Dogs have owners, cats have staff
LOS ANGELES, California––Mass media might term a dispute underway over legal possession of the phrase “working cats” a “cat-spat,” but cats are seldom so territorial.
The term “working cats” in reference to barn or stable cats who hunt mice for a living has appeared often in print at least since 1900, and in an earlier form, “working men’s cats,” since 1872.
Humane societies have had “working cats” outreach programs to place cats with farmers and to help barn and stable cats at least since 1946.
“Working cats” has been used in the names of such outreach programs at least since 1971.
Los Angeles charity claims “working cats”
Trouble over the term “working cats” only began on October 5, 2016, recounted Neighborhood Cats founder and attorney Bryan Kortis in a recent blog post, when Mark Kleiman, an attorney representing the Los Angeles-based Voices For The Animals Foundation, “sent a threatening letter to at least two animal welfare organizations, and likely more,” Kortis said, “who were using the phrase ‘working cats’ in connection with one of their cat placement programs.”
Wrote Kleiman, “Voice For The Animals Foundation developed this program fifteen years ago and has successfully been running it ever since. VFTA owns the trademark for the term ‘Working Cats’ and has invested considerable resources in developing recognition and goodwill for this name. In fact, we own and have operated www.workingcats.org for several years and spent a great deal of time and effort obtaining press coverage for this program and establishing and curating Wikipedia’s ‘’Working Cats’ page.”
“Hurts our ability to raise money”
Getting to the bottom line, “Your use of ‘Working Cats’ hurts our ability to raise money,” Kleiman alleged.
Kleiman demanded that the other animal welfare organizations who received his letter should “Cease and desist from any and all use, reproduction, and/or display of the ‘Working Cats’ term or any similar, related, or confusing mark in any packaging, label, advertisement, signage, ad copy, or the like,” and “Destroy and/or take offline all materials, labels, advertisements, signage, ad copy, or the like to which the term or any deceptively or confusingly similar mark or proprietary content has been applied.”
Added Kleiman, “Alternatively, if you want to refer to ‘Working Cats’ you may do so as long as the text immediately after the phrase ‘Working Cats’ says “as designed and established by Voice For The Animals, https://workingcats.org”.
“Claim is patently absurd”
Observed Kortis, “Kleiman does not say exactly what steps VFTAF will take if his demands are refused, but the overall tone of the letter can be (and has been) interpreted as implying possible legal action.
“The letter’s claim is patently absurd,” Kortis continued. “It’s Intellectual Property Law 101 that a common phrase cannot be trademarked for its ordinary meaning. The term ‘working cats’ has been in use for decades with respect to cats used for rodent control and no one can validly claim to trademark it.
“Anyone can make an official claim”
“Anyone can make an official claim to a trademark by filing the correct paperwork,” Kortis added, “but that means nothing in court if the claim turns out to be frivolous. The phrase working cats, as a description of cats used for rodent control, was well-known long before VFTAF started its program. In 1979, author Terry Gruber published his still-popular photo essay Working Cats. So-called ‘working cat’ programs are operated by shelters and rescue groups throughout the United States. For a small, little-known group in Los Angeles to claim it and it alone has the right to use that phrase not only flies in the face of working together to save animals, it’s flat-out wrong. If you received this letter,” Kortis finished, “our advice is just ignore it. Don’t be intimidated into changing the name of your program.”
“Working men’s cats”
Voice For The Animals Foundation founder Melya Kaplan has verifiably been involved in animal advocacy at least since 1992, according to the online archives of the Torrance Daily Breeze and Los Angeles Daily News. Coverage of animal issues associated Kaplan with an Animal Rights Club as of 1994, Venice Animal Allies in 2001, and with a “working cats” program by 2003, which may have been several years old before coming to media attention.
But the term “working cats” in the ancestral form “working men’s cats,” referring to mousers, might have already had a long pedigree before 1871, when the organizers of the Third National Cat Show at the Crystal Palace in London, England added a division for “cats belonging exclusively to working men.”
Cats in the working men’s division were “judged by weight only,” the London Daily News reported a year later, with weight deemed a good indication of mousing skill. While the 1871 winning “working men’s cat” may not have been named in print, a Lieutenant Hawthorn’s cat took the top honors in 1872.
“Working men’s cats” divisions at cat shows continued to exist, and to be known by that term, at least until 1956, when the Wilson Daily Times of Wilson, North Carolina, described such an event which had just been held in Memphis, Tennessee. But by then the judging criteria had evolved into a trial of how rapidly a mousing cat could find her way through a maze to discover five caged mice. The top cat at that show was Georgette, the pressroom cat at the Memphis Publishing Company.
The original phrase “working men’s cats,” however, had long since evolved into the shorter form “working cats,” who swiftly became staples of fictional stories for children. (See examples at right from the Westminster Budget, 1900, and the Indianapolis Star, 1914.)
“Working cats” also found their way into “help wanted” ads and even mainstream news coverage, as when in 1924 newspapers throughout the Midwest carried items about how “two cats were officially appointed” to “the staff of the Peoria post office,” assigned to “keep in check rats and mice.”
Humane societies & the Marshall Plan
Sally Warnock, secretary for the Winnipeg SPCA, on January 21, 1946 described to the readers of the Winnipeg Free Press a program that supplied working cats to warehouses, cafes, and stores “from the large departmental down to the corner store.”
Warnock did not claim the Winnipeg SPCA program was unique or original, however, nor did American Feline Society president Robert L. Kendall make such a claim in proposing in February 1948 that his organization should “ship at once 50,000 cats, ‘working’ alley cats,” as first installment of as many as a million cats to be sent to western Europe to “help save food stores” as part of the Marshall Plan to rebuild the region after World War II.
The cat and dog populations of western Europe had in fact been severely depleted by the war, fought from 1938 until mid-1945, and rodent depredation and spoilage were contributing to food shortages in Germany, France, Britain, the Netherlands, and Belgium.
Kendall’s proposal received editorial support from newspapers around the U.S., but the Heifer Project (now Heifer International) took over the task of rebuilding the western European population of farmed and working animals. Cats were apparently not included.
“Union of Working Cats”
Humane societies throughout the U.S. and Canada continued to promote “working cat” adoptions to farms and businesses for rodent control, and to offer aid to working cats.
Probably the biggest such program was “The Union of Working Cats,” a national effort begun in 1971 by Friends of Animals founder Alice Herrington to persuade merchants who kept cats to “stop operating as kitten factories.”
Herrington (1919-1975) had begun Friends of Animals in Neptune, New Jersey in 1957 as umbrella for the first nonprofit spay/neuter clinic in the U.S., then expanded it into a national organization subsidizing pay/neuter via private practice veterinarians.
Bob Martwick, trainer of 14 performing cats including Morris, the emblematic cat representing 9 Lives cat food since 1968, expanded the term “working cats” to include cats used in show business.
The name game
Silly as the hissing over “working cats” may seem, similar disputes have broken out before.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, founded in 1863, was not able to prevent animal charities in England and India from using the name and symbol Blue Cross, beginning in 1897, due to the longtime prominence of the cross as a charitable symbol.
The American Humane Association, however, founded in 1877, forced the National Humane Society, founded in 1954, to become the Humane Society of the U.S. through a lawsuit settled in 1956.
In 1985 the Delta Society, founded in 1977 to promote animal-assisted therapy, trademarked the use of “Delta” in an attempt to force a name change on the DELTA Rescue sanctuary, started in 1979 in memory of founder Leo Grillo’s dog Delta. The case was settled in 1989 when the Delta Society allowed DELTA Rescue to continue using the word “Delta” to stand for “Dedication and Everlasting Love To Animals.”
“Don’t breed or buy”
In Defense of Animals, long using the phrase “Please don’t breed or buy while millions of homeless animals die” in fighting pet overpopulation, was sued for alleged trademark infringement in April 2003 by the International Society for Animal Rights, which trademarked a similar phrase in 2001, retroactive to 1999.
In Defense of Animals won an out-of-court settlement which––though not disclosed––is believed to protect the right of all pro-animal organizations to use similar phrases, several of which appear to have been widely used before ISAR made the proprietary claim.
The Fund for Animals, among other animal charities, had also received a demand letter from ISAR.
Altogether, 2,372 organizations and individuals were found to be using comparable phrases on web sites as of May 2003, only seven of them having any evident association with ISAR.
Anonymous kennel worker
The rhyming phrase in all forms appeared to trace back to a poem, “Don’t Breed or Buy While Shelter Animals Die!”, published by “An anonymous kennel worker” in the San Diego Union-Tribune edition of September 16, 1998.
U.S. animal advocate Elizabeth Arvin only days later recommended the phrase to Greek Animal Rescue founder Vesna Jones (1954-2014), whose British-based organization was demonstrably using it about eight months before ISAR.
The poem “Don’t Breed or Buy While Shelter Animals Die!” was later attributed to self-proclaimed “Bard of Rescue” Jim Willis, author of several much-circulated poems and short essays about animal abandonment and rehoming.
Fire & neglect
But Willis’ celebrity was short-lived. An electrical fire on January 25, 2004 killed ten dogs and four cats at Willis’ former home in Avella, Pennsylvania, while Willis was reportedly attending a birthday party in his honor organized by Joe Maringo of Southwest Pennsylvania Retriever Rescue.
Willis and several surviving animals relocated to the home of Erin Schmidt, 32, in Forward Township, Pennsylvania. Police and humane agencies removed 74 animals from the home on August 18, 2005. Charges against Willis were later dropped, but Schmidt was convicted on two counts of cruelty.
Moving to North Carolina, Willis in May 2006 became involved in the dissolution of the former Northeast Georgia Canine Angels sanctuary. Founded in Athens, Georgia, by Lynette Rowe and Susan Wells, Canine Angels relocated to Dewy Rose, Georgia, in 2001.
After Rowe and Wells were cited for 62 state animal welfare code violations, and assessed more than $15,000 in fines, they transferred to Willis legal ownership of the 130 animals on the Canine Angels property.
Another charity, Kat 5, formed in 2005 by Susan Meyer to help animals left homeless by Hurricane Katrina, looked after the animals for almost a year before managing to rehome all of the survivors.
Willis was subsequently convicted in July 2007 in Pender County, North Carolina, of making harassing telephone calls to a woman who believed he had taken her dog, and was convicted of in the same court of felony dog larceny in March 2008.