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  1. Arts & Entertainment

Cole and Marmalade gone from internet after lawsuit

The famous cats and their owners live in Tampa. They raised thousands through Gofundme for a legal defense.

If a cat does something adorable, but no one is there to watch it on the internet, was it actually cute?

Cole and Marmalade, the internet-famous ginger tabby and his elegantly long-haired adopted brother, are as frisky as ever. But their adorable antics are missing online this week. Fans who visited the Cole and Marmalade Instagram, Facebook, YouTube or Twitter accounts found only messages saying they’d been deactivated.

The viral rescue cats, who’ve appeared on Ellen and the cover of Modern Cat magazine, have gone dark online due to a lawsuit filed by Digital Pet Media, the company that says it owns the Cole and Marmalade digital business. The defendant is Chris Poole, the Tampa man who owns the actual cats.

In 2016, Poole entered into a business deal with two men, Edward Holden and Stephen Watters, to form a new company called Digital Pet Media. Poole had the cats. They had funds and e-commerce experience that could grow merchandise sales on coleandmarmalade.com. Each man owns one third of the company, though Poole and his wife were fired from their jobs creating content for the Cole and Marmalade websites in December.

In the lawsuit, Poole is accused of breaching contract and harming the Cole and Marmalade enterprise by then acting erratically and locking his business partners out of vital social media cat accounts. They demanded Poole turn over the websites and video equipment it provided him to make cat videos, all valued at $50,000. They also want Poole to pay other unspecified damages and legal fees.

Poole filed his own lawsuit against his business partners this week. He says Watters secretly paid himself a 40 percent “management fee" out of Digital Pet Media earnings. The suit also accuses Poole’s partners of creating multiple LLCs with the same name in various states to cover up shady business practices. Those practices, the suit says, prevented Poole from earning more money even though Cole and Marmalade’s web traffic kept going up.

In a Gofundme campaign launched to raise legal defense funds, Poole implies he was wrong to think his business partners believed in “our efforts to raise awareness, educate and entertain the cat lovers of the world.” He states Digital Pet Media fired them two days before Christmas, and since then “has been reposting and using rehashed videos of Cole and Marmalade, but Chris, Jessica nor the cats, have been involved.”

Jessica Josephs holds Cole and her husband Chris Poole holds a cat toy up for Marmalade at their home in Tampa in 2018. [CHRIS URSO | Tampa Bay Times]

Poole found Cole alone and flea infested in 2012 on a street in Pasco County. He bottle fed the kitten back to health. Marmalade came later, and was a lone survivor among a litter of kittens his neighbors left outside to fend for themselves. Poole’s videos of the cats mixed silliness with education to promote spaying, neutering and feral cat care.

They were a hit, racking up more than 300 million views on YouTube to date.

Poole, also known as Cat Man Chris, told the Tampa Bay Times in 2018 that his primary mission in life was to rescue and foster feral cats. Cole and Marmalade’s success let him spend most of his time in the field doing that. His wife also left her corporate job to work on Cole and Marmalade’s online presence full time.

The couple lives with the cats in a rented, manufactured home in northeastern Tampa where catnip grows in pots on the front porch. A shed in back, donated by fans, serves as a cat recovery center. Since the Times wrote about Poole and Josephs, they adopted two more cats, Jugg and Zig Zag, and incorporated them into their online mix.

On the surface, things appeared fine until the lawsuit was filed Dec. 23. In it, Digital Pet Media claims Poole took over the various Cole and Marmalade-related accounts and changed the passwords to lock his partners out.

In a request filed in court to have the case dismissed, Poole says he was hastily fired during a disagreement over who owned his “Cat Man Chris” websites and trademark. Poole started Cat Man Chris to focus more on his rescue work away from Cole and Marmalade. Those videos are how he became known for crawling into bushes, sewers or abandoned properties to retrieve sickly, dirty cats, which he then cleaned up and rehabilitated to make adoptable.

Poole launched his Gofundme campaign on March 7 with a stated goal of $100,000. It talks about the highs of meeting fans at cat conventions, but also suffering “compassion fatigue, depression, anxiety and/or PTSD ... from the years spent giving up nights, weekends and sleep for this important ‘work’. ... This was not just our jobs; it was our whole lives.”

It says the couple is spending its life savings to pay for lawyers, and talks about Poole driving a donated car worth less than $500. “We’ve now (reluctantly) begun crowdfunding to help with our legal costs and support our ongoing rescue work during this difficult time.”

Marmalade, left, and Cole play at the home of Chris Poole and Jessica Josephs in Citrus Park. [CHRIS URSO | Times (2018)]

Within three days, nearly 4,000 donors had given a total of more than $137,000. It was shared more than 40,000 times.

In response, Digital Pet Media filed a motion asking Poole be held in contempt of court, and stating that the Gofundme campaign is full of “misleading statements, falsities, and omissions."

Poole, it says, still owns one third of Digital Pet Media "and accepted distributions from Digital as recently as December of 2019 ($27,500.00) and February of 2020 ($5,000) ... In fact, since mid-2016, Poole and his wife have accepted more than $370,000 in income and distributions from Digital and its business partners in connection with revenues made from the Cole and Marmalade Network.”'

Digital Pet Media’s motion, which also demands the fundraiser be taken down, was denied by a judge Tuesday.

Related: How Tampa's Cole and Marmalade got famous, beat cancer and helped more cats

Attached as evidence in Digital Pet Media’s filings claiming that Poole is harming the company is a graph showing followers on Cole and Marmalade’s Facebook page plummeting by the thousands. There are also screenshots of profanity-filled Facebook messages from what it calls “a public mob” riled up against them by Poole’s claims.

In response, the company deactivated all of the Cole and Marmalade social media accounts to try to stem the bleeding. The company says it is now losing $2,500 a day, and Poole should pay it.

After receiving thousands of messages from upset or confused fans, Digital Pet Media posted an FAQ on coleandmarmalade.com to respond. “No, the Cole and Marmalade website was not stolen or hijacked ... ,” it reads. “Yes, the team does own cats. ... Yes, the Company did pay Christopher Poole and Jessica Josephs."

Watters did not respond to requests for comment. Poole said he was “amazed” by his fans’ support, but directed questions to his attorney Joseph F. Southron with Four Rivers Law Firm, who said it was not the firm’s policy to discuss facts of an ongoing case.

For those forced to go without fresh Cole and Marmalade pics, Josephs has posted occasional photos on her personal Instagram. Cole recently laid on his cat tree in the middle of the day. Marmalade was confused by a frog in the house. Both remain cute.

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