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Law a little fuzzy

Courts aren't inclined to consider what's best for the animal when ownership is at issue. Legally, that lovable sack of fur is just a piece of property. Some new cases will test that.

By COLLEEN JENKINS
Published July 16, 2006


Every evening, Maximo the Afghan hound gets fresh meat and vegetables.   His weekly bath includes two shampoos, conditioner and a blow-dry.

“This dog is treated like a kid here,” Joan Beerman said of the care Maximo gets at her Tampa home.
But when a judge considers later this month whether Joan and Fred Beerman violated a verbal custody agreement they had with Maximo’s breeders, the dog’s welfare won’t have much legal standing.

People may treat their dogs like children, but the law doesn’t.

The issue of pets as property is playing out in courthouses nationwide as people separated from pets during Hurricane Katrina now are trying to pry loose their animals from adoptive homes.

In a highly publicized local case, Hillsborough prosecutor Pam Bondi will go to trial in November to fight to keep a St. Bernard from owners she believes didn’t properly care for it before the storm.

Cases like hers are being closely watched by animal rights activists and animal law experts, who say judges could carve new precedent if they consider a pet’s best interests when deciding who gets to keep it.

“There is a major problem right now,” said David Favre, who teaches a course on animal law at Michigan State University. “Whether or not you treat something right, if it’s property, simply is not relevant.”

Try convincing adoring pet owners of that. The law may check emotion at the door, but people who endure hefty legal bills and prolonged court battles on behalf of their animals don’t equate them with a car or a couch.

Take, for example, the Beermans. The couple, both in their early 70s, have spent $5,000 on attorney’s fees since getting served with an injunction three years ago by their dog’s breeders. The breeders, Michael Cuevas and Jesus Llano, said the Beermans were planning to sneak Maximo out of town and have him neutered.

The Beermans, who wanted to groom Maximo as a show dog, said they had planned no such thing.

The two sides settled last year on an agreement that required the Beermans to allow Maximo’s semen to be collected twice a month and to notify the breeders prior to visits to the vet, Joan Beerman said.

The couple stopped showing the 5-year-old champion dog because they said they feared that Cuevas and Llano would try to nab it.

Now the Beermans are headed back to court. Cuevas and Llano want the dog back, alleging that the Beermans violated the agreement.

“We’ve gone through a lot of aggravation and expense to keep this dog,” Joan Beerman said. “We just want to keep him and keep him safe.”

A few areas of the law have distinguished pets from property, but not always with success.

Some judges in divorce cases have set up visitation schedules for divorcing spouses quibbling over custody of their pets, which don’t fall under child custody rules.

Such agreements run into two problems: They’re frequently violated and appellate courts often overturn them. In a 1995 case out of Duval County, the 1st District Court of Appeal said a dog named Roddy must be evenly distributed like any other marital property.

“It’s really quite a step to abandon the property mode and treat the dog like a child,” said William Reppy Jr., a law professor at Duke University, one of about 60 law schools in the country that offer classes on animal law. “There are some cases where this is happening but it is by agreement” between the spouses and their attorneys.

In the Duval case, appellate judges did not mince words on the difference between pets and children.

“Our courts are overwhelmed with the supervision of custody, visitation and support matters related to the protection of our children,” the opinion read. “We cannot undertake the same responsibility as to animals.”

As animal rights activists continue to push for what they believe the law should be — that is, animals are different from property — folks who love the furry critters among us carry out their own versions of justice.

Last November, Tara Hood rescued a flea-ridden, food-starved kitten off the street outside her building contractor business in Tampa. She cleaned it, got its shots and made an appointment to have it spayed.

Two weeks later, a couple showed up claiming she had stolen their pet. Within days, there was a warrant out for her arrest. People picketed outside her office at rush hour. One protestor’s sign said “Tara Hood is a thief.”

Facing arrest, Hood still hesitated to relinquish the cat. She believed its initial owners should have had it spayed and kept it inside, away from the busy city streets.

“People are like, 'Why don’t you just give the dog or cat back?’ ” she said last week.

Hood, who has fostered cats for five years, returned the cat, mostly because she began to worry for her personal safety. Hillsborough’s animal services department also promised to keep an eye on it.

“My concern was for the cat,” she said. “It’s honestly a true love of animals.”

In the tangles between Katrina pet owners and those who took in their lost pets, similar fact patterns are emerging, said Favre,  who runs a comprehensive Web site on animal law.

On one side are those who argue they never intended to abandon their pets. They include Steven and Dorreen Couture, a New Orleans couple who sued Bondi of Tampa and Rhonda Rineker of Dunedin for refusing to return the dogs they were separated from during the hurricane.

Same goes for Thomas Exnicious III, a New Orleans man who is waging his own court battle to reclaim his chihuahua named Tricksy. The North Carolina woman who adopted Tricksy won’t give it back out of concern for the dog’s well-being, court records show.

“It is regrettable that we have to take this severe an action on behalf of a family that has already suffered enough,” said Carrie Ryan, a Charlotte, N.C., lawyer who is representing Exnicious.

On the other side are the adoptive owners like Bondi. She said she would have driven her adopted St. Bernard back to New Orleans herself if it didn’t have heart worms, which she believes indicates the dog didn’t receive needed medication before Katrina.

If judges stick to a strict construction of dogs as property, the new owners’ argument won’t go far, experts said.

“They have absolutely no right to keep the dog,” Reppy, the Duke professor, said of post-Katrina owners. “You can’t lose your ownership in an emergency when the state of mind is so clear. It’s just preposterous.”

Cathy Wos contributed to this story. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

[Last modified July 16, 2006, 00:14:49]


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