The up side of going to jail for Oscar the cat’s freedom, Ivy Garlynd recalls, is that she managed to catch up on things. She read Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle and Isabel Allende’s Eva Luna and finally finished writing thank-you notes for gifts she and her second husband received when they were married last August. She also got to watch Oprah Winfrey. “I kind of planned it like a vacation. It was going to be a time when I wasn’t cleaning house, talking on the phone, working, or shuffling kids around.”

Garlynd checked into the Dane County Jail in Madison, Wisconsin, last January rather than pay more than $200 in fines Oscar accrued when he was picked up back in 1986 without collar, tags, or leash. According to a public official, “Free-roaming cats are a menace to public and animal health.” She served seven days and says she’d do it again if she had to. She believes local ordinances that prevent cats from roaming freely are ridiculous.

“Why not require leashes for ducks? Or squirrels? People say leashes are for a cat’s own protection. Well, I see more squirrels that have been squished by cars than I see cats. My cats are too street smart to get hurt. They can feel a car’s vibration, they can hear the engine, and they can certainly see. Of course accidents will occur. But that’s life.”

As Garlynd explains that Oscar has always been an outdoor cat, the 15-year-old tabby Manx settles on the couch next to her and begins purring loudly. “He’s never been restricted by a collar or leash. He’s had his shots, but he doesn’t wear tags, because he rips the collar off. I suppose if you took a little kitten and warped it into a fluff pillow you could get it to walk on a leash. But Oscar wasn’t raised that way. He lived on farms.”

More amplified purring pours out of Oscar.

Garlynd owns two cats, but Oscar is the only one that’s been caught. “He doesn’t move when someone approaches, that’s why,” she says. But she insists he’s no menace. “He doesn’t pick fights, and he’s too slow to kill birds. He just likes to follow the sun.”

While Garlynd was in jail her husband made a few phone calls to the press, and shortly after she was released the Wisconsin State Journal, Madison’s morning daily, ran a detailed story and a front-page photo showing Garlynd looking through the bars of a dining-room chair. A series of letters to the editors followed, from angry and “horrified” cat lovers who scolded Garlynd for refusing to keep her pets indoors. Isthmus, Madison’s alternative weekly paper, questioned a system that turns cat owners into criminals and published a cartoon that showed Oscar on Larry King Live!

Garlynd, who keeps a bulging file of press clippings, bemoans the lack of public sympathy on newspaper opinion pages. “I know people backed me because I got personal letters and phone calls from all over the state commending me for standing up for my rights.” She says people still applaud her when they visit the stand where she sells homemade cheesecake on Saturdays at Madison’s farmers’ market. “Maybe people who let their cats roam have better things to do than write letters to the editor.”

Animal rights is an issue dear to Madison. You can’t attend the circus here without crossing picket lines, and protesters usually turn out en masse at the University of Wisconsin Primate Center on World Laboratory Animal Liberation Day in April. A project that would widen a skinny city park (built on landfill) along Lake Monona has been on hold for years because environmentalists contend it would endanger the fish. Garlynd doesn’t think of Oscar’s case as an animal-rights issue. “The animal-rights people are the ones who would keep the cat inside. This issue is freedom.”

Garlynd also went to jail back in 1991, after a Dane County sheriff’s deputy pulled her over for speeding and discovered a warrant was out for her arrest on another cat-at-large charge. “I asked if he was going to arrest me, and he looked at me with this real serious expression and said, ‘It’s the law, ma’am.'” She was frisked, handcuffed, and taken to Dane County Jail, but released later that day.

She turned herself in last January to avoid a similar surprise, and discovered the downside of jail. “They treat you as if you’re a child abuser–no matter what you go in for. They didn’t know that I was just a person who lets her cats outside.” Her inability to take her offense seriously did not work for her. “I thought they were mean and rude to me, but they said I was ‘demanding.’ They threw me in isolation.” That was the first night.

She admits that in the beginning she did her best to mock a system that would imprison a wayward cat owner. “My husband brought me to jail in handcuffs with the warrant I had received for my arrest. He told them that he could no longer harbor a ‘known criminal.'”

It was Monday morning, however, and admissions were backed up. Jail personnel told Garlynd it would be two and a half hours before they could book her. The couple went home for a champagne lunch. “I wasn’t intoxicated when they booked me, but they didn’t like that I had been drinking,” she says. Or as Sergeant Ron Boylan of the Madison Police Department told the State Journal, “We don’t take much crap when we’re trying to do our jobs.”

Garlynd further irritated the jail people when she smiled for her mug shot and informed a guard that she’d received two top parts of the regulation uniform and no bottoms. “I guess I should have humbly asked for a pair of bottoms. Instead I made a little joke about what I was supposed to do with the second pair of tops. I couldn’t help myself. But I learned quickly.”

What she learned was that a seven-day sentence for a cat-at-large rap could mushroom into six months if she pissed off the wrong people. “I had no idea that they can keep adding time to your sentence. It’s like going into the hospital for your appendix and winding up with blood poisoning.”

Another thing she didn’t know was that the system works at its own paper-clogged pace. “When I got to jail I asked to see a counselor so I could arrange for work release. But they don’t talk to you.” (She’d picked a week when her cheesecake business was slow and her two young sons were scheduled to stay with their father, but she still needed to get to her part-time job as a unit clerk at the University of Wisconsin Hospital.) “They told me I should have filled out all the forms before I turned myself in. Once you’re in the system you’re screwed. You have to write a request for everything. Even if you’re an epileptic having a seizure and you need your meds, you’d still have to write them a note–and they’d have to write you a note back.”

After two days at the county jail Garlynd was transferred to the Ferris Center, the city’s jail for work-release prisoners, but she wasn’t allowed out for three more days. By that time she’d missed work. “I couldn’t call in sick because I had no phone privileges. I couldn’t even call home.”

There was no law against roaming cats when Oscar, already full grown with buckshot in one leg, wandered into Garlynd’s life years ago when she lived on a commune farm in Oregon. Even then she had to stand up for his freedom. “We weren’t allowed to have pets. But Oscar showed up in my room one day. I don’t know where he came from. I kept throwing him out, and I didn’t feed him. But he kept coming back. There was a dormer window in the room–I think maybe he liked the sun.”

At the next house meeting she explained that Oscar had moved into her room and that she would take full responsibility for him if everyone else would stretch the rules. They did. Yet later she almost lost him when she took a vacation that became an extended absence. When she returned she learned that some of the commune members had taken him for a one-way drive. “I asked them where they’d left Oscar, and I went looking for him,” she says. She found him living under an assumed name on a farm near the dumping point.

Nowadays Oscar walks with a stiff-legged gait and never wanders far from home. “He follows me to the park sometimes,” Garlynd says. Mostly he stays near his front yard.

“Both times he was picked up he was on this block,” says Garlynd, who believes he was betrayed by a neighbor who keeps her own cats inside and “doesn’t have a life.”

By the time I left Oscar was stretched out on a sunny patch of sidewalk in front of the house, once again breaking the law.

For information on Madison, see the Visitors’ Guide in this issue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.