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    Cat spat turns offcolor

    A neighbor builds a fence and paints it pink with an unneighborly message.

    photo
    [Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
    Christine Miloslavic and her daughter, Stephanie, 14, say the neighbor's fence is meant to torment Stephanie. They think he trapped her missing cat. He has taken nine others to be euthanized.

    By JAY CRIDLIN
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 22, 2002


    BRANDON -- Christine Miloslavic was thrilled to see her neighbor, Joel Wells, building a fence in his back yard.

    The two had been feuding since April, when Miloslavic accused Wells of trapping her 14-year-old daughter's cat, Gobblin, and having it killed by animal control.

    The plump, black and gray cat was one of several to disappear in the neighborhood after Wells installed a baited metal cage in his back yard.

    The fence, Miloslavic thought, was a great idea -- the less she had to see of her neighbor, the better.

    But on Wednesday, when she looked at the fence, she saw that its 6-foot-high wooden planks had been painted bright pink, with the words "Meow, Meow" aimed right at her daughter's bedroom window.

    "He's being very mean," Miloslavic said. "What purpose does it serve? What did he gain by hurting a little girl?"

    The fence has stirred anger and disbelief in Miloslavic's Southwood Hills neighborhood.

    "That's pretty vicious, mean, that a man could taunt a young girl like that," neighbor Mandie Borkowski said. "I cannot believe that is legal."

    County authorities, though, say their hands are tied. Wells filed all the proper paperwork to erect the fence, said Jim Ellington, chief investigator for the community improvement department. Because it's on his land, Wells is free to decorate it with any color -- or message -- he pleases.

    "When you write on your own fence, that's not graffiti," Ellington said. "What that is, is freedom of speech."

    Furthermore, if cats or dogs wander into a neighbor's yard without permission, the neighbor is free to trap them.

    Wells, who works out of his home as an exterminator, has taken nine cats to be euthanized, said Dennis McCullough, communications supervisor for the Hillsborough County Animal Services Division.

    Wells, 41, declined to speak to the St. Petersburg Times, but his friend and neighbor Mike Houghton said feral cats have become a problem in the neighborhood.

    "If somebody gets bit or something by one of those cats, it's going to kill them," he said. Houghton also traps stray cats.

    Miloslavic said her daughter's cat had a collar and tags, and was obviously a house cat -- friendly, well-fed and neutered.

    McCullough, the animal control official, said anyone who registers a complaint about stray animals is told to talk to their neighbors before trapping.

    "Do they have a responsibility to do so?" he said. "Probably morally."

    But, he adds: "There's nothing that stipulates that they have to notify the owner that they have the cat in the cage. The animal owner is supposed to keep track of the animal."

    Miloslavic learned about Wells' traps in April, a few weeks after Gobblin disappeared. Outraged, Miloslavic circulated fliers around the neighborhood.

    "Help protect another little girl's pet from wrongfully being taken to the pound," she wrote.

    The fliers drew attention right away. The next day, Mandie Borkowski's teenage daughter Alesha, who owns three cats, went over to see the trap for herself. She picked it up and ran home.

    Mandie Borkowski insisted her daughter return it, and within 15 minutes the cage was back in Wells' yard. Wells and Alesha talked it over, and Wells told her everything was okay, that he wouldn't press charges.

    The next day, though, Alesha was arrested at school and taken to juvenile hall, charged with petty theft and criminal mischief. She was ordered to undergo counseling, perform community service and write a letter of apology to Wells.

    "No one knows at school yet," Alesha said, "but I bet $10 that by the time I get to high school, I'll be known as a criminal."

    The fate of Stephanie Miloslavic's cat is unknown, though she is convinced that Wells either trapped or killed Gobblin. No cat matching Gobblin's description was reported to animal control.

    In at least one way, Wells' fence and traps have accomplished their purpose of keeping cats out of the neighborhood.

    "I don't know what we can do," Stephanie said. "I'm not going to get another cat, because it might happen again."

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