Whose Dog Is It Anyway?

updated 08/21/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/21/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As Hurricane Katrina charged toward Victor Marino's home in St. Bernard Parish, La., last Aug. 28, he frantically called hotels to find a haven for his dogs, Max and Sinatra. When those efforts failed, Marino—who had an offer to stay with a friend in Baton Rouge who didn't have room for dogs—filled five-gallon jugs with water and food and kneeled down to bid farewell to his Jack Russell terrier and German Shepherd mix. "I said, 'Be brave, I love you,'" Marino, 27, recalls, his voice breaking, "'I'll see you soon.'"

Or so Marino, an electrician, thought. Returning to a wrecked home 10 days later, he spotted muddy paw prints leading out a second-story window—and, hoping the dogs had swum to safety, spent four months calling pet-rescue agencies and searching Web sites. In January he learned Max had been taken in by the Humane Society of Pinellas, Inc., in Clearwater, Fla. Then came the stunner: Max had been adopted by Tiffany and Jeremy Mansfield of Clearwater in December. Marino called and asked for his dog back—even offering to get the couple a new one. But the Mansfields—who call the pooch Joey—say they plan to keep him. "What happened to Victor is awful," says Tiffany, 22, who got the pet from Jeremy as a Christmas gift. "But I simply don't know what I'd do without this little dog." Marino is working with a lawyer: "Emotionally," he says, "this has taken a huge toll on me."

The battle over Max-Joey is one example of a little-known but painful pet drama unfolding a year after Katrina: Some owners, forced to leave their dogs behind, now are filing civil suits to reclaim some of the 7,000 pets adopted by people who thought they were saving an animal abandoned during the hurricane. In the months after the storm, rescuers posted photos of animals online at sites like petfinder.com, and left notes on flooded homes saying the animals had been taken to emergency shelters such as Camp Lucky in St. Bernard Parish. While the Humane Society of the United States allows animals to be kept in cages for up to three months, many pets were put up for adoption well before the mid-December cutoff—giving owners preoccupied with rebuilding their lives little time to locate their missing pets. "We certainly had the animals' best interests in mind," says Bill Mazurek, the interim executive director for the Humane Society of Pinellas.

That's what Steve and Dorreen Couture wanted when they left their Saint Bernard, Master Tank, and their German Shepherd mix, Nila, at Camp Lucky on Sept. 18 while the family stayed in a temporary shelter that didn't take pets. They say they were told the dogs could stay at Camp Lucky for up to six months. Instead, the National Guard shut the site at the end of September, forcing caretakers to find new places for the animals. The Humane Society of Pinellas put the Coutures' dogs up for adoption in October, prompting the family to file a civil suit against it and two women who took in the animals. "The separation has been really hard," says Dorreen. "The dogs are part of the family."

The new owners, however, argue the dogs are better off with them. Jeffrey Brown, an attorney for Rhonda and Bud Rineker, who took in Nila—now called Gracie—says the Coutures "forfeited the right to have ... Gracie back" because they left her behind; the Rinekers also say a veterinarian examined the dog and found she had a pre-hurricane condition of heartworm, a potentially fatal and easily prevented parasite. "Gracie is just really sweet and she's always happy," says Rhonda, a Dunedin, Fla., Realtor who lost her Doberman, Red, to bone cancer not long before Katrina. "It would break our hearts to have to give her up." The other defendant, Pamela Bondi, who adopted Master Tank, says she won't give back the dog she named Noah because he also had heartworm and was emaciated when she got him. "I love Noah, and just want to ensure that he's well cared for, safe and loved the rest of his life," says Bondi, an assistant state prosecutor.

The Coutures say the defendants are just trying to make them look bad. (Dorreen also says they had the dogs on heartworm medication.) Donna Thomas, an animal activist in New Orleans, says snobbery is a factor: "There's this assumption that somehow everybody in New Orleans was poor and uneducated and incapable of loving their pets." In the 20-plus cases that have gone to court, judges so far have favored the original owners—a pattern Marino hopes will hold in his case. Now living in Metairie, La., he continues to search for Sinatra—and wishes he could turn to Max for comfort. "He's helped me through a lot of tough times," Marino says.

MASTER TANK & NILA, A.K.A. NOAH AND GRACIE

DOGS IN LIMBO

LIL BIT
Lisa Downs's young son asks every day when the shih tzu is coming home. A woman in Illinois won't give her back.

TRICKSY
Thomas Exnicious III, 23, is taking the Animal Compassion Network to court to get back his Chihuahua from a North Carolina woman.

BANDIT
Malvin Cavalier, 86, is working with a lawyer to get back his beloved poodle from a Pennsylvania woman.

MISSY
Army First Lt. Jay Johnson, 27, who was in Iraq during Katrina, filed a lawsuit against the SPCA of Texas to get his shih tzu back.

PRECIOUS
Linda Charles, 41, filed suit against the Humane Society of North Texas, which adopted out her German Shepherd.

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