Katrina Dogs Go Home – Custody Battle Finally Over
Well, two of them do anyway. This is a story fraught with controversy, legalities, custody battles, happiness and heartbreak. And it’s just one of many.
As Katrina’s waters overcame the city of New Orleans, residents poured out, many evacuated and forced to leave their beloved pets behind. The lucky ones were rescued and taken to Camp Lucky, an animal rescue camp established by the National Guard, which is where Master Tank, a St. Bernard, and Nila, a Shepherd mix, wound up.
The Coutures never wanted to give up their dogs. After his wife and grandchildren evacuated, Mr Couture stayed through the hurricane, even as 8 feet of water filled the house. He moved himself and his beloved pets to the top floor for safety. Aside from Master Tank and Nila, he also had Sandy, a Chihuahua and two dogs belonging to neighbors he was trying to care for.
Then the boats came and Mr Couture was forced to leave, and leave the dogs behind, only people allowed. After finding all the food and water he could to provide for the dogs he reluctantly left, swimming under water to get through doorways to the evacuation boat along with two other family members.
Days later when he finally made it where the rest of his family was he had to break the devastating news, he was forced to leave the dogs behind.
It was almost two weeks later when Mrs. Couture’s brother was able to make it back to the parish using family connections to get through. He was able to smuggle the Chihuahua out under his shirt and could see the other dogs were not doing well, having only toxic water to drink. He left them more food and water and went about getting them help. He took them to Camp Lucky on September 18 and they were signed in as ‘owned’ under Steve Couture’s name, as you can see by the intake picture of Master Tank, the St. Bernard.
On Sept 21, Master Tank and Nila, two of 288 Katrina dogs were taken to Pinellas Humane Society in Florida. After a period of 30 days the dogs were put up for adoption. Master Tank was adopted first, on October 14 to Pam Bondi and Nila on October 28 to Rhonda Rineker.
And the saga really starts from here. It wasn’t bad enough that the Coutures lost their home and basically their entire life, when they tried to retrieve their pets they were met by mountains of red tape, ignored phone calls, outright lies and deception on the part of the Humane Society they say.
Humane society officials say they followed county law, which required that groups taking animals from disaster areas hold them for 30 days before adoptions become final. Representatives of the humane society also claim that they did their best to find the owners of the dogs, although officials have declined to say publicly what actions were taken.
The Coutures finally tracked down the location of their dogs in January, after finding copies of the original paperwork from the Camp Lucky files.
They were aided in contacting the Pinellas Humane Society by Ceily Trog, manager of St. Bernard Parish Animal Control, and a well-respected local leader in animal welfare.
Trog said she could not even get the director of the Pinellas Humane Society, Rick Chaboudy, to return her phone calls. Then, other people working with the Coutures obtained the names of the board members of the humane society, and also began to contact local officials to complain.
Eventually, in March, people working on behalf of the Coutures were able to obtain the spreadsheet of information about the Katrina dogs at Pinellas, with the help of Dr. Kenny Mitchell, Pinellas County’s director of veterinary services.
In the midst of all this controversy, Chaboudy abruptly resigned from his post at the humane society, which he had held for nearly 20 years. As a result of coverage of the Coutures’ dilemma, the county adopted an ordinance in June that mandates that all adoptions of animals rescued from an emergency situation would be conditional for six months.
Trog says dealing with the Pinellas Humane Society was a struggle from the beginning. Far from doing everything they could to locate owners, she believes the staff of the humane society was obstructionist and dishonest â€“ at one time even claiming that the paperwork for Master Tank and Nila indicated they had been surrendered by their owners.
“We heard just one lie after another, anything to keep these people from getting back their pets, as if they hadn’t been through enough,” she says. “They are asking in the papers, ‘Why did it take these owners so long to come forward?’ Well, it took them so long because the humane society obscured where the animals were, downright lied, and didn’t give people a chance to reclaim them.” (Best Friends Network)
When the Coutures tried to reclaim Master Tank, renamed Noah by Bondi, the fight began. It turned into an international media circus.
Biondi claimed she saved the dog’s life. When she got him she says Master Tank was emaciated, full of intestinal worms, had a broken nose, eye and ear infections, stomach problems, and severe heartworm disease. Biondi didn’t try to pin all Noah’s problems on the Coutures but the heartworm she feels was obviously an pre-existing and life-threatening problem and in contacting Nila’s new owner, Rineker, found Nila, renamed Gracie, also heartworm positive.
The vets at Camp Lucky who examined the dogs prior to transport to Florida assert the dogs were reasonable healthy and were given shots for intestinal worms, a condition which they needed to watch out for considering the conditions many of the Katrina dogs had faced.
In the beginning of July 2006 the Coutures filed suit with the assistance of a pro bono attorney and a fund that was set up to aid financially in their legal battle. For most of a year this dragged on, accusations and recriminations and a high media profile from Bondi.
Finally yesterday it ended. Reniker who adopted Nila maintained a low profile during the whole thing and had returned her to the Coutures already and Master Tank was returned after the press conference.
Katrina Dogs Heading Home – This is just one of the many stories in ‘the final chapter’ of this saga that should never have been. When the Coutures tried to reclaim their dogs the new owners should have relinquished them. Bondi’s media theatrics and grandstanding did nothing but waste time and money and keep a dog from a family that loved him.
Pam Bondi stepped up with a torrent of resistance and outright lied to hang on to a dog she knew belonged to this family. The story was shameful. A trial was scheduled to begin shortly, one I believe Ms. Bondi would not have won. She would have us believe now that she visited the Couture family and she decided they were fit enough to return the dog to… also shameful. The character of this family was never at odds but Ms. Bondi has managed to forgo a trial she would not have won and the family has even agreed she may visit the dog or have visitation… something Bondi needed a Judge to order her to do when the shoe was on the other foot. She has caused this family undue stress and financial loss as well as confused the dog even more by holding it for such an incredible amount of time knowing he would one day go home. Shame on her… she should save her “spin” for the Fox network. (Best Friends Network)
Mrs. Couture says the family has now moved into a four-bedroom house with an acre of land, and is fully prepared to take care of the dogs again.
“They were well taken care of, they were loved, and it is time for them to come home,” she says.
Mrs. Couture says that Master Tank and Nila, both four years old, were absolutely devoted to each other, and one of her biggest concerns was that they had been separated.
Now the Coutures can take their beloved pets who they searched and fought for for well more then a year to their new home.
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