Ringo Goodog, a mixed breed Labrador retriever and German shepherd who was something of a fixture in the Dupont Circle area, where his owner used him for panhandling, has become the object of a tug-of-war involving the Humane Society, the Community for Creative Non-Violence and an odd assortment of dog lovers who want the talented mongrel to have a good home.
They just can't agree on where.
Ringo's owner, Owen Reierson, often dressed him in sunglasses and hung an "Out of Work" sign around his neck to attract crowds. The dog would do tricks, pick up the coins and dollar bills thrown by passers-by with his teeth and deliver the goods to his master.
But last summer, the Washington Humane Society seized the 8-year-old, floppy-eared canine, charging his owner with cruelty to animals. Reierson launched a campaign to get his dog back, and during the protracted legal battle that followed, dog lovers chose sides and Ringo spent most of the next eight months at the D.C. animal shelter.
The 46-year-old Reierson, known on the streets as Mike Owens, died last month without being reunited with his dog. The dog lovers are still wrangling over custody.
Reierson's attorney and friends say Ringo is part of his estate and should be turned over to his executor, who wants to give the dog to Mitch Snyder and other activists with the Community for Creative Non-Violence, an advocacy organization for the homeless.
"We knew Mike, and we have a huge staff house with a yard, four kids and a couple of cats who are used to dogs," said Carol Fennelly, a spokeswoman for the group who is Snyder's girlfriend. "Ringo would be very happy here."
Until this week, when Reierson's sister flew in from California and laid a surprise claim to Ringo, the Humane Society said it would select his new home from among a number of people who had applied to adopt him.
"After all he's been through, we want to place him in a real house with real people," said Jan Marks, who manages the animal shelter operated by the Humane Society on New York Avenue NE. "We want to select the best home for him and his specific needs."
Society officials, after talking by telephone with Fennelly, ignored the wishes of Reierson's executor and recently put Ringo in a "foster home" in Calvert County pending a final custody determination. They say they will give the dog to Reierson's sister if she can prove she is a relative -- and if she pays a $600-plus "lien" for his board.
The sister, Ruby Carte, could not be reached for comment but has indicated a willingness to pay the bill. She is said to be planning to turn the dog over to CCNV anyway.
"She just wants the dog to go to who she thinks Mike would have wanted him to go to," said Jill Wichlens, Reierson's lawyer.
The Humane Society's attorney, Frances Horner, said the organization would be out of business if it couldn't collect on costs associated with seizing animals for their own protection. Wichlens said she finds the lien galling because Reierson was never convicted of animal cruelty and "since Mike had tried to get Ringo back from day one."
Reierson, who had polio as a youngster and used a cane to walk, was given Ringo about five years ago when his previous owner moved away. Man and dog shared a dilapidated two-room apartment in Adams-Morgan, and Reierson collected foreign coins, frequently drank and panhandled to supplement a small monthly disability check.
The dog was Reierson's chief companion as well as an important source of revenue on the streets.
When the Humane Society took Ringo from him late last June, Reierson became enraged, circulating petitions, calling city and church officials, even sending a telegram to the White House asking for the return of his dog.
"I don't need a lawyer, my dog needs a lawyer," Reierson once said. "He's the one that's in jail."
But Reierson, who died of the long-term effects of alcoholism, was the one who was in trouble. Acting on three written complaints and several phone calls, the Humane Society accused Reierson of beating Ringo with his cane last March 26 outside the old Junkanoo restaurant on Connecticut Avenue NW. Reierson denied the charge and said he was breaking up a dog fight.
In written complaints, three witnesses told of watching Reierson beat the dog on the front legs and chest until Ringo was howling in pain. While denying this incident, Reierson subsequently demonstrated to a reporter how he used the cane to control the dog -- hitting his own leg with the cane to bolster his contention that it didn't hurt.
The Humane Society, citing previous complaints, says Reierson often flew into drunken rages and abused Ringo. The society also questioned his use of the dog.
"Do you think it's the nature of a dog to be kept on a short leash all day in the sun with sunglasses?" asked Jean Goldenberg, Humane Society executive director.
Yet many people in the neighborhood who passed the man and his dog daily on the streets came to Reierson's defense, saying they had never seen him mistreat the dog and that it was clear that they were devoted to each other.
"I can vouch for the health and robustness and good spirits of Ringo in Mike's care . . . . Restore him to the happy life he was leading," said Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic and one of several people who contacted the Humane Society on Reierson's behalf.
Reierson frequently visited his dog at the pound, taking him hot dogs and other treats, and blocked attempts to put Ringo in a foster home or have him neutered. But for a variety of reasons, including his penchant for firing attorneys he didn't feel were working hard enough to free his dog, the animal cruelty case had not been heard in court when he died.
Wichlens, Reierson's attorney, said that as an animal lover she realizes the Humane Society is "just doing its job . . . but I find it kind of shocking the power they have. They're so self-righteous."
Marlene Kaletta, a CCNV volunteer who was Reierson's friend and is his estate's executor, said he died pining for Ringo. She said the Humane Society was mean-spirited in refusing to give the dog to CCNV.
"But now they don't seem to have any problem giving Ringo to someone who lives 3,000 miles away . . . . They just wanted the money," she said.
While acknowledging Reierson's sister's apparent rights to the dog, Horner said the Humane Society would not otherwise be under any obligation to give the dog to CCNV just because Reirson's supporters want him to go to CCNV. "If Ringo was a child, we wouldn't just give the child to anyone who wanted the child," she said.