Post-Hurricane Katrina pet custody cases challenge adoptions

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2006:

BATON ROUGE–Pet custody cases arising out of the
post-Hurricane Katrina animal rescue effort are presenting a
nationwide challenge to some animal advocates who have worked for
decades to promote recognition of pets as family members, and to
strengthen anti-pet theft laws.
“People who first considered themselves foster caregivers now
say some Katrina pet lovers don’t deserve their animals back,”
summarized Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Kathy Boccella in a
mid-July profile of four cases that are expected to soon go to court.
“They cite failure to have animals spayed or neutered and not getting
rabies and heartworm prevention as evidence of unfit care.”
Also often mentioned by defendants in Katrina-related custody
disputes is that many people who were displaced by Katrina were
allegedly slow to begin searching for their animals. Most apparently
waited until they returned to their homes and found no trace of
missing pets before going to the Internet, many as first-time
Internet users.

The cases involve “almost entirely a movement of animals from
poor blacks to middle-class whites,” Florida animal rights lawyer
and author Steven Wise told Boccella. Boccella examined disputes
between Katrina refugee Sheila Combs and adopters Lynne and Joseph
Welsh, Katrina refugee Malvin Cavalier and adopter Lisa Fox, and
two Katrina refugees, Army Lieutenant Jay Johnson and Linda Charles,
who have separately sued the Dallas-based SPCA of Texas over custody
of a shih tzu and a German shepherd.
Many of the stereotypes do not apply to the animals involved
in the lawsuits. Combs’ dog, for example, was neutered; Cavalier,
86, identified and began trying to recover his dog in October 2005.
Summarized Boccella, “Rescue workers left spray-painted
notes on houses and posted information on Internet sites to help
people locate their animals. But by the time Katrina survivors were
resettled and ready to search, many pets had found new homes. Some
groups set deadlines for owners to retrieve animals. After that,
they were considered eligible for adoption. But under Louisiana law,
residents have three years to claim lost property,” including pets.
The Louisiana Attorney General’s Office has assigned staff
member Mimi Hunley to help resolve pending lawsuits originating from
Katrina rescues. Hunley has reportedly resolved about 15, but as
many as 20 may go to court.
Many of the conflicts have resulted from the work of Stealth
Rescuers, an Internet activist network formed after Katrina to help
evacuees find their animals.
“I don’t think people realize how little choice these
Louisiana residents had in leaving their pets,” Hunley told Demorris
A. Lee of the St. Petersburg Times.
Lee investigated the cases of Master Tank and Nila, two dogs
who before Katrina belonged to Steven and Dorreen Couture of St.
Bernard, Louisiana. “Master Tank and Nila were among nearly 290
animals brought to the Humane Society of Pinellas County’s Clearwater
shelter in September,” Lee wrote. “In October, the dogs were
adopted by Hillsborough assistant state attorney Pam Bondi and Rhonda
Rineker of Dunedin. The Coutures have now gone to court to get them
back. A trial is scheduled for mid-November.”
Former Humane Society of Pinellas County director Rick
Chaboudy signed an agreement with St. Bernard Parish stipulating that
animals from the parish would not be adopted out to new homes before
November 1. Chaboudy, 53, who headed the humane society for more
than 20 years, resigned in May.
Superior Court Judge Rosemarie Williams, of Somerset County,
New Jersey, ruled in January 2006 in the first adjudicated case
between a Katrina victim and an adopter that Pam and George Behmke,
of Flemington, had to return a black Great Dane to Annabelle
Arguello of Louisiana. Arguello left three dogs for safekeeping at
the Lamar-Dixon rescue center operated by the Humane Society of the
U.S., later recovered two of them, and spent six weeks tracing the
Great Dane.

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