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The Fine Print

A brief frolic outside may cost a woman her cat

Pamela Howard and her cat, Muse, in her Salem apartment.
Pamela Howard and her cat, Muse, in her Salem apartment.(Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff)

In June, Pamela Howard adopted Muse, a blue-eyed, gray-striped, half-Siamese cat who had suffered terrible burns in a previous owner’s neglectful care.

Howard proudly carried Muse home to her Salem condo and lavished attention and affection on him. She says she can’t imagine life without her faithful feline companion, and judging by the aura of contentment I detected during a recent visit, Muse feels the same.

But last month, the adoption agency that handed Howard her beloved cat filed a lawsuit to take him back. There was no allegation that Howard abused or neglected Muse, or harmed him in any way.

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But what she had done was take Muse outside to her backyard, on a leash, for less than five minutes, contrary to a contract Howard signed that included an agreement to keep Muse indoors.

Howard refused to give Muse back, and so far it has cost her $3,000 in legal fees.

“I’m his guardian and protector,” she said of Muse. “I could never give him up.”

First, a word about The Odd Cat Sanctuary of Salem, a nonprofit founded and run by Tara Kawczynski. It has found homes for hundreds of cats who would have otherwise been euthanized because of injuries (some caused by abusive owners) or birth defects.

No doubt Kawczynski is a passionate, even zealous, defender of helpless creatures who can’t speak for themselves.

But hauling Howard into court to ask a judge to enforce a contract by ripping a still-recovering cat from its loving owner seems contrary to The Odd Cat Sanctuary’s mission — and defies common sense.

Howard knows, as most cat owners do, that allowing a cat to range freely outdoors cuts its life expectancy in half, due to the risk of infection, predation, and car accidents. Howard understood that she was required to keep Muse indoors.

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Muse, a blue-eyed, grey-striped, half-Siamese cat
Muse, a blue-eyed, grey-striped, half-Siamese cat(Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff)

And she says she did just that — except on Nov. 12. That’s when she and Muse ran into one of her condo neighbors at the building’s back door as she and Muse came up from the basement laundry room. It was a warm, pleasant day, and as Howard and her neighbor chatted, they stepped outside, along with Muse.

“Muse immediately started rolling on his back in the sun, on top of the leash, so I put the leash down and took a quick video with my phone,” said Howard, who showed me how she ran afoul of the adoption agency.

“My happy cat,” she wrote as a title to the snippet of video, which she said she “stupidly” posted on Facebook.

Almost immediately, she received a text message from Kawczynski.

“Hi I just saw a video please tell me you don’t let Muse outside. Having heart palpitations,” it said.

Howard replied: “Hi, I had him out with his collar and leash this morning in my yard. Is that a problem?”

Howard said she wasn’t aware of how restrictive the adoption agency contract was, even though she signed it: “Adopted cats are not to go outside, including on a deck, or on a leash. . . . If you adopt one of our cats and we find out you intentionally let the cat out, we will reclaim our cat.”

Howard said she and Kawczynski had a contentious conversation on the phone after which Kawczynski sent a text message saying, “If you prefer we can go through my lawyer.”

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Howard said she called back and apologized to Kawczynski and promised to never take Muse out again, not even for a momentary frolic in the sun.

But two weeks later Howard was notified that she had been named in a lawsuit filed on behalf of Kawczynski by attorney Jeremy Cohen of Beverly.

Kawczynski, through Cohen, declined to be interviewed.

But after the column was posted online, Kawczynski contacted me to ask that I add that she believes Howard allowed Muse outside regularly, saying the fact that Muse rolled on his back outside in the video suggests he had been outside before. Howard denies that and Kawczynski’s lawsuit cites only one occasion — the videoed one — when Muse was allowed outside. Kawczynski also said she filed the lawsuit only out of fear for Muse’s safety.

Cohen quickly obtained a temporary restraining order blocking Howard from selling or giving away her cat — or letting him go outside — none of which she said she had any intention of doing.

Howard said she offered to make a $500 donation to the adoption agency to resolve the matter, but Kawczynski wasn’t interested. She said she offered to go to mediation, but Kawczynski refused.

So Howard found a lawyer and dug into her savings to challenge the adoption agency in court.

The case was heard in Salem District Court on Dec. 19. Cohen asked Judge Emily Karstetter to order Muse returned to Kawczynski, and for Howard to pay for Kawczynski’s legal fees, per the contract.

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Fernando Figueroa, Howard’s lawyer, attacked the validity of the adoption contract in his court filings: “An absolute prohibition on allowing a cat outdoors, even under close supervision of its owner, is unreasonable.”

Figueroa also called the contract unreasonable because it made Howard totally responsible for Muse’s welfare, while allowing Kawczynski to “retain a form of ownership.”

Karstetter ruled that she lacked jurisdiction over the matter, but extended the temporary restraining order to give Kawczynski an opportunity to file her lawsuit in Superior Court.

I contacted Cohen after visiting Howard and reading the court filings. He surprised me by saying he hopes to avoid further litigation. In fact, after getting to know Howard, he said, he’s become convinced she is a good, responsible pet owner.

Cohen, who specializes in the protection of animals, said he believes Kawczynski has made her point.

“Tara has a deep passion for protecting cats, even after adoption,” he said. “She promises them protection and I am trying to show her that she has lived up to that promise with Muse and that he is in a good place after all.”

Let’s hope all parties can let this matter drop and get back to the matter at hand: finding loving homes for cats.

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.