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As Bondi runs for attorney general, bitterness over dog lingers

Pam Bondi, then a Hillsborough prosecutor, poses with the St. Bernard taken from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Times (2005)

Pam Bondi, then a Hillsborough prosecutor, poses with the St. Bernard taken from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

TAMPA — Before she became the Republican nominee for Florida attorney general, Pam Bondi was a familiar face as a legal analyst on CNN and the Fox News Channel.

But Bondi may be best known for a custody battle over a St. Bernard.

Her 16-month fight with the Louisiana family that lost the dog after Hurricane Katrina played out on CNN, Fox News and the pages of People magazine. Then a Hillsborough prosecutor, she accused the family of neglecting the dog. Steve and Dorreen Couture and their two grandchildren wanted their dog back and resented Bondi for keeping him.

Both sides settled the case just before it went to trial. The terms were confidential, but reports at the time said Bondi offered to provide the St. Bernard with food and medication for life and to visit occasionally. The Coutures said they would keep in touch and send photos.

It seemed like an amicable ending. But three years later, the Coutures have little good to say about their former foe. Moreover, they say, she never kept her promise.

"She was going to take care of him for the rest of his life and supply him with food and medicine," Dorreen Couture said recently from her rebuilt home in New Orleans. "She did for the first few months. After that, she was supposed to have her first visitation that September and she canceled."

Contact dwindled after that, Couture said. And the Coutures didn't reach out to Bondi, either.

"Why should I?" Couture said. "She stole my dog."

In the 2005 Katrina aftermath, the Pinellas County Humane Society rescued hundreds of dogs, including the Coutures' dog, Master Tank. They thought he would be returned.

But Bondi adopted the dog from the Humane Society days after her own St. Bernard died of cancer. She named her new dog Noah.

In January 2006, the Coutures traced Master Tank to the Tampa Bay area. Bondi didn't want to give up the dog, arguing that it had heartworms and other health problems that were ignored before Katrina.

The Coutures sued, and a trial date was set before Bondi finally agreed to settle the case.

Bondi said she sent the dog home with food and medication and kept in touch for "less than a year." She had nothing bad to say about the Coutures, she said, and dismissed the dog battle as a closed case.

"I just wanted them to keep the dog indoors, which they agreed to do," she said.

In 2008, Bondi adopted a new St. Bernard puppy, named Luke.

She moved on.

But in this age of negative campaigning and personal attacks, will Bondi have to address the dog custody issue again? Does she worry too many Floridians know her as the woman who ultimately lost her own personal legal spat with a New Orleans family?

"Not at all," Bondi said. "I've received a tremendous amount of support from people and animal rights activists, and no criticism at all. Really, it has not been an issue.'' She said she does not expect Democrat opponent Dan Gelber "to bring it up at all."

She said her campaign advisers have not discussed the Coutures or the dog case with her.

Beyond Florida, though, some bitterness lingers.

"I feel for the state of Florida if they elect her," Dorreen Couture said. "She has no compassion at all."

Tank, by the way, is now 10 years old and doing well, she said.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

As Bondi runs for attorney general, bitterness over dog lingers 09/03/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 3, 2010 10:39pm]
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