Hollye and Troy Dexter watch their son Evan, 6, play with Stitch, a French… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
She first spotted the dog toddling down a rural highway in Northern California. He was small, maybe 25 pounds, and looked out of sorts.
The address on his collar was a post office box. She called the phone number listed. Disconnected.
Who was the dog's owner?
Answering that would prove more troublesome than anyone imagined.
The woman scooped up the French bulldog. He had a black head, a white body, big eyes and what she thought was a cigarette burn on his neck.
She hauled him to the local post office. No luck. She papered the area around Nevada City with fliers. No response. Finally, a veterinarian discovered that the pooch had been microchipped.
His name was Stitch. His owners were listed as Hollye and Troy Dexter. They lived in suburban Los Angeles, and their son drove for hours to pick Stitch up.
A couple of days later, the good Samaritan noticed signs around town asking where she lived. The man who posted them, Soleil Brown, said the bulldog was his.
That was in 2010.
How the legal system treats animals has changed dramatically in recent decades. They're protected by anti-cruelty laws. Their owners can bequeath fortunes to them. And their fate in a divorce, with rare exception, no longer hangs on "calling contests," in which judges gave custody to the parties who could coax Fido to their side.
For the most part, though, dogs, cats, macaws and turtles are still considered property, with few more rights than a coffee table. When ownership disputes land in court, judges have wide latitude.
Some will decide where a pet should live in the same manner they resolve custody of a child: by carefully sizing up who offers more financial security and stronger emotional ties. Other jurists consider that a waste of scarce resources and time and base their decision on other factors, such as who originally acquired the animal.
"People refer to their pets as children, but the court system has yet to catch up," said Karina York Sturman, a family law attorney in Los Angeles.
When the warring parties are strangers, legal disputes can get even messier. For starters, shared custody isn't an option. The law is also fuzzy on basic questions: How do you determine who owns a dog? Or whether that dog has been abandoned?
Those issues cropped up after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when thousands of dogs and cats were stranded on the Gulf Coast, said Joyce Tischler, general counsel at the Animal Legal Defense Fund. Original owners, rescuers, shelter officials and adoptive families all wanted a say in their fates.
"Judges didn't know what to do," Tischler said, and sort of freestyled their way through cases.
When the Dexters and Brown couldn't agree on who got to keep Stitch, they too landed in court. Their legal war has stretched on for nearly three years — half of Stitch's life — with little chance of an amicable end. That's common in pet cases, with each party claiming that money is no substitute for a furry friend.
"Both sides make credible claims for ownership, and both clearly care for and love the dog," wrote Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Stephen P. Pfahler, who handled the Stitch dispute. "This is not a case, however, where the court can 'split the baby' and, thus, is left with making the unenviable and difficult decision of who owns the dog."
In October 2007, a woman approached Hollye Dexter at Starbucks and sounded desperate. Her name was Cathy Chase. As Dexter told it, Chase said her teenage daughter, Daveigh, had repeatedly locked her French bulldog in her room without food or water. Did Dexter know anyone who'd want to adopt him?
Dexter offered to find the dog a home. As a girl, she'd considered her collie Rusty her best friend. Over the years, she and her husband, Troy, both musicians, had juggled three kids and a menagerie of cats, dogs, chickens and finches.
At the time, the family was grieving the death of their black Lab, Sky. So Hollye, 48, wasn't in the market for a new pet. But when her toddler son, Evan, met Stitch, they immediately bonded.
"If you said I'd go through thousands of dollars and grief and sleepless nights if I take this dog, I don't know what I would have done," Hollye said.
That night, she told her husband: Let's keep him. Once Chase agreed, the Dexters got Stitch microchipped and started the licensing process.
Within days, the phone calls began. Chase's daughter, Daveigh — an actress who had been the voice of Lilo in the animated movie "Lilo & Stitch" — demanded that the Dexters return the dog. So did her boyfriend at the time, Soleil Brown, who said Chase had lied — the dog was his.
The Dexters asked Brown for proof; they said he never provided any. But once Brown told police they'd stolen the dog, the Dexters returned Stitch. "Short of having to give a child back, it was the hardest thing ever," Troy said.
Two years passed.