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Dogfight escalates over Katrina pet
A family from the New Orleans area wants its dog, Rocket, back. A Doylestown family says it’s going to keep him.
By Patrick Lester
A New Orleans dog left homeless and without his family after Hurricane Katrina last year is in the middle of a custody battle between the animal’s original owner and the Doylestown family that adopted him after the disaster.
Sheila Combs, a New Orleans woman who lost virtually everything she owned in the hurricane, said she wants nothing more than to have Rocket, her 10-year-old son’s chow-Finnish spitz mix, returned home.
Lynne Welsh, the Doylestown woman who took in the now 2-year-old dog from a local shelter last November and said she went to great lengths to find the dog’s owner last year, plans to keep Rocket and she’s hired an attorney to represent her. She claims she’s the target of a harassment campaign orchestrated by volunteers helping hurricane victims find their pets.
It’s the type of animal tug-of-war that’s being played out across the country as pet owners from the Gulf Coast try to relocate and recoup pets they lost during and after evacuations.
A number of cases have already ended up in courtrooms across the country, and this particular case appears headed to a judge as well.
Welsh said late last week that she was willing to return the dog to Combs as long as she was willing to come to this area to get him. Welsh made the decision after consulting with “The Dog Whisperer,’ an animal psychologist, and after two women working on behalf of Combs came to the area asking for a police escort to Welsh’s house. By the weekend, Welsh changed her mind and decided to keep Rocket.
Richard Elliott, Welsh’s attorney, said that Welsh and her husband, Joseph, feel that they are “legally and emotionally entitled” to the canine. He said Combs, whose first contact with Welsh was June 6, has “refused to have any kind of meaningful reunification with the dog that would not result in further trauma to this animal.
“This animal has spent the last eight or nine months, after a two-week period of serious suffering, in a new home with a new family. Being suddenly and without any kind of re-introduction (to Combs and her son) traveling on a plane in a baggage compartment … would certainly not do this animal any good.”
Combs said Welsh is “stonewalling and has been doing that from the beginning” and that she is willing to have someone pay a visit to Doylestown to retrieve the dog. She said it’s “unreasonable” for Welsh to expect her to fly to Pennsylvania considering that she is a single, working mother and that she’s in the midst of trying to rebuild her house in New Orleans.
“Emotionally, I’m so frustrated with this whole situation,” said Combs. “I don’t have a choice right now but to get an attorney. I will not give up. I am just as determined to get the dog back (as Welsh is to keep it).”
Welsh’s attorney said his client believes she is doing what’s best for Rocket.
“I think (Welsh) recognizes that taking such a position may be somewhat controversial in the eyes of some of your readership,” Elliott said. “But given what I have learned about the whole situation, I think her position is perfectly appropriate.”
In New Jersey, a judge earlier this year ruled that a Louisiana family that lost its dog after the hurricane — not the New Jersey family that adopted the animal — should keep the dog. An 86-year-old hurricane victim recently filed a lawsuit in an attempt to get his poodle back from a woman in the Pittsburgh area, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A similar lawsuit is expected to be filed in Montgomery County Court this week on behalf of another hurricane victim trying to get his dog back.
The ongoing animal searches and legal battles have spawned the creation of a number of volunteer groups helping hurricane victims find their animals.
Last week, it appeared Rocket — the Welshes renamed him Rusty — was headed back to New Orleans for a reunion. Welsh last week said she decided to return the dog after consulting with the person she said is the authority on dogs — Cesar Millan, better known as “The Dog Whisperer,” who has his own cable television show. Welsh said she spoke to one of Millan’s assistants.
“The Dog Whisperer is a world expert on dog behavior and feelings,” Welsh said last week. “I wasn’t sure what to do. The dog was with us for so long. (The Dog Whisperer) said the dog should go back and would not be re-traumatized. My hope is that other families who have adopted pets (from hurricane-ravaged areas) give them back.”
Welsh, who this week referred questions to her attorney, contacted the Dog Whisperer after women from Delaware and California paid a visit to Bucks County looking for the dog. Two weeks ago, Anita Wollison and Laura Bergerol of California visited the borough’s police station asking for a police escort to Welsh’s home. Police Chief James Donnelly said his officers didn’t get involved because it’s a civil matter. “There are two sides,” Donnelly said. “We’re not going to decide which is right.”
Wollison, a Delaware woman and member of a network of people across the country helping Katrina victims find their lost pets, called Welsh’s decision to keep the dog “ridiculous.”
Elliott said his client made “heroic efforts” to contact Rocket’s owner once she brought the dog home, calling the phone number on his dog tag, sending letters and putting information about Rocket on Internet sites.
Combs said she didn’t have access to e-mail nor her home phone, having moved temporarily to Baton Rouge while trying to rebuild her New Orleans home. “For someone who has lost everything … I was trying to make sure we had stable housing and have our immediate needs met.”
Wollison said Rocket was picked up with thousands of other animals after the hurricane. Rocket was first sent a few hours from New Orleans to a shelter set up by the Humane Society of the United States after the hurricane. From there, he was taken by plane to this area by the American Boarding and Kennel Association. Rocket was likely flown to Philadelphia Airport and taken to a Lansdale kennel before being delivered to a shelter in Doylestown. The Welshes brought Rocket home on the day before Thanksgiving last year.
Wollison, who after seeing television images of dogs left behind with their families after the hurricane decided to help families find their pets, said she’s worked on hundreds of similar cases since the hurricane.
“Many of them for the longest time did not have Internet access,” said Wollison, whose group is called No Animal Left Behind. “Many people didn’t know petfinder.com (an Internet pet searching tool) existed. … One of the biggest obstacles we’ve been fighting is complete ignorance of why so many of these animals were left behind.”
Patrick Lester can be reached at (215) 345-3079 or plester@phillyBurbs.com.