“A movement of animals from poor blacks to middle-class whites.”
BATON ROUGE, Louisiana––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 2006 profile of four cases that are expected to soon go to court.
Disputed “evidence of unfit care”
“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.”
First adjudicated case sent dog back to family
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.