tampabay.com

There are no losers in Katrina dogs case

By SUE CARLTON
Published May 25, 2007


Who could have imagined the battle over the Katrina dogs would end this way, with both sides coming together before the cameras to say the dogs were going home?

There was the Couture family from Louisiana, the grandfather saying afterward they held nothing against the people who kept their dogs after the storm blew their world away.

"They loved the dogs just as much as we do, " Steven Couture said.

There was Pam Bondi, who had fought to keep the dog she adopted because she feared he wouldn't survive, saying at the news conference she knows the Coutures will be good parents to him.

How did a year of contention end in a quiet settlement instead of an ugly courtroom face-off?

Because in the end, on both sides, it was all about the dogs.

This was a story People and CNN could not resist: a St. Bernard and a shepherd-mix rescued from ravaged Louisiana, two big-hearted people in Florida willing to take them in, then a family that wanted their dogs back. It helped that Bondi is a high-profile prosecutor who gets tapped regularly for comment on court cases on national TV.

Some people saw this in black and white. The dogs belong to the Coutures. Give them back. Hadn't victims of Hurricane Katrina suffered enough?

I might have felt the same except for the details: the St. Bernard's serious heart worm damage; the local veterinarian who told Bondi the dog she called Noah would not survive living outdoors back in Louisiana.

The Coutures sued for their dogs. People accused Bondi of everything from imperiousness to outright greed.

Maybe because I've known Bondi since my days as a courthouse reporter, I didn't doubt she fought for Noah because she wanted to protect him. When she said she would drive him home herself if she thought he would be okay there, I believed her.

No question, the law was on the Coutures' side. The dogs are their property, and any argument about where they might be better off was irrelevant.

In the end, the settlement showed the hearts of the Coutures, too.

Bondi will get to visit the dog they call Master Tank (or Master Noah Tank, as she called him at the news conference.) He will live inside. Bondi will pay for his food and medication, not a condition of the settlement, but something she offered.

She said letting him go broke her heart. You get this if you are a dog person.

When she drove to the Largo shelter to see the rescued St. Bernard a year and a half ago, she couldn't know what would happen. She wanted to help.

Now the dog she loved all that time is gone, not there to sprawl his 130 pounds across the couch he claimed as his own, not there to defend the house from the daily approach of the mailman.

Did any good come from this? Well, figuring that weather is inevitable, we're at least talking about policies for disaster-related animal adoption and animal-friendly hurricane shelters. If nothing else, this should be an alarm bell for including our pets in our evacuation plans.

A postscript:

After the Coutures drove away from Tampa with the dogs, they and Bondi were on the phone all the way home. They've spoken since, talking about how the dogs are doing.