Meet the Tabby King of Seattle
A local lawyer took on a curious case about a cat. He spent the next five years taking on local government and fighting for her family.
Listen to my latest episode of While You Were Sleeping in Hebrew School on what exactly the Hebrew Bible is.
I’ve heard people say some pretty funny/awesome things about The Cholent. I’m looking for short, kind, quippy testimonials — my favorite may be part of an upcoming promo!
News of the Jews
Chabad continues to expand like blackberries in Seattle. A new house in Greenwood, run by Chabad of NW Seattle’s Rabbi Yoni and Mushka Levitin, will have a children’s room and a Jewish library. According to a press release, “This new center will be the cornerstone upon which a beautiful, vibrant, and proud Jewish community is built. A place where every Jew regardless of background or level of observance can experience the beautiful treasures of our Jewish heritage.”
Dara Horn talk next week
Author and scholar Dara Horn will speak at Temple De Hirsch Sinai next Thursday at 9:30 a.m. on the subject of “why do far too many people seem to love dead Jews, but ignore the living ones?”
What I’m thinking about
Expulsion, extermination, erasure. These are the three options Jews are historically presented with in every given society, outside of status quo second-class status in most places. Following the tepid response to the axe murders of three Israeli dads in the latest in a string of attacks, organizations and individuals calling to “globalize the intifada,” plus the Harvard Crimson’s editorial endorsing BDS, how does this pattern continue right under our noses through today? Einat Wilf writes in Tablet, “This escalation in anti-Israel activism among some young Jews no longer seemed like a natural and excusable choice shaped by different generational circumstances, but the result of a relentless campaign of bullying.” ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt stepped up to the plate in no uncertain terms: “Anti-Zionism is an ideology rooted in rage, based on the belief that the Jewish people should not be able to have a nation state. It's a belief predicated on the negation of another people, and demonstrates a willful denial of even a superficial understanding of history.” Agree? Disagree? Send me a note.
Seattle lawyer Jon Zimmerman and his case partner Jeffrey Possinger closed the books last week on the case of Miska, a Bellevue tabby cat accused by her neighbors of trespass, terror, and murder. The case, which went on for five years, ended with a settlement of $125,000 to Miska’s owner and a revision of pet laws and policies. In depressing times, it’s nice to have a story that ends well. For Miska, at least.
So, Jon, you're kind of the Tabby King of Seattle. How do you feel about that?
Well, I've never been called the Tabby King of Seattle, but I like the title. The title people have been calling me is a cat attorney or cat attorney at law. And that's certainly a new title for me. Animal law is an area that a number of attorneys practice in a lot of times, but yes, I happen to have represented a tabby cat in Bellevue and her owner. And it was certainly a unique case.
My only regret is that I didn't start filming a documentary when this started, because it is such a crazy story.
It had so many twists and turns really from the time that Anna Danieli, my client, came to my office in 2017, with what seemed at the time to be an unusual problem, but something that I thought might be fairly routine. This case has been anything but routine. And I think, yes, it's something that a documentary or a movie could have been made of because it was just so unusual with so many different types of people and players.
Take us through the short version: how did this case end up on your desk?
A lot of attorneys in private practice get a lot of phone calls, and we don't always know what's going to come across our desk in a given day. This happened to be a Monday morning, and I had a number of meetings set throughout the day. Anna was very serious about her problem, and she really wanted to come in. The crux of the problem at the time was that Anna had a cat, Miska, and Miska was taken by the county, and the county wouldn't give it back. So my first question, of course, was, where is the cat?
The answer was that the cat was in the animal control facility in Kent, also known as the King County kitty jail. The animal control facility has various areas to it. It has a cattery, but I call it the kitty jail. It's literally a locked facility with cats that are in the process of being removed or potentially euthanized. That was the initial problem that Anna was having. The other issue was that I wanted to understand why the cat had been taken by the county and why they wouldn't give it back. Essentially, the cat had been issued dozens of violations. The violations were for trespassing, for being a cat at large. And also the cat had been accused of killing a neighbor's pet bunnies, even though nobody saw Miska allegedly kill the bunnies. This was an accusation.
Hold on a second. A cat at large, that's actually a thing? Because there are lots of stray cats, alley cats, and usually neighbors sort of want to help the cat, maybe get it re-homed, but there's actually a process that someone can send a cat to jail for violent offenses?
This was a first for me that I had had heard of a cat being taken away. The cat had been called a cheetah. But her makeup is really that she was a domestic tabby cat, and that's actually how she was classified with the county. But if neighbors make accusations, these can go into reports, and they can take a life unto their own.
So in Israel, for example, Israel has tons of cats and they're outdoors, and they seem to roam everywhere. And for the most part, there doesn't seem to be a huge problem with cats roaming on different properties in Israel. In the UK, many people have cats as pets, but the cats are outdoors. The idea of confining a cat in your home is unusual. It's almost crazy to anybody in England that we in America would actually lock up our cats. But what I found in Washington was that we have a patchwork of laws, and some cities restrict a cat's ability to roam. And then there are other cities like Seattle that are right-to-roam cities. Cats are allowed to roam on other people's property so long as they're not creating some damage to the property.
Damage. That’s where the problem started. Then the murders began.
Miska had been accused of lagomorphicide — killing the neighbors’ prized pet bunnies. But the bunnies were kept in a hunch on the neighbors’ property, and I had been informed that Miska under no circumstances killed these bunnies. And of course I wanted to know how would one know whether Miska killed these bunnies? Especially considering that the bunnies were kept in lock cages, how did I know that Miska couldn't unlock the cages? And one of the answers I was given was that Miska did not have thumbs.
There were two prosecutors assigned to the case. And a lot of times when a human is charged, you only get one prosecutor. Automatically, I thought this was unusual. I got in touch with one of the prosecutors, and under no circumstances was she going to let Miska go. She said, “You don't understand, Mr. Zimmerman.” And I said, “What don't I understand?” And she said, “Miska is a known terror cat in Bellevue.” And so that's when I asked her whether Miska was a confirmed member of Al Catda.
That probably didn't go over well.
I think the prosecutor didn't like that as much as I did. But I wanted to know, what did the county want to do with Miska? Did they want to kill Miska? The county had a no-kill policy, so did they just wanted to deport Miska? Now this raised a number of questions, because the county executive around this time had banned deportation flights for humans from landing at the King County airport. Now the county is telling me that they want to deport the cat. So did they run out of humans? And of course, I asked, where do you want to deport it to? It was confidential. So I suspect perhaps it could be Catalonia, perhaps “Catmandu,” who knows, maybe even the Catskills.
But nevertheless, I decided to get on this case, and I learned not long after that, one of the complainants against Miska was an individual who lived in Anna's neighborhood, and that individual, who happened to be filing his own complaints and was part of the adjudication process, was the manager of animal control for King County. So what I found here was that this individual — who the county acknowledged and the county had given me copies of some of these complaints — was really part of the problem.
It created a serious conflict of interest, because you can imagine if your neighbor were the chief of police and filing his own complaints against you, and then helping to adjudicate that, it would be a real problem. I did get Mishka released at that time, a couple months after I got the case in October of 2017. Mishka continued to get more rack up more and more violations, to the amount of over $30,000. You can imagine a traffic ticket could be $138, but imagine getting a ticket for your cat who's accused of trespassing and getting a $1,000 violation.
Hold on, let me just ask about this for a second. What does a cat do to get a $1,000 violation?
Washington doesn't have laws on the books really for cats. And so what we have essentially is a patchwork of those laws, and cities can create certain laws themselves. And so what Bellevue has decided to do is to become a restrictive city. They do not allow cats to roam. One of the problems is that pet owners, when they get the licenses for their pets, they don't know this. Let's say you have a cat in Seattle. Now you move to Bellevue. You might have to get a different license for the county, but you could move between two cities in King County under the same license. What happens for example, when a cat is older than the law?
Do they get grandfathered in?
I would've argued that that Mishka should have been grand-catted under this law. These were some of the problems that we were finding in this case. And we also discovered that there hadn't been any other cat in King County that had been prosecuted as much as Miska. No other cat received this many violations. When we discovered this, and when we were fighting back, we decided we needed to look at these laws. Bellevue contracts with King County. One of the things that we found was that the judge who was hearing the case against Miska had no authority under Bellevue law to even be hearing the cases to begin with. They just wanted to pay another governmental entity to deal with this case. And so we ended up having to file a lawsuit against various government entities, defendants, government officials in their official capacity, individuals who are government officials as well in their individual capacity, like the deputy manager of animal control. We brought the case in the Pierce County Superior Court, because King County was a defendant. One of the things that we asked for was to void these $30,000 worth of tickets. We also wanted an injunction against King County in Bellevue from adjudicating these cases in the wrong place. We won that.
After that, Bellevue eventually did change its law, but the case was still going for the legal claims, what we call the damages claims, and those claims were numerous. We were able to secure some monetary relief for Anna and for Anna's family to the tune of $125,000, which I believe is the largest settlement involving cat in King County and the City of Bellevue and perhaps in the state of Washington.
Well, congratulations on that and to Miska's family. But what does this mean? Does this set a precedent potentially for other cases?
The impact is that the government essentially is now on notice that their continued prosecution under outdated law is not going to be tolerated by the courts. And so to the extent that cities decide that they are going to contract with other entities, we want the county to deal with that. Cities could potentially be on the hook for the bad actors of its contracting parties. Another interesting development here is that as part of the settlement, the county and the city agreed to meet with Ms. Danieli to talk with her about policy recommendations.
I’m curious if there are any Jewish implications here, if there's any connection to Jewish law. There are a lot of laws about animals in the Torah, but not really about cats. Do you think about how this connects to Judaism at all?
I do think about it. One of the issues that came up in this case was, “is a cat property, or does it have some sentience?” Another case came out involving a divorce. The member of the former couple did not want to see his ex every week to have her drop off the dog. Was the pet to be treated more like a child? Our law is pretty clear in Washington that pets are property, and they're treated like that for civil purposes. I think that's really interesting, because we have discussions in the Talmud about animals generally — if somebody's animal is damaged, what the damages are. I think there's a lot of comparison going back thousands of years.
I was aware of the case that ruled that the dog is property. You cannot treat it like a child. I also read this article recently in The New Yorker about how there are some organizations that some might consider radical that want to give animals almost human status, starting with elephants and orcas and dolphins. This seems relevant to Seattle, where people have especially deep relationships with their pets.
It it's incredible actually, because in a Jewish context, we value human life more than anything else. One of the interesting aspects I found while working on this case and also representing some other animals is that people get very attached to their animals and may spend more money and treat their animals better than humans in their life and better than children.
I'm just happy that we were able to get some justice from Miska, for the family. They really went through a lot. Miska had been threatened as well by a neighbor, and during the course of the litigation. Miska had disappeared. This happened shortly after a neighbor had publicly threatened Miska. So the reality is that we do have to be careful about pets, even though they are property. We do have to be careful about looking after them and potentially safeguarding them.
Some people lost the case, and some people are probably pretty unhappy. Are you worried about finding a dead mouse on your doorstep?
I haven't thought about that. I think a dead mouse on my doorstep would be better than a dead horse in my bed.
I'd say so.
I think that this has allowed people to look at this from multiple perspectives and really ask, “How does the government end up spending so much money, really hundreds of thousands of dollars, prosecuting a cat?” There was a chicken that was prosecuted. The chicken was acquitted, because barks, howls, yelps, and whines were were prohibited under the code, but not the clucks and crows of a chicken. And yet the government will spend tens of thousands of dollars, hundreds of thousands of dollars in some cases, prosecuting pets, civilly. It seems like we're the only country that does that. We really should ask ourselves, when we have so many other problems in America, we have so many problems in King County, whether this there's really a good use of resources by the government. These are some of the questions that we as individuals who reside in in this area should be asking ourselves.
This Week Last Year
This week’s parasha is Emor
Candlelighting in Seattle is at 8:19 p.m.
In honor of Jewish American Heritage Month, the WSJHS invites you to join our 2022 Gala on June 1st at 6:30 pm for the release of the 2nd edition of the Family of Strangers, the “bible” of Jewish history in our state. wsjhs.org/gala
Mazal Tov to Raphael Alcabés on his graduation from Yeshiva University. Mazal Tov to Raphael and Gabi Alcabés on their new jobs as Youth Directors at Congregation Shearith Israel (The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue) — the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States. —Meryl Alcabes