Fangs Are Bared Over Md. Group's Katrina Dog Rescues

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 14, 2006

It started as a dispute over the custody of Sandy Marie and Coco Ree, two dogs brought to Montgomery County last year after being rescued from a suburb of New Orleans ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

But the attorneys involved in the spiraling fight are dueling about more than ownership of the female shepherds. It has become a battle over the legal complexities of rescuing pets in disaster zones, disparities in social class and the incendiary effect grass-root campaigns waged on the Internet can have on people's lives.

On one side is Belinda Sumrall, a New Orleans evacuee who left her pets behind. On the other are the Montgomery County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and two of its volunteers.

In the middle are the dogs' new owners, who adopted them from the society and now might have to return them to Sumrall.

A judge in Louisiana has ordered the society to return the dogs to Sumrall. The agency and the two volunteers have struck back with a defamation lawsuit in Maryland, in which they contend that the Louisiana attorney representing Sumrall has unfairly characterized them as elitist thieves who took advantage of Katrina victims.

The new owners are not a party in either suit, and their identities are not public.

When Katrina hit nearly a year ago, Kim Deserio of Gaithersburg, a federal government lawyer, traveled to Louisiana to help rescue abandoned pets. She found Sandy Marie and Coco Ree on the streets of Arabi in St. Bernard Parish.

Sumrall had left the dogs when fleeing the storm and resettled in Texas. Attempts to locate her to comment for this article were unsuccessful.

Parish officials gave Deserio permission to take the dogs to Maryland so they could be placed in foster care. The parish required the SPCA to post photographs of them with contact information on a Web site used by many Katrina evacuees to find their missing pets.

Under the agreement, the animals would become the property of the Montgomery SPCA if their owners hadn't come forward by Nov. 1.

Sumrall posted queries on other Web sites about her missing pets but received no response, she said in court documents. A volunteer helping her look for them later discovered that they had been taken to Maryland.

The dogs, renamed Andi and Foxy by their caretakers in Montgomery, were treated for heartworm. One had a mass on her salivary gland that required expensive surgery, according to the society.

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