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To get past disaster, they want their dogs

A lot of things have hurt the Coutures recently. Add to the list: not getting their dogs back after Katrina.

By DEMORRIS A. LEE
Published July 12, 2006


[Times photo: Kathleen Flynn]
Steven Couture, right, standing with his family in the house he built and Katrina destroyed, says he saved Master Tank and wants his dogs back. “Those are my dogs,” he said. “I took care of them.”

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ST. BERNARD, La. - From the second floor of the house he built himself, Steven Couture pointed to the back yard where his dogs Nila and Master Tank used to play.

It once was a nice house, with hardwood floors, a wall-mounted big screen TV and a hand-crafted wrought-iron staircase.

That was before Hurricane Katrina flooded the downstairs to eye-level, leaving dried mud and grass stains on the walls.

Now Steven and Dorreen Couture pronounced ka-TOUR salvage what they can from the life they used to have. So on Saturday, when their grandson found Master Tank's old leash, their faces lit up.

They felt the same joy in January when they thought they had tracked their lost dogs to a Pinellas County shelter. "Yes," Steven Couture said he thought. "The angels are looking after us."

But their euphoria was short-lived. The Pinellas Humane Society had adopted their dogs to two families who refuse to return them.

And they aren't alone.

In Louisiana, about 20 people have contacted the office of Assistant Attorney General Mimi Hunley for help retrieving rescued animals.

Historically, Louisiana law has given property owners in such circumstances three years to recover their property. But now things are murky because the animals were taken to other states, Hunley said.

"These animals are the last vestiges of what they had of their pre-Katrina lives," she said. "I don't think people realize how little choice these Louisiana residents had in leaving their pets under these unprecedented circumstances."

Master Tank and Nila were among nearly 290 animals brought to the Humane Society's Clearwater shelter in September.

In October, the Coutures' dogs were adopted by Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Pam Bondi and Dunedin's Rhonda Rineker. The Coutures have now gone to court to get them back. A trial is scheduled for mid November.

Bondi, who appeared Monday night on the Fox News show On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, has said Master Tank, which she renamed Noah, had a life-threatening case of heart worms before the storm.

"We are just hard-working people who are trying to recover from a disaster," Steven Couture said. "But they are making us out to be people who are cruel to animals. I can't lie to you. It hurts."

Steven and Dorreen Couture have been married 32 years, and they have been sweethearts since they were 15. Steven, 50, spent a little more than three years in the Navy and works as a carpenter. Dorreen, 49, is a former teacher's aide.

Steven Couture contends he saved Master Tank, who is now 4. His original owner, a neighbor, was about to take him to the Humane Society after the 10-month-old puppy chewed her swimming pool.

"I took him," Steven Couture said. "When she gave me Tank, she gave me his papers and his heart worm medication, and we have always made sure that he and Nila take their medicine. Those are my dogs. I took care of them."

The Coutures have been forced to cope with other losses. Their eldest son, Jason, died in 1989 at 13 from diabetes. Then in September 2004, a second son, Steven, 25, a carpenter like his father, shot and killed his girlfriend, then went to his brother Jason's tomb and shot himself.

Now the Coutures have custody of their 7-year-old granddaughter Cassidy and 4-year-old grandson Steven.

"I'm trying to protect the kids and they are not old enough yet to know about their parents' death," Steven Couture said. "We tell them that their parents are angels and they went to heaven. People have to understand that loss and it's fresh and we can't talk about it."

Raising the children in a safe place is their priority, they say, given the drastic changes in all of their lives in the past two years.

"I really enjoy being a grandmother, though," Dorreen Couture said with a chuckle. "Now I have to discipline them and all that. At one time, I could just spoil them and send them home."

The Couture's insurance company paid them $28,000 for the loss of their home. They now live in a ranch-style home that they bought on an acre of land in Talisheek, La., about an hour north of St. Bernard Parish.

Steven Couture said he's going to try to rebuild his home, but for now he's focused on pulling his family back together. The family insists they are not interested in any money, just Master Tank and Nila.

"People e-mail and say that we should go buy new dogs," he said. "But the dogs are a part of our family. Are they humans? No. But they are a part of our family. We love them. They are our dogs and we want them back."

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report, which used information from the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Demorris A. Lee can be reached at dalee@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4174.

[Last modified July 12, 2006, 06:37:15]


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