Catfight Rages After Woman's Will Leaves $50K to Pet Felines

By James Fanelli on April 15, 2014 7:04am 

 Chance (left) and Ash were each left $10,000 for their care by their deceased owner, Laura James.
Chance (left) and Ash were each left $10,000 for their care by their deceased owner, Laura James.
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Courtesy of Claire Angelica

CARROLL GARDENS — These cats come with a big kitty — and a lot of headaches.

When Carroll Gardens fundraiser Laura James died last year, she left $50,000 to her five cats. Each feline received $10,000 with the wishes that a new owner would use the dough to provide them quality care, according to James’ will.

But finding homes for three of her furry friends has sparked a catfight, including accusations of theft and demands that a pet psychologist evaluate the cats.

James’ cats — who range widely in age and in health — were named Cookie, Tuptim, Joey, Ash and Chance. 

Joy Cytryn, the trustee James designated to oversee her pets’ inheritances, found permanent homes for Cookie and Tuptim, but placing Joey, Ash and Chance has been problematic.

Months before James died at 56 on May 3, 2013, Joey was sent to live temporarily with her friend, Boerum Hill resident Claire Angelica, because the cat's house-soiling problem was bad for James’ deteriorating health.

But after Angelica’s home was flooded during Superstorm Sandy, she gave Joey to her friend Josephine Gassner, a Boerum Hill resident with a dog-walking business.

After James died, Cytryn also asked Gassner to temporarily house Ash and Chance.

The living arrangement went south when Cytryn started looking for homes and Gassner didn’t heed her demands to return the cats.

Gassner, who now wants James’ estate to reimburse her $6,930 for caring for the cats and veterinary visits, said in a court filing last week that the standoff over the cats started because she did not agree with the new homes that Cytryn had picked.

Gassner said that, while she had only met James a few times and was not named in the fundraiser’s will, she and Angelica had “about four decades of volunteer work rescuing, caring for and placing pets in responsible loves homes,” so they suggested appropriate new owners to Cytryn.

“Yet our leads and suggestions for new homes were essentially summarily rejected by [Cytryn],” Gassner said in her legal filing in Brooklyn Surrogate's Court.

Gassner and Angelica believed that Ash, a frightened 2-year-old, and Chance, a timid 12-year-old, had bonded and that they should go to a new owner as a pair.

Cytryn questioned that arrangement and wanted a cat shrink to evaluate the two felines to see if they could go to separate homes, according to Gassner’s legal filing.

Gassner and Angelica disagreed and were also opposed to Cytryn’s idea of sending Ash to live with a Florida owner whom she had never met personally.

Cytryn also wanted to send Joey, a portly, poorly groomed 12-year-old, to live out his days on a barn — but Gassner and Angelica didn’t think he would survive there.

“It took a lot of convincing but I think we persuaded Ms. Cytryn that Joey would simply die — quickly — in a barn; he had no hunting or defensive skills,” Angelica said in an affidavit accompanying Gassner’s filing.

The acrimony over the cats eventually grew to the point where Gassner accused Cytryn of harassing her over the cats’ return.

“One particular day, [Cytryn] was outside my home with two other people for over an hour, trying to get in, hindering myself and others from entering and leaving, yelling to whoever would listen that I stole her cats,” Gassner said in her filing.

“She called the police who, apparently after assessing the situation, left.”

Gassner said she and Angelica tried to reach out to Ellen Maness, the executor of the James estate, to get her blessing on placing the cats, but Maness deferred to Cytryn as the pet trustee.

Gassner said that's when she took it into her own hands to place the cats with an owner who accepted all three.

“Having gotten no positive response from Ms. Maness, and being unable to work with Ms. Cytryn but, primarily, desiring to give the cats permanent stability, I delivered Joey, Ash and Chance to the new owner on Sept. 1, 2013,” Gassner said in her filing.

Gassner said she will only give Maness the location of the three cats on condition that the estate ensures that Cytryn doesn't contact the new owner. Gassner added that the new owner is not seeking the $30,000 that could come with the cats.

Angelica, who spoke to DNAinfo New York on behalf of Gassner, said they were acting in the best interest of the cats and trying to honor James’ wishes.

“She loved her cats, and you want to do the right thing by the cats, and the family should too,” Angelica said.

Cytryn, who spent two years caring for her friend and working to find the pets homes, declined to comment for this story.

“I did the best I could for my dying friend,” she said. “I tried to find good homes for the cats. I don’t know where they are.”

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