The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that the Humane Society Waterville Area is not subject to the state laws governing release of public records, even though it takes in stray animals at the request of Waterville and 22 other area communities.

A decision issued Tuesday upheld a lower court ruling dismissing a claim by an Augusta woman that she had a right to inspect documents held by the humane society relating to her missing cat, which had been turned in to the shelter and later adopted by someone else.

Gina Turcotte, 45, of Augusta, filed suit in September 2013 seeking release of humane society records concerning the cat, a long-haired gray named Smokey. The cat was lost in September 2012 while Turcotte, homeless at the time, was staying at the Budget Host Inn in Waterville. It was picked up by a neighbor and turned in to the humane society.

Lisa Smith, who took over as operations manager at the humane society in September, said she was not familiar with the case.

“The happiest thing we ever do is reunite lost pets with owners who are bereft because they have lost their beloved pet,” said Smith. “There’s so many missing cats out in the community and so many cats coming into the animal shelter that you’d think it’d be easy to match them up, but it’s not. It takes a lot of work to reunite cats and their owners.”

In Waterville, the animal shelter takes in between 60 and 100 stray cats every month, said Smith. She estimated that only about four percent are reunited with their owners, while about 70 percent of stray dogs get reunited with their owners. When a stray gets dropped off, the shelter always lists it on the website Maine Lost Cat Recovery and on the humane society’s Facebook page, said Smith. She also advises people to call their local police department and animal control officer and to put either a microchip or a breakaway collar on their pet.

Turcotte said she had called the humane society to ask if the cat, described in the lawsuit as a service animal with therapeutic benefits, had been dropped off, but she was never contacted by the society. She saw the cat, renamed Shamoo, posted on the humane society Facebook page in January 2014 with a statement announcing that the cat had been adopted. She doesn’t know who adopted it and hasn’t been able to ask them whether they would consider returning the cat because the humane society has refused to disclose the information, said Turcotte.

The humane society, a nonprofit organization, won an earlier lawsuit filed by Turcotte attempting to have the cat returned. State law allows shelters to put stray cats up for adoption after 48 hours, and after a cat has a new home, there is nothing the shelter can do to regain custody of the animal or force the new owner to return the pet, said Smith.

“I haven’t stopped looking for him. I’m just so heartbroken,” said Turcotte. “I believe he’s being taken care of and that the people who have him have no clue they’ve gotten into this mess. I want to approach them in a peaceful, civil manner and ask them to please give my cat back.”

In the lawsuit, Turcotte argued that the humane society should be subject to the state’s public records law because it has contracts with Waterville and other area communities to collect and care for stray animals and is an “organization that normally receives a substantial part of its support from a governmental unit.”

The decision, written by Justice Warren Silver, held the humane society does perform a governmental function by providing food, shelter and medical services to stray animals under contracts with local communities. However, the decision rejected Turcotte’s claim that the humane society is subject to a public records request, finding that the organization can’t be considered a public agency because it receives the bulk of its funding from private donations. It was privately created and its operations are under no significant government control, according to the ruling.

The test the court used in determining the humane society is not subject to the public records request was initially used in a case in 2001 in which the town of Burlington sued Hospital Administrative District 1 for access to records at Penobscot Valley Hospital. It requires consideration of whether the entity is performing a governmental function, whether its funding comes from the government, the extent of government control and whether the entity was created privately or by passage of legislation.

Turcotte adopted Smokey and a kitten called “The Bandit” that has since died from a Craigslist ad in 2008 while living in South China. He was about five years old at the time he went missing, and Turcotte described him as an adventurer, very independent and a cat who refused to stay inside and would climb the walls of the house demanding to be let outside.

She said she plans to appeal the state supreme court decision to the federal court

“I still plan to get him back. I will not stop,” she said.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

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Twitter: @rachel_ohm