Family reveal how neighbour obsessed with their cat changed its name

Catnapped! Family reveal how a neighbour obsessed with their cat changed its name and collar and even went to court to keep it

  • Jackie and John Hall accused Nicola Lesbirel, 57, of adopting Ozzy as her own
  • They claimed she had fed Ozzy, meaning he spent long periods away from home
  • Ms Lesbirel has now promised she won’t feed Ozzy cat food, tinned fish or meat

Few would dispute that landscape designer Nicola Lesbirel appeared every inch the devoted cat owner.

Well-groomed and well-fed, Ozzy — a loveably furry Maine Coon — could frequently be found snoozing away the afternoon in Miss Lesbirel’s flat bearing a collar with her telephone number and the words ‘My Home’ engraved on it.

She also regularly took Ozzy to a local vet and, like many responsible pet lovers, hired a cat-sitter when she went on holiday.

Just one small snag: Ozzy didn’t belong to her — and never had.

Ozzy the cat, with his owner, Martha Hall and her mother Jackie. The Halls bought Ozzy — then an adorably fluffy kitten — as a birthday present for their daughter

Jackie Hall (left) accused Nicola Lesbirel (right, outside Central London County Court), 57, of adopting Ozzy as her own and even putting a collar displaying her phone number on him

That honour goes to her neighbours, John and Jackie Hall, whose £2.5 million house is 11 doors down from the £900,000 garden flat occupied by Miss Lesbirel, 57, on an exclusive West London street.

The Halls bought Ozzy — then an adorably fluffy kitten — as a birthday present for their daughter, Martha, seven years ago, and he quickly became a much-loved member of the family. 

So when Ozzy started to disappear for days, then weeks, at a time, the Halls were dismayed — and even more so when they realised that he was sequestered with their long-standing neighbour.

A series of polite but heartfelt pleas for Miss Lesbirel to stop taking him in and feeding him went unheeded. Pleas which, as the Mail revealed last week, proved to be the start of an emotional, highly charged battle that would finally culminate five years later in court, in a case costing £24,000 and which is believed to be the first of its kind in the UK.

Miss Lesbirel (pictured) agreed to stop feeding Ozzy or attempting to lure him into her home

It ended in victory for the Halls, with Miss Lesbirel making a series of legally binding promises to restrict her interaction with Ozzy.

This story of a feline tug of love made headlines around the world, with opinion equally divided between cat lovers delighted that someone had stood up for their rights and those mystified that it could come to this (although, according to John Hall, the latter are rather missing the point).

‘If you love your cat — which we do — it is incredibly upsetting to lose them in the way we did,’ he says.

‘Many people use the phrase, ‘You don’t own a cat, they own you’. But actually, we did own Ozzy. We looked after him, vaccinated him, and whether or not it is a cat, a dog or a bicycle, it’s not right that someone can say: ‘Do you know what, I fancy that,’ and help themselves.

‘If people did that with your bicycle, then no one would be in any doubt that it was theft. But with cats, somehow, it’s not taken seriously.

‘We’re aware that many people might look at this and think it’s some humorous middle-class spat or a case of ‘First World problems’.

‘But it just boiled down to one simple fact: we wanted our cat back. We had tried being civil and neighbourly and, when that failed, we had to take legal recourse.’

As the Halls discovered, even that is easier said than done, as the law remains decidedly woolly when it comes to ‘catnapping’.

While the most recent data shows that there were 1,114 recorded cat thefts in 2018 — a rise of 114 per cent in the past four years — the true picture is hard to ascertain, as Richard Jordan, founder of campaign group, explains.

‘The police have historically seen it as an ownership dispute,’ he says. ‘There is an offence under the 1968 Theft Act called Theft By Finding. But while the terms of that Act cover mushrooms in your garden, there is not one mention of pets, so it is hard to get legal intervention.’

It’s a sentiment echoed by Debbie Matthews, CEO of fellow campaigning organisation the Stolen And Missing Pets Alliance.

‘Legally it’s tricky,’ she says. ‘It’s hard to get a crime reference number from the police as they like to see very specific evidence.

‘It’s a big problem for cat owners, as part of ownership is to let your pet outdoors; and cats certainly won’t refuse a free meal while out on an adventure, which is often where disputes start.’

That was certainly the case for Ozzy, a 6kg bundle of grey and white fur with a decidedly leonine countenance, who is today safely back home snoozing in the Hall family kitchen.

Well-groomed and well-fed, Ozzy — a loveably furry Maine Coon — could frequently be found snoozing away the afternoon in Miss Lesbirel’s flat bearing a collar with her telephone number and the words ‘My Home’ engraved on it 

‘He’s such a wonderful boy: friendly, playful and he loves cuddles,’ says Jackie. ‘He sleeps on the children’s beds at night, and in the morning he comes and perches on my head. We all adore him.’

Long-standing cat lovers, John, 56, a managing director, and psychotherapist Jackie, 57, have lived on the same road in Hammersmith, for 20 years and raised their children Hamish, 24, Henry, 23, and 20-year-old Martha there, alongside moggies Milo and Coco, now an ageing 15.

Then, in summer 2013, they decided to expand their feline brood, buying a pair of kittens for their daughter Martha’s 13th birthday.

They spent £500 on two pedigree Maine Coons, Ozzy and his sister Pepper, and immediately had them microchipped.

At the time, they were on cordial terms with Miss Lesbirel, a highly successful designer who took gold at the 2004 Chelsea Flower Show for a project with Habitat founder Sir Terence Conran.

‘Nicola would message me to say Ozzy was in her garden. I didn’t think much of it, as Coco used to be a bit of a wanderer and it seemed to be in the same realm,’ Jackie says.

Ms Lesbirel lives in a £560,000 flat down the road to the Hall’s £2.3million home in London

Over the following year or so, however, the Halls noticed that Ozzy was increasingly absent, with Nicola repeatedly contacting them to say he was with her.

‘She insisted she wasn’t feeding him, but I was starting to think all this interaction was a bit odd,’ Jackie reflects.

By 2015, with Ozzy often away for days at a time, the Halls took the step of having a GPS tracker (which mapped his movements) put on Ozzy’s collar to try and work out what he was up to.

‘We weren’t particularly pointing the finger of suspicion in Nicola’s direction,’ says Jackie. ‘In fact, I emailed her to say we had taken the drastic step of fitting a GPS collar to work out where he was wandering.’

The collar showed he was spending large periods of time in Nicola’s flat. ‘I emailed her again asking her to stop letting him in’ says Jackie. ‘She replied to say that he had made the garden ‘his territory’, but still insisted she wasn’t feeding him.’

More emails — and pleas in person — followed, to no avail: over the course of the following 18 months, Ozzy was evermore AWOL.

Nicola Lesbirel, pictured in the Laurent-Perrier and Harpers and Queen garden, co-designed with Sir Terence Conran, as she won an RHS Gold Medal at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2004

By July 2017, Nicola had sent the Halls an email saying it was ‘best for everyone’ if he stayed with her.

‘She had basically just decided Ozzy was her cat,’ Jackie recalls. ‘It was incredibly upsetting for all of us.’

So much so that even the children tried their best to reason with their neighbour, hoping that their own personal entreaties would resonate where their parents’ had failed.

‘We went to her house and just asked very politely if she could stop feeding our cat,’ says Martha. ‘She said as long as he came to her, she would continue to feed him. We were quite shocked.’

In despair, Jackie texted Miss Lesbirel to say she was in tears in her kitchen over the loss of Ozzy.

‘I sent her a few more emotional messages over subsequent days to the same effect, but by then she was effectively ignoring me.’

Amid heated letters and emails, Miss Lesbirel claimed Ozzy was a ‘fixture’ in her home, saying: ‘He is very loved and well cared for and he is very attached to his territory and to me. Surely leaving him where he is determined to be is the best thing for everyone, feline and human.’

Mrs Hall responded by writing: ‘He is not your cat and we are not just giving him over to you.’

The final straw came in August 2017, when Ozzy wandered back through the Halls’ kitchen catflap with a new collar reading ‘My Home’ and Miss Lesbirel’s phone number on it.

‘She had taken our collar off and put on her own on,’ says Jackie. ‘That seemed to me not only an aggressive act, but an admission of theft.’

Not, however, in the eyes of the police, to whom the Halls now turned. ‘We are more than aware that they have enough on their plate, but we thought perhaps they could send a letter that might just help put an end to things,’ says John.

Alas not. The police said that without evidence of a ‘permanent intention to deprive’, the theft could not be proved. It was the same story at the council, who likewise said their hands were tied as they could not prove anti-social behaviour.

‘It felt like the end of the road, like a bereavement,’ says Jackie. ‘By this time we rarely saw Ozzy. He would wander through our garden occasionally, but a whole month would go by without us even setting eyes on him.’

When he did swing by, he would be wearing a new collar — placed on him time and again by Miss Lesbirel to replace the one put on by the Halls.

John and Jackie Hall’s £2.5 million house is 11 doors down from the £900,000 garden flat occupied by Miss Lesbirel, 57, on an exclusive West London street

Ms Lesbirel lives in a £560,000 home (centre left) in Hammersmith, West London

‘By this point it felt like she was goading me,’ says Jackie.

Nor did it seem the Halls had any paths left open to them — until a conversation with a friend who was a QC, Tom Weisselberg, left them thinking they might have an ace up their sleeve after all.

Tom had worked on a dispute between Kuwait Airways and Iraqi Airways in which the former successfully sued the latter for repainting and appropriating its planes during the Gulf War. He believed the same case law might apply in Ozzy’s case.

‘We’re incredibly grateful to Tom, who worked for us pro bono,’ explains John. ‘He explained to us the tort of conversion, which centres on the use of an asset inconsistent with the ownership. In our case, our neighbour had converted our cat by changing its collars. It’s not that we see Ozzy as an asset, but it was the only legal redress we had.’

Citing the law, the Halls sent a solicitor’s letter asking Nicola to make a basic undertaking to stop feeding Ozzy and letting him in. Miss Lesbirel did not reply, and removed Ozzy’s collar on a further two occasions, bringing the total number of collar exchanges to nine.

Mr and Mrs Hall live in a £2.3million property (centre) on the same road in Hammersmith

‘I do think any reasonable person would have looked at that solicitor’s letter and thought things had gone far enough. But, as the months went by, it became clear we were heading for court,’ says Jackie.

According to court papers, it seemed that by 2015 Miss Lesbirel had taken such a proprietary stance over Ozzy that she’d already talked to the vet the cat was registered with, telling him that she was in an ownership dispute.

‘He had very firmly told her he couldn’t treat the cat as it didn’t belong to her,’ says Jackie.

The Halls also subsequently discovered that Miss Lesbirel had taken Ozzy to another vet on at least 14 occasions, as well as trying to take out pet insurance for him.

‘Ozzy had even had an operation on a wounded leg that we had no idea about — although the records also showed that, most of the time, there was nothing wrong with him to justify the visits to the vet.

On October 14, 2019, the Halls were ensconced in the waiting room at Central London County Court awaiting a trial when Miss Lesbirel’s barrister, Richard Bottomley, suddenly appeared and offered to settle.

He argued that his client had simply felt ‘duty-bound’ to care for Ozzy, adding: ‘The cat is a sentient being and, as such, goes where he pleases.’

Miss Lesbirel agreed to stop feeding Ozzy or attempting to lure him into her home.

She later revealed that she had spent £24,000 — which she described as her life savings — on legal fees fighting the case.

‘I felt very sorry when I read that,’ John says. ‘But at the same time it was all incredibly avoidable. She could have signed the exact same undertaking months earlier when presented with it by her solicitor and avoided running up tens of thousands in fees mounting a defence. All we wanted her to do was stop feeding and taking in our cat.’

Jackie adds: ‘What is upsetting is that having read her witness statement, her defence boiled down to her assertion that we were unable or unwilling to look after Ozzy — which just wasn’t borne out by any evidence. Clearly, we were desperate to look after him, and we are so happy to have him home.’

Still, given the tumultuous events of recent years, it’s little wonder that the Halls’ catflap is currently barricaded until they feel confident they can release Ozzy into the back gardens of West London once more.

And what of Nicola Lesbirel? They insist they bear her no ill-will — although they are also baffled by one central point.

‘If she loves cats so much,’ asks Jackie, ‘then why doesn’t she just get one of her own?’

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