Doris Welch spent five hours in jail last week because she didn't license her cat. "I can't believe it," she said. "I can't believe they have nothing better to do than lock people up for not licensing cats."
Ms. Welch, 42, was arrested Thursday on a warrant issued two years ago when she failed to appear in court on a charge of having an unlicensed cat.
Ms. Welch said she did not realize she had to go to court.
"I got the cat licensed right after I got the ticket and I just didn't think about it again," she said. "Two weeks later the cat got run over by a car and I never gave it another thought."
According to the Pinellas County Sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Greg Tita, the arresting officer had no choice but to take Ms. Welch in _ there was a warrant and she had already failed to appear once.
Deputy Joseph Ransdell, who gave his account through Tita, stopped Ms. Welch on Thursday for allegedly running a red light, which she denies. He did not give her a ticket for the traffic offense, but learned of the warrant when he checked her name through the computer.
Ms. Welch said she was near home at the time, so she asked the officer to let her tell her 14- and 12-year-old sons, James and Jonathan, that she had to go to jail.
"He asked me if I had a baby-sitter and I didn't and he said I better get one or he was going to call HRS (state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services)," she said. "But my son's old enough to be a babysitter, and he didn't mention it again once we got to the house."
The night their mother was arrested, the boys were upset and worried about when they would see their mother again, they said Tuesday.
Jonathan had attended an Officer Friendly program at school and carried the police badge around in his pocket, he said. After his mother's arrest, he gave it away.
"I don't like police anymore because they arrested my mom over something stupid like a cat," he said.
Neighborhood kids, who saw Ms. Welch leave in a squad car, tease the boys that their mother must have been dealing in crack cocaine.
"No one believes you can be arrested for a cat, so they think it has to be crack," Jonathan said.
At the jail, Ms. Welch said, she was strip-searched, handcuffed and nicknamed "The Cat Lady."
Tita said Ms. Welch may have been handcuffed and patted down, but not strip-searched.
The whole thing began in August 1989, when a neighbor's cat bit Jonathan and Ms. Welch took her son to a clinic to check out the wound, she said. Jonathan had also been stung by a wasp, so his hand was swollen and she was worried.
When Pinellas County Animal Control officers investigated, they questioned the boys about Scat, a stray they often fed. They told Ms. Welch to license Scat or it would be taken away.
"They said if you feed a stray, it's your responsibility," she said.
Animal Control operations manager Ken Miller said his office issues 9,000 warnings a year and 1,000 citations. There are more than 20,000 licensed cats in Pinellas County, he said.
Ms. Welch was given 72 hours to get the cat licensed and when she didn't she was given a ticket, which stated when she must appear in court, Miller said. Had Ms. Welch paid the ticket it would have been approximately $35. Instead, she said, a friend bailed her out of jail for $113.
She is awaiting a court date, when the saga will continue.
"I'm sorry she's been inconvenienced," Miller said. "But it was nothing we had anything to do with. She had two chances and she sort of blew them both."