Rescued dog set to return to Kenner
Almost three years after Hurricane Katrina separated them, a Kenner woman and her pet cocker spaniel appear poised for a reunion now that an appeals court has overturned a ruling granting a Texas woman ownership of the dog.
"I broke down in tears of joy when I found out," Shalanda Augillard said Tuesday evening. "I don't have any kids. But Jazz is like a child to me, and I fought for her just like anyone would for their child."
Augillard racked up thousands of dollars in attorney fees and traveled more than 10 times to Texas during the two-year custody battle with an Austin woman who had adopted Jazz from an animal rescue group and renamed her Hope. Attorneys are trying to work out an agreement to transfer the dog, now 11 years old, to Louisiana. "I can't wait to get her back," Augillard said. "I'm glad someone finally realized that she needs to be back home with her family."
A three-judge panel on the Third District Texas Court of Appeals on Friday unanimously overturned a trial judge's ruling that Augillard had failed to prove the dog was Jazz.
Augillard's case, tried in June 2007, included testimony from a DNA expert who said there was less than one chance in 1 trillion that Hope and Jazz were not the same dog. But Judge Bill Henry concluded a DNA sample reportedly taken from a dog brush at Augillard's home was not "authenticated or identified, thus indicating a high potential for tampering."
The appeals court dismissed this as "mere surmise and suspicion," saying there was no evidence of tampering and no indication that Augillard even had an opportunity to collect a hair sample in Texas from Hope.
The dog remains in the custody of Tiffany Madura in Austin, Texas, and it's unclear when she will be turned over to Augillard, said Susan Phillips, one of her attorneys. Madura has 45 days to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. Her attorney, Michael Murray, told the Austin American- Statesman newspaper that an appeal was unlikely. Todd Smith, another Augillard attorney, said he is trying to negotiate the dog's return without a court order.
As Katrina bore down on southeast Louisiana in August 2005, Augillard left Jazz with her mother and other relatives in a two-story house in New Orleans' 7th Ward. The family was later evacuated from the second floor, leaving Jazz behind with a three-week supply of food and water.
Augillard returned nine days after the hurricane to find the door kicked in and Jazz gone. She spent months checking shelters and scanning Web sites with photos of Katrina pets before concluding that Madura had adopted Jazz from an Austin animal rescue group.
She tried to initiate a meeting with Madura, then sued her in May 2006.
The case is one of more than 100 Katrina-related pet custody battles making their way through the courts across the Gulf Coast.
In a footnote to their opinion, the appellate judges noted the "obvious dissonance" between the emotional investment of pet owners and a legal system that treats pets as property.
"Given both parties' considerable expenditures in this case," they wrote, "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."