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Cat custody battle plays out in Sonoma County courtroom

A Fairfield veterinary tech is suing a Kenwood woman in an attempt to regain possession of a beloved tuxedo cat that went missing seven years ago.|

One calls him David. The other says his name is Whiley.

Two women are battling in a Sonoma County court over which of them is the rightful owner of a beloved tuxedo cat.

The black and white feline is the subject of a lawsuit from Tiffany Mestas of Fairfield.

The 35-year-old veterinary technician claims the cat went missing seven years ago and was illegally adopted by Therese Weczorek of Kenwood. When Mestas tracked the cat through an identification chip, the retired nurse wouldn’t hand him over.

“I raised him since he was a baby,” Mestas said Wednesday, of the cat she named David, before a court hearing. “He is very important to me.”

Weczorek, 68, who stood a few feet away with her boyfriend, declined to comment. Her lawyer said she adopted the cat in good faith from what she believed was a reputable animal rescue center in 2010 and didn’t find out about the chip until last year. In fact, the center where Weczorek adopted the cat turned out to be an unlicensed facility.

She has declined a $1,000 reward offered by Mestas to give back the cat, whom she calls Whiley, said one of her attorneys, Leo Bartolotta.

“This is her cat,” he said. “She’s had it a long time. It’s part of her family and her life.”

On Wednesday, Judge Elliot Daum rejected a bid by Mestas to prevent Weczorek from taking the cat out of the county until its ownership can be established. In court papers, Mestas suggested Weczorek might attempt to hide the cat from law enforcement or animal control officials if she is forced to give him up. Weczorek said she had no intention of taking the cat outside the county.

However, Daum didn’t rule on the facts of the case, saying there are legal issues yet to be resolved. A trial date is not set.

Mestas’ lawyer, Elizabeth Reifler, said the case turns on the principle that a microchip is the same as a physical identification tag or collar.

State law requires anyone finding a lost pet to scan it for microchips before claiming ownership. In this case, she said, a Vacaville rescue center that found the cat about three years after it walked away from Mestas’ home failed to do that, nullifying any adoption.

“California law is very clear,” she said in court.

She said her client ?bottle-fed the cat after taking it in soon after it was born. Mestas plastered her neighborhood with fliers, offered a big reward and put in volunteer hours at rescue centers hoping to find it, Reifler said.

Mestas also made periodic calls to the microchip company, Avid, to check for any news on the cat’s whereabouts.

She heard nothing until last year, when the company reported a new owner tried to change the chip’s ID, Mestas said.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. I’m going to get my cat back,’?” she said.

The company wouldn’t release the new owner’s name, but Mestas said she got it anyway through an undisclosed police source.

But when she went to the Woodland address, she found the person had moved. That’s when she hired a private detective, who tracked the cat to Kenwood.

She called the new owner, who she said offered conflicting stories about the cat being missing or running away in Woodland. At one point, Mestas made a televised plea to viewers in Yolo County to help find the cat.

But when she pressed Weczorek about recent attempts to change the microchip, the woman told her she had the cat, Mestas said.

At one point, Mestas said, she went to the woman’s Kenwood house and was asked to leave.

“I’m not a confrontational person,” she said. “I don’t hate her. I just want my cat back.”

Meanwhile, Weczorek has grown attached to the cat, her attorneys said. She found it had a microchip only when her former veterinarian retired and she took it to a new doctor with a more modern practice, Bartolotta said.

But she had no obligation to seek out its original owner, he said.

“At this juncture, it is her intention to do what she needs to do to retain the cat,” he said.

Daum appeared to try to lighten the mood of the hearing, saying he could sympathize with both sides because he was a cat owner. He said he would refer to the cat as “DW,” taking the first initial of the names each woman had bestowed on the cat.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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