Court returns Katrina dog to New Orleans owner

Saturday, June 21, 2008

A cocker spaniel rescued during Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts and adopted by an Austin woman must be returned to a New Orleans woman who says the dog is hers, according to a ruling Friday by the state 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin. The ruling appears to end a bitter fight over the watermelon-sized pet that has been waged by a half-dozen attorneys, taken more than two years to resolve and rung up an estimated $100,000 in legal costs.

Tiffany Madura adopted the black dog and named it Hope in fall 2005. A rescue worker had plucked it from a shelter outside New Orleans in the chaotic days after the hurricane.

Shalanda Augillard contacted Madura several months later after she saw pictures of the dog on an animal rescue Web site. Augillard's then-8-year-old black cocker spanielnamed Jazz had disappeared after the storm.

But Madura maintained that the dog wasn't Augillard's and refused to let her see it. Augillard filed a lawsuit in state District Court in Hays County in May 2006 saying that the dog belonged with her. In July 2007, Judge Bill Henry awarded the dog to Madura.

Friday's ruling reversed that decision. Written by Justice Diane Henson, the opinion found that Henry improperly ignored a DNA comparison of skin flakes taken from Hope and a sample from an old brush that Augillard had used on Jazz. The test indicated that Hope and Jazz were the same dog.

During the trial, Madura suggested that Augillard's brush sample had been secretly taken from Hope. Henry determined that Augillard's witnesses were not credible and disregarded the DNA evidence.

Friday's reversal "absolutely turned on the DNA evidence," said D. Todd Smith, Augillard's appeal attorney. "It's pretty hard to refute scientific evidence like this."

Augillard could not be reached for comment, but according to one of her lawyers, she was eager to be reunited with the dog. "It's been a long time," attorney Susan Philips said.

Madura also could not be reached for comment.

"I'm devastated," said her attorney, Michael Murray. "I can't believe this has happened. This is a travesty."

While Smith said he was paid for his work, both Murray and Philips said they donated most of their legal services, which they estimated would have cost $100,000. Philips said donations from pet advocacy organizations covered some of the costs.

Murray said he was unlikely to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. If he doesn't, the dog, now almost 12, could be returned to New Orleans in a matter of weeks.

As many as 10,000 pets were rescued from New Orleans in the weeks after the 2005 hurricane and subsequent flooding. Many were returned without incident after the owners were found, but several dozen of the rescues resulted in court disputes. The Hope/Jazz case was one of very few instances nationally, if not the only one, in which a disputed pet that had been rescued after Katrina was not returned to a New Orleans claimant.

The Hope/Jazz dispute has been similar to other cases. In lawsuits, adoptive owners have claimed that they were reluctant to return the animals they rescued because the pets had been poorly cared for. Because the original owners were largely inner-city African Americans and the majority of rescuers were white suburbanites, some animals rights advocates say the cases have exposed a cultural divide.

While Augillard, who is black, insisted that her dog was in good health before Katrina, Hope/Jazz had a skin condition and large bladder stones when she was adopted by Madura, who is white. In court, Augillard contended that the dog's condition resulted from wandering around in the flooded city before being rescued.

In her ruling, Henson went out of her way to acknowledge people's passions when it comes to their pets, which by law are considered property.

"Given the parties' considerable expenditure in this case, it goes without saying that Jazz's significance as a cherished member of Augillard's family — as well as her importance to her caretakers of almost three years, Tiffany Madura and [her companion] Richard Toro — far exceeds her market value," she wrote. "We recognize that there are important non-economic interests at stake in this case."

edexheimer@statesman.com; 445-1774

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