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There's a dog in this hunt

One of the thousands of canines displaced by Hurricane Katrina is caught in a long-distance custody fight between her owner and her rescuer.

August 27, 2007|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

Kara Keyes bought the black-and-white pit bull as a puppy five years ago, intended as a Valentine's Day gift for her husband. But the dog -- named Crown for the C-shaped mark on her head -- soon came to adore Keyes.

When Keyes sat on the porch of her New Orleans home, the dog would wriggle between her legs and rest her head on Keyes' lap.

"If I move, Crown moves," Keyes said. "If I stop, Crown stops."

Dogs came and went, but Crown, as Keyes said, was "my first baby."

Keyes doesn't spay or neuter her animals. "I don't want anyone to spay me," she said by way of explanation. Crown gave birth to a litter of eight in 2004, and Keyes and her husband, Ronald, a forklift operator, presided at their modest Seventh Ward home.

"I know I'm not an M.D., and he's not either, but we were that day," said Keyes, who works as a locksmith at the Medical Center of Louisiana at New Orleans. "She had them in the house. A beautiful litter. . . ."

Three years after Crown came into their lives, Hurricane Katrina hit, and Keyes and her husband were not allowed to return to their home for several weeks. Evacuated to Houston, they got word on Crown from a neighbor who told them he last saw the pit bull sitting on the porch. Waiting.

Meanwhile, Pia Salk, a clinical psychologist from Santa Monica, was one of the legions of volunteers roaming the waterlogged streets of New Orleans rescuing animals stranded by the hurricane. In mid-September of 2005, she spotted a skinny pit bull in front of an evacuated house in the Seventh Ward. There was nothing skittish or ferocious about this canine.

"When I rescued her, she walked past the food and pressed herself against me," Salk recalled.

The pit bull had cropped ears -- a procedure many veterinarians discourage and some rescuers consider cruel -- and was ill, Salk said. She checked the dog into a makeshift temporary animal shelter at the sprawling Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, some 50 miles west of New Orleans. Salk put her name and phone numbers on the dog's kennel, asking to be kept apprised of her fate.

Salk continued through the fall to visit New Orleans, but she was back in Santa Monica when she got a call from a volunteer who had taken several rescued dogs out of the Lamar-Dixon shelter and brought them to Albuquerque. The sickly pit bull was among them.

"I said, 'Why don't I take her?' " Salk recalled.

She nursed the dog through heartworm disease and had her spayed. She moved to an apartment with access to a yard for her canine brood, which included a once-feral Labrador retriever, Luna, also rescued from New Orleans. She named the pit bull Sweetie and took her along in her therapy with at-risk kids.

"I knew I would be fostering the dog," Salk said. "I figured if someone showed up, they would call me."

This spring, that call finally came.

A band of volunteers dedicated to reuniting pets with Katrina victims -- even months after the hurricane -- contacted Kara Keyes and Pia Salk to inform them that the rescued Sweetie was the long-lost Crown.

But what could have been a happy ending has become a cross-country custody battle and culture clash over the obligations of dog owners and rescuers. As it turns out, the sensibilities of the Seventh Ward and Santa Monica could not be more at odds.

Salk refused to give up Sweetie.

She won't acknowledge that Crown and Sweetie are the same dog -- even though Sweetie was rescued in front of the Keyeses' house. But, she added, "if I did confirm it was the same dog, I would not return the dog to a home I don't think she's safe in."

Salk contends -- based on a telephone conversation with Keyes -- that the New Orleans woman does not know how to treat heartworm. And when Salk wanted to fly to New Orleans to visit the Keyeses before deciding whether to relinquish the dog, Keyes turned her down.

For Keyes and the animal rescue volunteers who helped her, Salk's claim is outrageous, not to mention patronizing.

"You can't judge me on my living," said Keyes in a phone interview from New Orleans. "Crown is mine. She's my baby."

Keyes and Salk are not the only ones embroiled in this kind of dispute. The Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, headquartered in New Orleans, estimates that about 100,000 animals were left behind when their owners fled Hurricanes Katrina and Rita two years ago, many of them forbidden to take pets on rescue boats or buses.

Eventually, more than 15,000 pets were rescued. About 8,500 of them made a stop at the Lamar-Dixon shelter. From there, animals were logged in and shipped across the country to various shelters -- which, in turn, allowed them to be fostered at people's homes. Fewer than 3,000 rescued pets have been reunited with their owners.

Although most New Orleans residents who located their pets got them back or agreed to let the guardians keep them, some met with such resistance that they decided to sue for custody. Lawsuits have been filed against new owners in Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and Louisiana.

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