Imagine having to give away your dog or cat to a stranger. Tonight, families nationwide are being sued over their best friend. But these aren't ordinary animals. They actually once belonged to Hurricane Katrina victims who lost their pets in last year's flood. Investigative reporter Carmel Cafiero has more in tonight's Special Assignment Report -- Dog Gone.
WSVN -- The only thing that comes close to the human suffering after new orleans flooded - is the suffering of thousands of animals. The profound loss even continues today.
Entire communities remain ghost towns with spray paint reminders of the grim searches for people and their pets.
Fay Bourg: "But they don't realize when you get 15 feet of water coming at you, you have nowhere else to go. Either you're going to jump, or you're going to drown."
Fay Bourg lives in St. Bernard Parish, just outside New Orleans. This is the way it looked weeks after Katrina.
This is the way it looks today.
Fay lost everything in the flood, including her dog, Hunter. She says a rescuer threw him out of the boat. She jumped in after him but was pulled back and handcuffed. The last time she saw Hunter, he was paddling behind the boat.
Fay Bourg: "Like, 'Why are you leaving me?' I tried. I tried so hard to get him back."
So imagine how thrilled she was when she and her cousin Heidi Guerra discovered Hunter had been saved and taken to California.
Heidi Guerra: "We have been searching for over a year for him."
But there's no happy ending here. At least, there is no happy ending yet. The agency that rescued him says the dog was adopted, and it's up to the new owner to decide if Hunter will be returned.
Heidi Guerra: "And for them to sit back and say, 'I'm not giving him back,' is cruel."
And there may be hundreds of other hurricane victims in the same situation. Activists and attornies are now helping some original owners file lawsuits across the country.
Pam Bondi: "Hi, baby boy. You're beautiful."
Tampa prosecutor Pam Bondi has refused to return her rescued Saint Bernard.
Pam Bondi: "I promised that I would never let anything bad happen to him again. And I would care for him and protect him for the rest of his life. That's what I plan on doing."
But Steve and Doreen Couture, who are raising their orphaned grandchildren, say the dog belongs to them.
They say they want him back and have filed a lawsuit.
Steven Couture: "Whatever it takes, the Governor Jeb Bush, if that's what it takes, I will put legal action against him."
Army Lieutenant Jay Johnson was in Iraq when he learned the levee in New Orleans' Ninth Ward had collapsed.
Lt. Jay Johnson: "I knew my house was under water."
His family survived, but his dog Missy had been left behind. After a year of searching, he found her on the internet.
But he says the Texas agency that had her won't tell him where she is today.
Lt. Jay Johnson: "And she's like, 'Leave the dog alone, find you a new dog, you know. Go on with your life. Things have changed. Move on.'"
Coral Springs attorney Steve Wise represents Johnson who is suing to get Missy back.
He believes the lawsuits over Katrina will eventually lead to new legislation.
Steve Wise: "If they can't have their jobs back, if they can't have their homes back, they at least want to make their families complete again."
Louisiana pet owners have a powerful ally here in the state's capitol -- the Attorney General.
Charles Foti is trying to mediate cases. He believes Louisiana law is clear. The pets were lost, not abandoned, and should go back to their original families.
Charles Foti: "We want to take off our hats to the people who took the dogs and other animals in. But now is the time when the owners want them back. It is time to return them.
But time and again people who have the pets insist they are in better, more caring homes.
Pam Bondi, for example, says her dog had heartworms. Another new owner wrote "humidity will kill this dog." Still another claimed "Savannah could not possibly be better off."
The SPCA orchestrated the massive effort in Louisiana to find shelter for the displaced pets.
It says about 20 percent have been reunited with their owners, but the court fights. Broken hearts over others is upsetting.
Laura Maloney: "And I would ask those new owners to find it within their heart to return that animal to the person that owned it. They've already lost enough."
It's impossible to know how many hurricane victims are affected. But when you can't even rebuild your home, fighting for a lost pet is doggone difficult.