating the chicken you left out for dinner. I said: ‘We’re not having chicken.’” Hector had stolen it from their table. “We tried to take it off him, but there was nothing we could do! He was tearing all over the garden with it.’” Burnside couldn’t face the confrontation, so she did the sensible thing and sold the house. The neighbours didn’t come to say goodbye.
Are pets really good for us – or just hairy health hazards?
What’s going on in a cat’s brain when it maraudes into a neighbour’s garden? “It could be hungry,” muses Sheila Hamilton Andrews, a cat behaviour expert. “It could be cold. It could just feel like a bit of attention.” I ask Andrews whether cats love their owners. “Ha!” she says cheerily. “They become attached. You can interpret that as you will.”
Mike just avoids his neighbours. The 52-year-old from London says he worries that, if he sees them, “I’m going to lose my temper again”. It all started when his cat, Bob, started disappearing for long stretches of time. He put up posters and posted notes through people’s doors. Eventually, his neighbours called – Bob was living in their house, gaining access through a garden window. Mike went around. Could they please keep the window closed, so Bob would stop getting in? They refused. Mike lost it. “They were completely incapable of seeing how upsetting it was,” he says.
Bob continues to spend all his time at the neighbours, but returns to Mike to be fed. He doesn’t know if they feed him. Mike offered the neighbours ownership of Bob, but changed his mind when they refused to put in a cat flap and went on holiday for a week, leaving Bob in their garden. The situation is at an all-time low: he has considered suing them, but worries the legal bills would be too expensive. “It’s my cat,” he says. “It’s so frustrating.”
Mike’s experience is not unique. “In the last three years, we’ve dealt with more incidents of cat theft than ever before,” says the pet detective Colin Butcher. His outfit, The Pet Detectives, specialises in returning cats to their owners. Butcher differentiates between “cat seduction” – which is when neighbours allow the cat into their home and feed it, but ultimately let it go – and outright theft. “The vast majority of cat-seduction cases will become theft if individuals are not stopped,” Butcher warns. How can you tell if someone is interfering with your feline friend? He suggests that if your cat is gaining weight, returning home smelling unusual or is newly groomed, these are signs someone else has their eye on your pet.
A lot of people don’t realise they are stealing someone else’s cat: they think they are taking in a stray. (There are few genuine strays.) But some are shameless. “I’ve had cases where we’ve filmed people chucking a cat into the back of a removal van and moving down the road,” Butcher says. “We stop them and they say: ‘Oh, we have no idea how the cat got in!’ But there are cat bowls and litter trays in there, so you know they planned the theft.”
Butcher, a retired police detective inspector, uses the skills he learned in 15 years on the force to cajole neighbours into returning the cats. “I can be very persuasive,” he says. He carries a letter around with him from Surrey police’s chief constable, confirming that cat snatching is a crime. “I show them the letter and say: ‘You need to be sensible, now.’”
Most cases end amicably: shamefaced neighbours return the cat, everyone moves on. But there are a few cases that haunt him. These involve so-called collectors: serial predators who trawl the streets, looking for cats to steal. “There’s a crazy cat lady on every street,” Butcher says seriously. “They are always women.” The worst case he ever worked on involved a collector who had lured 16 cats from their owners and locked them in her attic.
Carolyn Sherlock’s cat Tigger was stolen by a collector. The 54-year-old local government worker’s former neighbour had a play shed for cats in her garden; she would feed them roast lamb. When Tigger disappeared, Sherlock did not suspect one of her neighbours could have taken him. But, one day, Sherlock went around to her neighbour’s on an unrelated matter and was stunned to find Tigger on a rug in front of the fire. “She said: ‘He’s been living here for a while. He likes the underfloor heating in our conservatory.’”
Sherlock was angry. “We’d looked for her for weeks and she hadn’t had the courtesy to say: ‘Your cat moved in with me!’” Tigger wasn’t the only cat she had lured. Her house was full of what she would call “waifs and strays”, but could probably be more accurately described as “other people’s cats”. When Tigger died, the neighbour buried him in her garden.
Butcher tries to see the humanity in cat snatchers. “I don’t think they’re evil people 95% of the time; they really care about the cat,” he says. For instance, there is Anna, a retiree from north Yorkshire. As we speak, she is watching her neighbour’s cat shiver in her garden. Anna used to feed the cat when her neighbours were at work, until things turned acrimonious. “Their child stands by the fence and shouts: ‘You’ve stolen my cat! I want my cat back!’” Now Anna feels uncomfortable around the neighbours, but mostly sorry for the cat. “It breaks my heart that I can’t let her in.”
It is easy to pin neighbourhood strife on cats. Cunning little things; the tyrants of our homes. But what if cats aren’t the enemy within – what if we humans are to blame? We take what is not ours; we covet thy neighbour’s cat. Really, it is not the cat’s fault. They are just doing what is natural. Butcher tells me that about 50% of cats have a second home they frequent regularly. He has heard of four people believing they own the same cat. Cats are sensitive to changes in their home environment: new babies, flooring or pets may prompt them to relocate.
It is a disobliging truth: cats do not obey humans. Their capriciousness is legendary, their cynicism ancient. There is probably a cave painting of a cat skulking away from its owner in search of a warmer fire. “You cannot reduce a cat to a possession, because it will not allow it to happen,” says Butcher. “It’s too wilful.”
You can never really own a cat, only rent its affections for a while. One day, it will slink out of the door: a heartless courtesan, in search of a better prospect.
Some names have been changed