The 5-month-old kitten that Ken Pieri bought last October brought much-needed joy to the 85-year-old Grand Island man.
His wife was recovering from heart surgery. The cat he had owned for 18 years had to be put down. And then, suddenly, his son died. Lilly, the energetic and affectionate young tabby, often curled up on Pieri's lap. They were quick to bond.
So Pieri was crushed when, at the request of his ill wife, he gave away Lilly in March.
"I was so upset that I could not sleep and questioned whether I was morally doing the right thing about giving up a cat to which I had bonded," he said in court papers.
Then, the morning after he gave away Lilly, his wife said she had made a mistake. They needed Lilly. But phone calls, a desperate letter and even an offer of $2,000 couldn't pry back the kitten from her new owner.
Pieri went to the state Supreme Court. And what began as a rift over the laws of gift-giving became a lesson about coping with grief through a pet — and what happens when that companion is gone.
Last July, a doctor told Pieri and his wife of 16 years, Su, 79, that she needed a heart valve replaced.
"It was held by, like, a noodle," the real estate manager told The Buffalo News.
Su underwent open-heart surgery — an operation her husband called lifesaving — and spent the rest of the month and most of the next recovering with a slew of prescriptions.
Not long after his wife's return to their Grand Island home, Pieri lost a different companion he'd known for nearly two decades: Dolly, his 18-year-old, long-haired cat, who had become so sick that putting her down was the kindest choice, even if it was almost unbearable.
"I'm 85. I can hardly wait to meet that cat again," he said.
Pieri sought to soothe his sadness with a new pet. Last October, he bought a five-month-old kitten from PetSmart in Amherst for $120 and brought her home with a fistful of toys. The couple named her Lilly.
"She immediately bonded to me," Pieri said in court papers. "I never let her go out of the house for fear that she would run away, be attacked by a larger animal or catch some disease."
"She was one of the family," Pieri told The News. "She was smart as hell — she learned so fast."
He had hardly shown her how to use the cat door before she was bulleting through it.
Lilly's companionship took on even more meaning that December, when Pieri's 57-year-old son Mark died unexpectedly from a bout of pneumonia.
"I only had about 25 minutes notice of his illness," Pieri said in court papers. "While on my way to the hospital, the hospital called me to say that it was too late."
'I could not sleep'
Pieri loved nurturing Lilly. But his wife wanted her gone.
Ever since the kitten had arrived in October, Su had complained daily about Lilly getting into plants, getting underfoot or simply running around — even if the feline was just sitting nearby. She started limiting where the kitten could roam in the house. Then she demanded they get rid of her. Pieri was confused; Su had never fussed about Dolly, never tried to restrict her range in their home.
Su's mood had "changed from a loving, cheerful wife to that of one of anxiousness, short-temper, agitation and depression," he said in court papers.
When did it begin? After her heart surgery, when she came home with a list of 11 medications, whose side effects include depression, nervousness, panic disorder, memory problems and mood and behavior changes. Pieri saw a clear connection.
But as he put it in court papers, he was "caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place."
He worried about his wife's health and whether her agitation could trigger a relapse with her heart. At the same time, he had fallen for Lilly. The push-and-pull tore him.
After a few months, he gave in. His wife found Charlene Hill, who lives a few minutes away and was willing to take the pet. Hill declined to comment.
Late on the afternoon of March 19, Pieri watched as Lilly and her supplies were handed off in their dining room and carted away. He was too wracked to protest.
'Please return our cat'
Su woke her husband. It was 7 a.m., 15 hours after they had given away Lilly.
"What's the matter?" Pieri recalled asking.
"I think I made a mistake," Su replied.
"I want the cat back."
Half an hour later, they made their first call to get Lilly back. Then they drove to Hill's house and knocked on the door. No one was home.
Sometime that day, Pieri spoke to Hill, but to no avail, according to court papers. Hill said she had fallen in love with the kitten, Pieri recalled.
"That's like meeting a woman in a bar and in 15 hours marrying her," Pieri said to The News.
After that, Pieri called and wrote Hill repeatedly, pleading for Lilly's return. His wife had been down ever since they gave her up — she wanted Lilly back, too.
"I understand you recently had to put down your dog of 19 years," he wrote in a March 27 letter. "I fully understand how tragic something like that is for a pet owner. By the same token, my wife and I had almost the identical situation, wherein we had to put down our 19 year old cat."
The bottom line, he wrote, was that they all had faced trauma in the past few months.
"Please, please return our cat back to us," he wrote.
What happened to Lilly?
By April 11, Pieri had offered Hill $2,000 for the $120 kitten. He offered to add a $500 SPCA donation — which he planned to give in Hill's name — that day. Hill still declined.
Pieri filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court on May 15, arguing that his pet had been given away under duress and therefore was not a legally legitimate gift. Two days later, Justice Catherine Nugent Panepinto ordered Hill to give back the kitten within eight days and also set a June 8 court date for further proceedings.
But just when it looked like Pieri would see Lilly again, Hill told one of his lawyers that the kitten had run away on May 1, when a thunderstorm flooded her basement.
The two sides have settled — Pieri won back the kitten and he's forbidden from visiting Hill's property — but Pieri still knows nothing about Lilly's whereabouts.
Pieri said he doubts the feline ran away. He told The News he thinks Hill "parked [her] at a friend's house."
Regardless, all Pieri wants is Lilly back.
"Just to make my wife happy," he said.
By the time he found some sense of victory in his settlement, he had already lost so much.