Katrina dogs heading home

Published May 22, 2007

TAMPA - Two dogs that ended up in the center of a legal dispute after being stranded by Hurricane Katrina are being returned to their owners.

The dogs' original owners, a woman who adopted one of the dogs and the attorneys for both sides announced the settlement in downtown Tampa Tuesday.

"This is what we wanted from the beginning, our dogs to be back with us, to be back home, " said Dorreen Couture, who lives in Louisiana.

Hillsborough assistant state attorney Pam Bondi, who adopted a St. Bernard owned by the Coutures, said it is wrenching to return the dog, which was in poor health when she received him.

"I promised him I would keep him safe his entire life, " she said.

Bondi said she has gotten to know the Coutures, and even has had dinner with them.

"Together, we came to what was the logical, compassionate, reasonable decision for all of us," she said.

Although attorneys said terms of the settlement will remain confidential, Bondi said she anticipated that she would still have a relationship with the Coutures and the dog and that they would work together.

"I love him so much, " Bondi said. "It's breaking my heart. I love him, but I kept my promise to him."

Steven and Dorreen Couture of St. Bernard Parish, La., last year sued Bondi, Rhonda Rineker of Dunedin and the Humane Society of Pinellas County in an effort to regain the dogs.

Bondi adopted one dog, a St. Bernard named Master Tank. She renamed the dog Noah, but said Tuesday that she has recently been calling him "Noah Tank" in anticipation of returning him to the Coutures.

Rineker adopted the other dog, a shepherd mix named Nila, and renamed that dog Gracie.

Nila was returned to the Coutures first, and Master Tank was scheduled to be returned immediately after the news conference.

The dispute, which has received national attention, had its roots in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Though Steven Couture rode out the storm with the dogs, he was forced to leave them behind during the evacuation.

Eventually a family member took the dogs to a rescue shelter at St. Bernard Parish. There, they were left under the Coutures' name but later were turned over to the Pinellas Humane Society in September 2005.

A short time later, Bondi and Rineker adopted the dogs. Bondi adopted the St. Bernard on Oct. 15, 2005. Rineker adopted the shepherd-mix on Oct. 28, 2005.

The Coutures tracked the dogs to the Tampa area in January 2006 but had been unsuccessful in their efforts to get their dogs back. They filed suit last July, and a trial had been scheduled to start July 9.

But after sniping at each other through the media and in court for months, both sides came to terms this spring.

The Coutures reached a settlement with Bondi on April 20 and met with Rineker on May 11, when they agreed to a settlement, said Murray Silverstein, who represents the Coutures.

"They approached us and said it might be worthwhile to sit down and have meaningful discussions, " Silverstein said.

The overture came on the "understanding that Pam Bondi wanted to go over all of this and explain herself to the Coutures so they that they also could speak freely with her, " he said.

At Tuesday's news conference, Bondi said she was confident that the Coutures now have a good hurricane plan for the dogs. She spoke fondly of the Couture's grandson Steven, even tousling his hair at one point.

"It's all about common ground, when you can find common ground with someone and it's not antagonistic, " Bondi said.

It would be good, she said, "if everybody in the world could think about another person's position."

Bondi said "Noah Tank" has recovered from his ailments, which included a bad case of heartworms, and recently had five teeth removed.

If the case had gone to trial, the central question for the jury would have been not who could better care for the dogs or which owners the dogs prefer, but whether the Coutures abandoned their dogs in a natural disaster.

The Coutures maintained that they didn't. The adoptive owners had said they did.

The Coutures' dogs were among 288 dogs, cats and turtles brought here by the Humane Society of Pinellas after the storm devastated the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts. Most of the animals brought here were adopted. A few were returned.