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Katrina dogfight lands in the courts

Fighting in the court of public opinion didn't work, so a New Orleans family has taken its fight to regain two dogs lost in Hurricane Katrina to the Pinellas County courthouse.

In a lawsuit filed Friday in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, Steven and Dorreen Couture contend that the Humane Society of Pinellas negligently turned over their two dogs to two Tampa Bay area residents who will not return them.

In a case that is gaining national attention, the Coutures asked for an immediate hearing to determine whether the St. Bernard and shepherd mix should be returned to them while their lawsuit is pending. The couple and their two grandchildren were displaced after the August storm and are the dogs' original owners.

A hearing on the case has been scheduled for Tuesday before Circuit Judge Henry J. Andringa.

The hearing is to determine who, "with reasonable probability, is entitled to the possession" of the dogs "pending final adjudication of the claims of the parties," said a three-page order Andringa signed Wednesday.

The Coutures' complaint states that the Humane Society was negligent when it allowed Pam Bondi, a Hillsborough County prosecutor, and Rhonda Rineker of Dunedin to adopt the dogs. "They don't have a lawful right to retain possession of the two dogs because the Coutures have always been the owners," said Murray B. Silverstein, the St. Petersburg attorney representing the Coutures, who now live in Talisheek, La.

Of the Humane Society, Silverstein said the dogs "were not their property to adopt out."

"They just unfortunately came into a situation where the Humane Society didn't follow their procedures or the law and made these two pets available to Bondi and Rineker before they had the right to do so," Silverstein said. "This adoption procedure and approach ... does not appear to be supported by any of the legal requirements of the county ordinance or state statutes particular under these circumstance involving natural disasters."

Bondi declined late Wednesday afternoon to respond to the Couture's allegations, saying that she had just received the complaint.

"I'm not going to speak on pending litigation," said Bondi, who has previously said she legally adopted the St. Bernard. She has said the dog, which she has renamed Noah, was dying, and has contended that he is hers.

Rineker has never spoken publicly about the shepherd mix she adopted and declined again Wednesday to speak to the St. Petersburg Times about the matter.

Jack Geller, chairman of the Humane Society's executive board, also declined to comment Wednesday. The Humane Society will not be a party at next week's hearing but must respond to the civil complaint within 20 days.

"We do not comment on ongoing litigation," Geller said. "We haven't been served. When we are served, it will be turned over to the attorney."

The Coutures filed the complaint after making several attempts to speak with Bondi and Rineker about the return of the dogs. They even made a trip to Pinellas County last week.

"My clients do not want a battle and were very reluctant to enter litigation," Silverstein said. "They just want their dogs back."

The Coutures tracked the dogs to Pinellas County in January.

According to the complaint, the Coutures had owned Nila, the shepherd mix, since November 2001 and Master Tank, the St. Bernard, since August 2002.

But on Aug. 30, the couple's home "was virtually destroyed" and the two "were required to place their pets in a temporary animal shelter in St. Bernard Parish known as Camp Lucky, with the expectation and agreement of reclaiming their pets within a reasonable period of time."

Camp Lucky released the two dogs to the Humane Society on Sept. 21, with Bondi receiving Master Tank on Oct. 14 and Rineker receiving Nila on Oct. 28. Documentation of the dogs' owners were provided to the Humane Society, court records show

The Humane Society "had actual knowledge" that the Coutures were the dogs' "true owners" and owed them a duty to find them and return the dogs, according to their complaint. The Coutures are asking a judge to order the return of the dogs, plus unspecified damages, interest and costs.

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com.

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