Cat fight roils Old Lyme Animal Control
Three Old Lyme shelter cats who went home in December with an East Lyme couple are at the center of a protracted ownership dispute.
After Penny and Wayne Fairbanks had been in possession of three cats from Old Lyme Animal Control for more than two months, they said a state marshal came to their door on Feb. 4 with a letter from Old Lyme First Selectman Tim Griswold demanding the return of the cats.
Since then, the couple said there has been talk from officials of seizing the animals and possible arrest.
At issue are kittens Mikey and Lloyd, as well as an adult cat named Eggplant. They live with the Fairbankses in a well-tended ranch house with a dedicated cat room filled with towers, an expansive outdoor enclosure accessible at all hours through a cat door, and cat beds strewn throughout the house so the animals can find one in whatever room they're in at the time.
Wayne Fairbanks put it this way: "Why would you take them out of a perfectly good home and put them back in the municipal pound?"
The Fairbankses said they were under the impression from the beginning that the cats had been adopted to them, even though no paperwork was signed. Griswold in his letter said the cats were released to them by Animal Control Officer Lynn Philemon with the understanding the adoption would be complete once the final kitten was neutered and up to date on shots.
After what Griswold cited in the letter as "careful consideration" and an investigation, he said the town determined "it would be in the best interest of the cats that they be returned to the Town of Old Lyme Animal Control facility."
But this week, after his original Feb. 10 deadline had passed, Griswold told The Day that he and Philemon agreed to try to work it out with the Fairbankses so they could officially adopt the cats. He said he would be scheduling a meeting so they all could agree on the terms of an adoption contract, which might include fees and stipulations to ensure future medical care.
If the meeting doesn't lead to a signed contract, Griswold said the next step would involve applying for a search and seizure warrant, which, if granted by the state Superior Court, would allow Philemon to remove the cats from the Fairbanks home.
"If these animals are under the jurisdiction of the town and someone refuses to cooperate with what the town wants to have happen, then what do you do?" Griswold said, "You either say 'well, forget about it' or you have to step it up."
State statute specifies law enforcement must establish probable cause that the items to be seized are connected to a crime.
The Fairbankses said Resident State Trooper Matt Weber contacted them last week with talk of a possible search and seizure warrant based on a charge of sixth-degree larceny.
Weber, reached by phone on Wednesday, said he contacted the Fairbankses "to see if it's a police matter" at the request of Griswold and Philemon. "Right now, it looks like it's not," he said.
The Fairbankses on Wednesday said Griswold hadn't yet approached them about a meeting.
"I don't want to sound like a jerk when I say this, but these people are trying to have us arrested," Penny Fairbanks said. "Obviously they can't do it, so all of a sudden they're going to roll out the red carpet to go over there and have a meeting and talk about filling out adoption papers?"
Despite having asked Griswold for a sit-down on multiple occasions, the Fairbankses expressed reluctance at the idea of meeting with Philemon and agreeing to an adoption contract.
Penny Fairbanks said the cats belong to them, not the town. "If they want them back," she said, "they can sue us in civil court."
Penny Fairbanks said the couple had been looking for cats to replace three old ones that died over the course of a few months last summer. The couple started going to the Old Lyme Animal Control facility on a regular basis to help Philemon with things like mopping and changing litter boxes.
"We became friends," Penny Fairbanks said.
The couple went home with the cats on Dec. 12 after posing for adoption photos with each cat, according to Penny Fairbanks. She said Philemon gave the cats to them and there was no talk of a contract.
Less than a month later, Penny Fairbanks said she found out a feral cat that regularly came to her house for food was pregnant again. Philemon encouraged the Fairbankses to bring the cat to the Old Lyme facility to have its kittens and be spayed so it wouldn't get pregnant again.
On the day the cat had its kittens, Penny Fairbanks said she was surprised by the environment at the pound — which included a barking dog and a child playing with animals — as well as the fact that the mother cat was in a cage.
She said when Philemon asked her why she was upset, she told the animal control officer she thought it was going to be quieter at the pound. "I thought that you were going to put her in a big dog crate and this is a regular cage. I just didn't think it was going to be like this," she recalled saying.
Philemon, in a phone interview, said she was surprised and hurt when Penny Fairbanks was critical of the way she was taking care of the mother cat and its kittens. "I just walked out of the office and literally cried," she said.
According to a text chain provided by the Fairbankses, Penny Fairbanks texted Philemon the day after the kittens were born to say the couple would like to take the kittens home. Philemon replied that she could take the mother and kittens but it would be best if the couple returned the three cats that they had taken from the shelter.
"[I]t is not fair that you have turned this into a battle," Philemon wrote in the text message.
Kim Lambert, a wildlife rehabilitator called in by Philemon to help after the birth of the kittens, reached out to the Fairbankses in text messages to try to explain the process and broker a meeting to get the adoption paperwork signed. The meeting did not happen.
Ultimately, the mother cat and kittens were transported from the shelter to the Fairbanks home by State Animal Control Officer Tanya Wescovich — but not before they got sick and one of them died from a respiratory illness brought into the pound by another cat.
The Fairbankses said Philemon had been keeping the couple away from the kittens, while Philemon said the Fairbankses ignored her efforts to speak with them.
A spokesman with the state Department of Agriculture, which oversees the state Animal Control Division, said the issue appears to be outside of the state agency's jurisdiction.
Griswold recalled being told back in the late 1990s, when he was a new first selectman, that animals likely would be one of the most persistent problems to come before him.
"Happily that has not been the case, but when things do get polarized, why, they can be very emotional and that's part of what's going on here," he said.
He said he didn't know whether the town attorney had been involved or not. Information on any legal fees spent on the issue was not immediately available from the finance office.
The Fairbankses acknowledged the lack of a contract but pointed to a text between Wayne Fairbanks and Philemon from Jan. 9 as evidence that it was understood they had adopted the animals: in it, Philemon refers to the three cats as "the ones that you adopted from me."
Philemon said she sent the cats home with the Fairbankses to make sure they got along with the couple's other three cats. In the meantime, the plan was to take all the cats to the veterinarian and get them fixed.
"I said, 'I'm going to let you take these cats home, we'll see if it works out,'" she recounted. "'I'll get everybody vetted and when all the vetting is done we'll do the final paperwork.'" She said it's her priority to ensure animals are healthy before adoption, "and a lot of it is paid from my pocket or donations."
Her idea was that the Fairbankses would give the three cats a home, and she would be there to help financially "throughout the lifetime of those cats" if needed, according to Philemon.
But she said she became leery after the relationship with the Fairbankses became fractured; she worried they no longer would let her know if they needed help paying for any vet bills. She said she told the couple "numerous times" that she wanted to try to work something out so they could have the cats.
She said a call to the Fairbankses' veterinarian to inquire about a medical issue involving the cats — which involved Penny Fairbanks' concerns that the three adopted pets could have brought a respiratory illness into the house — exacerbated her concerns. That's when she said she was told the Fairbankses still owe money to the veterinary practice.
Penny Fairbanks, who has a landscaping and home remodeling business, said she barters her services in exchange for having her animals treated at the veterinary practice. She said she had not given the practice the 2021 landscaping bill yet, so records still show a balance.
Penny Fairbanks acknowledged she was injured in a fall from a roof and is in the process of applying for disability insurance benefits. "I sit on the ground and pull weeds and I lay on the floor and paint trim," she said. "I still work, I don't sit around and do nothing."
She said their ability to pay for their six cats is not a problem, nor is it the real issue.
Wayne Fairbanks said Philemon takes pride in taking care of animals, and guessed she got insulted when the couple didn't want to leave the feral cat and kittens there. "If her shelter's not good enough for our cats, then our home isn't good enough for the cats she gave us," he said. "That's really what it boils down to."
"They do provide a loving home. They love their cats," Philemon said of the Fairbankses. "But along with a loving home you have to be able to afford them."
Philemon reiterated a signed contract is necessary to finalize the adoption, and an important stipulation is that the cats need to be returned to Old Lyme Animal Control if the owners cannot keep them. She said she just got two cats who were adopted in 2013 returned to her because the owner died and his wife didn't want them.
Lambert, the one who helped care for the kittens after their birth, said the initial argument she witnessed between Penny Fairbanks and Philemon was uncomfortable and "cringey" — "but it shouldn't have turned into such a big deal."
"There was emotion involved in all of this," Lambert said. "I don't know if all of them are just maybe very emotional people, all of them."