Downtime

“Stuff Happens”: The West Texas Lawyer Who Appeared as a Big-Eyed Kitten in Zoom Court on His Harrowing Ordeal

A Zoom screenshot of four videoconference windows, one of which is a notice from the 394th Judicial District Court, two of which have men in them, and the last of which has a kitten with googly eyes.
Uh-oh. Photo illustration by Slate. Screenshot from YouTube.

The cat got lawyer Rod Ponton’s tongue Tuesday in virtual court—after a cat filter briefly got his face. Ponton, who works as an attorney for Texas’ Presidio County, showed up to a Zoom hearing on Tuesday prepared to discuss a civil forfeiture action, but in the square where he was used to seeing his own face staring back at him, he was surprised to discover a kitten with oversize sad eyes sitting there instead. What’s more, the animal was mimicking his facial expressions, shifting its eyes in sync with his own and moving its mouth when he talked. “Mr. Ponton, I believe you have a filter turned on,” the courtroom’s judge said. “I don’t know how to remove it,” the kitten said back in Ponton’s voice. “I’ve got my assistant here, she’s trying to.” Still, he was unfazed: “I’m prepared to go forward with it. I’m here live. I’m not a cat.”

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All of this was captured in a clip that’s since gone viral as a now-familiar kind of remote work cautionary tale, wherein a kitten’s cartoonishly desperate eyes speak to a weary nation’s soul. But the judge and the lawyer involved insist that it wasn’t as big a deal as all that; they were able to remove the filter mere seconds after the clip ends. “Obviously it was amusing, but if you watch carefully, you’ll see that everyone was extremely professional,” District Judge Roy Ferguson told an impromptu Zoom press conference this afternoon, pronouncing the incident “just another day in Zoom virtual court.” When reached by phone, Ponton—who, again, is not a cat—took a few minutes to recount his side of the not-so-harrowing tale to Slate. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Heather Schwedel: So, uh, what happened?

Rod Ponton: The district court has had all of its hearings via Zoom for several months, you know, to be safe with the COVID epidemic. This computer was also my office computer, but it’s primarily used by one of my secretaries who has young children. And for some reason she had a cat filter. Instead of my video, the cat popped up.

Your secretary must feel terrible.

Oh yeah, she was embarrassed. She couldn’t figure out how to get rid of it. The judge told us how to do it.

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That’s lucky that the judge knew how to do it. I don’t think I would have known.

He’s a very computer-literate person. The judge told me what to click on, to get rid of the filter, and my less cute face finally popped up, and we continued with our hearing.

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Did you panic when your face was a big-eyed cat?

Well, I was just embarrassed. You try to present your best face to the district judge, instead of an image of a cat.

It was a very cute cat at least.

Stuff happens.

Did you even know that Zoom had the capability to turn you into a cat?

I didn’t. It was a surprise to me.

Are you worried that it made you look unprofessional?

No, no, it’s just one of those little computer snafus that happens in our age where we’re trying to take care of everything by Zoom. It’s now apparently gone viral, so that’s pretty funny.

Yeah, I think a lot of people were pretty amused.

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We have a sense of humor out here in West Texas. If I can make everybody smile for a moment, today I’m happy to do it, even at my own expense.

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Did your secretary figure out which of her kids was using the computer last and what they were doing exactly?

I couldn’t tell you. I do not know. We got rid of the cat image and continued and finished our hearing. And that was the end of that.

If you were to pick an animal that you would want to use as your filter in court, would it be a cat or would you go with a different animal?

Uh … for today, I’ll stick with a cat.

Do you have any pets at home?

A little dog.

So you wouldn’t want to be a dog in court?

I don’t know. I don’t usually try to portray myself as an animal. This is all new to me.

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