Reunion brings joy, breaks heart

The return of two dogs lost after Katrina thrills a Louisiana family. An adoptive owner is heartbroken.

Published May 23, 2007

TAMPA -- Nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina ripped their lives to shreds, Steven and Dorreen Couture got the final piece of it back Tuesday.

Steven Couture already had replaced the Louisiana home he built by hand with a new one. Eight-year-old granddaughter Cassidy had started a new school.

The only thing missing was their dogs, left at a temporary shelter called Camp Lucky in the New Orleans area. On Tuesday, more than a year after tracking the dogs to the Tampa Bay area and fighting the two women who had adopted them, the Coutures and the dogs were reunited.

By midday, the two adults, two grandchildren and two dogs were loaded in a minivan and headed back to their new home in Talisheek, La.

"This is what we wanted from the beginning -- our dogs to be back with us, to be back home," Dorreen Couture said. "Now we can get our life back to normal."

But empty now are the lives of Hillsborough prosecutor Pam Bondi and Rhonda Rineker of Dunedin -- two women with good souls who adopted the dogs thinking they were doing the right thing. They spent thousands of dollars on veterinarians and cared for the animals for about 19 months.

But Tuesday, Bondi -- heartbroken -- and Rineker returned the dogs, heading off a July 9 jury trial.

For both women, it was the second time they had to let a beloved animal go.

Just nine days before adopting the St. Bernard she called Noah, Bondi's St. Bernard Donovan died of cancer.

On Tuesday, Bondi said she barely slept the night before, but she was at peace with the decision, having promised to protect the canine.

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

Rineker could not be reached for comment, but she has a similar story. Days before she adopted the shepherd mix, a Doberman she had raised from a puppy died at the age of 7 from bone cancer. In a deposition, she said she went to the Humane Society in October 2005 to adopt a dog.

"We never said anything about temporary because we said specifically that we had just lost our dog," she said. "We couldn't go through another, you know, loss of a dog."

Tuesday's return ended a story that not only played out on the Fox News Channel and CNN and in People magazine, but also inspired the passage of new laws from county courthouses to the U.S. Capitol.

The Coutures' case was one of about two dozen filed nationwide by Katrina victims who wanted their animals back. The fights have brought to light the legal truth that, however you feel, in most states, dogs are property.

In response, Bondi initially dug in her heels and hired a bulldog litigator. She said the St. Bernard suffered from heartworms and neglect that predated the storm.

On Tuesday, her tone changed dramatically. She said the dog she now calls "Noah Tank" has recovered and recently had five teeth removed.

She also praised the Coutures' parenting skills and said she was confident they had a good hurricane plan for the dogs. She even tousled their grandson's hair.

The pleasant interaction came in stark contrast to other public encounters. In previous court meetings the two sides never made eye contact. Every question, such as when court-ordered dog visitation would occur and for how long, provoked a battle.

The terms of the settlement are to remain confidential, the attorneys said. But Bondi offered to provide the St. Bernard food and medication for life. She also is to visit regularly with the St. Bernard, at her expense. Bondi said she was assured that the dog will be treated as an indoor one.

Steven Couture said he has no problem with Bondi and Rineker staying involved. The Coutures promised to send photos and stay in contact.

"I don't hold nothing against these people," said Steven Couture, 51. "I appreciate what they did for me and I'm glad it's over with. They loved the dogs just as much as we do. They spent time with them, and I don't have a problem with them being a part of their lives."

The dispute had its roots in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which struck the New Orleans area Aug. 29, 2005.

Steven Couture rode out the storm with the dogs, but had to leave them behind after the levees broke and flooded St. Bernard Parish.

Eventually a family member took the dogs to a rescue shelter in St. Bernard Parish. There, they were left under the Coutures' name but later were turned over to the Pinellas Humane Society, which brought 288 animals back from Katrina-stricken areas.

The Coutures tracked their dogs to the Tampa Bay area in January 2006, several months after Bondi and Rineker had adopted them. After meeting resistance in getting their dogs back, they sued.

Within days of the July 9 trial date being set, the adoptive owners "approached us and said it might be worthwhile to sit down and have meaningful discussions," said Murray Silverstein, who represents the Coutures.

If the case had gone to trial, the central question for the jury would have been not who could better care for the dogs, but whether the Coutures abandoned their dogs.

That would have been tough to prove, said Steven Wise, a Boston lawyer who got involved in some Katrina pet cases early on.

"If there was a disaster and someone saved my children, I would expect them to give me my children back," Wise said. "If someone saves a painting from my house, I would expect them to give me that back, too. I certainly didn't see any difference between that and the dog."

The Coutures still have a negligence claim pending against the Pinellas Humane Society.

Humane Society attorney Louis Kwall of Clearwater said pressing the case would be like going after volunteers who spent their time and money to save stranded animals.

"Where would these dogs be today if the Humane Society had not gone and brought these dogs back and practically saved their lives at great expense?" Kwall asked.

After Katrina shined a spotlight on the unmet needs of animals in disasters, governments at every level responded.

Pinellas County adopted an ordinance requiring a 120-day waiting period before animals rescued in disasters can be permanently adopted. Hillsborough added a second hurricane shelter to house evacuees with pets.

Florida and Louisiana, among others, passed legislation dealing with animals. The Humane Society plans to ask state lawmakers to pass statewide standards on how long animal refugees should be held after a disaster.

And in Washington, President Bush signed a law in October that requires state and local authorities to accommodate pets and service animals in disaster plans to qualify for federal emergency funding.

For Steven Couture, Tuesday was about keeping his promise to his grandchildren.

"I promised them when the hurricane hit that the dogs will be okay, and I promised that once we found them, we would get them back," he said. "I'm a happy man right now, because I proved to my grandchildren that I don't go back on my word."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.


Time line: The dogs' journey

Aug. 29, 2005: Hurricane Katrina hits the Gulf Coast. In St. Bernard Parish, La., Steven Couture rides out the storm with the family dogs, Master Tank and Nila. In the storm's aftermath, Couture has to leave the dogs at a temporary animal shelter called Camp Lucky.

Sept. 21, 2005: The Humane Society of Pinellas County goes to Louisiana and receives Master Tank and Nila along with more than 280 other animals.

Oct. 14, 2005: Pam Bondi adopts Master Tank, and renames the dog Noah.

Oct. 28, 2005: Rhonda Rineker adopts Nila and renames the dog Gracie.

January 2006: Steven and Dorreen Couture trace their dogs to the Tampa Bay area.

June 30, 2006: The Coutures sue Bondi, Rineker and the Humane Society, seeking return of the dogs.

Sept. 22, 2006: In a key ruling, a judge says that the dogs are personal property, meaning that the case will not be decided on the question of who could take better care of the dogs.

April 17: Trial is set for July 9.

April 20: The Coutures and Bondi reach a settlement.

May 11: The Coutures and Rineker agree on a settlement.

Tuesday: The dogs are returned to the Coutures.