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By Jessica Lussenhop
By Ray Downs
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At first glance, the west-county neighborhood of Country Squire Court appears to be a suburban oasis. Modest ranch homes sit on shady, half-acre lots. Children ride bikes up and down the street. Parents come home from work and relax on tidy front porches.
But rumbling below the surface of this quiet cul de sac, say neighbors, is a feud.
On one side is Sally Morgan, a relative newcomer to the unincorporated neighborhood near Creve Coeur. On the other side are longtime residents Ernie and Lena McGrath and their three children Anthony, Anastasia and Alison. While accounts vary on which neighbor started the tiff, no one denies that the McGraths' tabby cat, Tiger, lies at the center of the storm.
Over the past three years, Tiger has prompted calls to the St. Louis County Police Department and St. Louis County Animal Control, two civil lawsuits, a handful of municipal court hearings, a restraining order and allegations of emotional distress. Tiger is also implicated in the murder of at least two rabbits and a dove in Morgan's yard.
To hear the McGraths tell it, the trouble came to a boil on Father's Day 2004, when Tiger disemboweled a bunny on Morgan's front lawn.
"Her boyfriend came running out of the house like a raving lunatic, screaming he was going to shoot the cat," recalls Ernie McGrath. "Well, I wasn't going to tolerate that. Not on Father's Day. I called the cops."
Since then, the McGraths say, it's Morgan who's been dialing the authorities. The couple say they've received at least a half-dozen nuisance citations from Animal Control for allowing Tiger to roam the neighborhood since Morgan moved in five years ago. But then, cats are willful. And so is Anastasia, the McGraths' autistic daughter.
"We tried to make Tiger an indoor cat," explains Lena McGrath. "But Anastasia thinks it's a game. She knows it gets a big rise out of us every time she lets the cat out."
These days Tiger can be found under lock and key, sleeping away the days in the McGraths' bedroom.
"He's getting fat," laments Ernie, who estimates Tiger has put on two to three pounds following a ten-day stay in the county pound last month. The McGraths freed Tiger only after ponying up $415 in fees and hiring Brentwood-based defense attorney Doug Richardson to smooth-talk officials into releasing the cat.
"We're not supposed to have him until the court hearing," says Ernie. "But Anastasia just couldn't handle it. We told her Tiger was in jail. She didn't respond well to that."
Covering the doors inside the McGraths' home are sheets of fiberglass designed to deflect the blows and kicks that result from eleven-year-old Anastasia's tantrums.
"It's important for autistic children to have different forms of stimulation," explains Lena. "Tiger is as docile as they come. She'll carry him around by his head and he won't so much as hiss at her."
Several neighbors also provide character references for Tiger.
"He's just the neatest cat," says Scott Snodgrass, who lives kitty-corner from both Morgan and the McGraths. "I've always been a dog person, but Tiger has a great personality. He'll come over into my garage and just look at me until I pick him up and pet him. I really miss seeing him these days."
Snodgrass' concern now is that the dispute might spill over to other families in the neighborhood.
"We usually host the annual block party, but this year I'm scared it might start a fight," says Snodgrass.
Morgan declines to comment on the squabble, other than to repeat what's become something of a mantra for many in Country Squire Court: "Neighbors are like relatives," she says. "You can't pick them."
Ron Twillman, who oversees Animal Control for the St. Louis County Health Department, acknowledges that the feud involving Tiger is well-known within his agency. But he turns a deaf ear to the McGraths' argument that the ten-pound Tiger poses little real threat to residents.
"It doesn't matter if it's a dog or a cat," Twillman says. "Animals cannot roam at large. It's a violation of a county code, Section 611.200."
Morgan isn't the only one provoking a fight. Last year the McGraths filed two civil suits against Morgan in St. Louis County Court. The first accused her of breach of contract, claiming she broke a verbal agreement to notify the McGraths of Tiger's whereabouts instead of contacting Animal Control. The suit stated that, in return for the favor, the McGraths would provide her with a plate of homemade cookies.
The case crumbled when Morgan denied entering a contract. Ernie now admits there never was an agreement. He says a friend of his, who "likes to pretend he's a lawyer," suggested he include the cookies. That way the McGraths could claim they were financially harmed by the breach of contract. The suit asked the court to award the McGraths more than $25,000 enough money, Ernie concedes, to bake thousands of cookies.
A second suit alleged Morgan "intentionally and negligently" inflicted emotional distress on Anastasia, who responded to Tiger's impounding by attacking her siblings, kicking doors and biting her arms. The case was settled for $100.
"She's costing us a lot of money with all these fines," says Ernie. "I just wanted to cost her some money. But after I learned her homeowner's insurance was picking up the tab, I pretty much let it go."
To date, the McGraths estimate they've spent $1,200 to $1,300 in fines and court fees for Tiger, not to mention the money they paid a few years back when they were hit with a nuisance citation after the family's Muscovy ducks sauntered onto Morgan's property and laid eggs.
"Everyone in the neighborhood loved the ducks," says Ernie. "People fed them bread and took pictures of them. They were a big hit."
The birds have since returned to the mid-Missouri farm where Lena grew up. Tiger also had a stint on the farm following the first wave of nuisance citations, but the McGraths brought him back to St. Louis after he fell asleep inside the engine of a truck.
"Her brother turned the ignition, and the cat lost all the fur on its entire right rear leg," recalls Ernie.
The McGraths say they're not yet conceding defeat even after St. Louis County Municipal Judge Jess Ullom fined them $400 last December and forbade Ernie all contact with Morgan as terms of his probation.
On May 9 Ernie broke probation after Morgan trapped Tiger in her garage and called authorities. The neighbor was signing paperwork in her driveway when Ernie snuck up to the side of the Animal Control paddy wagon, intent on freeing the cat.
"They caught me red-handed," admits Ernie. "I demanded that they call the police."
St. Louis County police records show that the only calls from Country Squire Court in the past two years have come from Morgan. The cops have yet to make any arrests, but the May 9 infraction did land Ernie back in court.
This time, attorney Doug Richardson doesn't know if he can save Tiger's tail. Following a brief hearing last Thursday evening, Richardson convinced the judge to postpone the case until next month, but says the outlook doesn't look good. Ernie faces a $1,000 fine and up to 30 days in jail.
"The judge remembers you," Richardson told Ernie outside the courtroom. "Come next month, we need to convince him that this time the cat is truly gone. If not, you're going to be wearing an orange jumpsuit."
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