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Rescued Katrina dogs are property, judge rules

The court case over the dogs’ ownership becomes a narrow legal issue, not a dispute over who provides the best home.

Published September 22, 2006

Two dogs rescued from Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and adopted by two Tampa Bay-area residents will be considered personal property during a court dispute over the dogs’ ownership, a judge ruled Friday.

Rhonda Rineker of Dunedin, Pam Bondi of Tampa and the Pinellas Humane Society are being sued by Steven and Dorreen Couture of Louisiana in an effort to get back a Saint Bernard and a shepherd-mix rescued by the Humane Society after Hurricane Katrina. The St. Bernard was adopted by Bondi and the shepherd mix by Rineker.

Murray Silverstein, the St. Petersburg attorney representing the Coutures, asked Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Henry J. Andringa to consider the dogs personal property and not “as a living, and breathing creature capable of feeling pain, pleasure, and emotion” as requested by Rineker’s attorney, Jeff Brown.

Silverstein said Florida, Louisiana and the majority of the states consider dogs personal property and that it would set the law back 100 years if a judge decided otherwise.

“Now, you don’t get into subjective factors, like who has a better home,” Silverstein said after Friday’s hearing in St. Petersburg. “We are back to a level playing field.”

Silverstein said what will be considered now is whether there is sufficient evidence to prove the Coutures owned the dogs, that they didn’t abandon them, and whether they put their dogs in a temporary home after they lost their home.

Brown questioned why the plaintiffs would want to prevent a court from deciding what is in the best interests of the dog.

“Wouldn’t you think they would welcome such an inquiry? What are they afraid of?” Brown asked. “Instead of welcoming such an inquiry— as my client does — they want to bar any such inquiry and treat the dog as nothing more than a piece of property that can be sold, traded or discarded like an old tire.

“It is a sad day for all pet owners when the law still refuses to distinguish between a piece of property — like a tire — and a warm, loving dog.”

All parties are to meet for a mediation conference in mid October. If the matter can’t be settled then, it is scheduled to go to trial in November.

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at (727) 445-4174 or

[Last modified September 22, 2006, 22:48:42]

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