The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lucky the pit bull — every bit of him — gets his day in court

Lucky was the subject of litigation in Montgomery County. (John Kent)

Attorney Paul Kent has filed all kinds of court motions. But never one like this.

“I have owned dogs both castrated and not,” Kent wrote recently, seeking a temporary restraining order to halt a possible procedure that was pending at a Maryland animal shelter. “My experience is that castration changes the dog’s personality. I like Lucky’s personality as is. If I am the owner, I get to make that call.”

His legal efforts concluded after a brief hearing this week that addressed how Montgomery County defines dog ownership, who would get the friendly pit bull terrier, and what surgical procedures the dog would face.

“I’m glad it’s over. We’re moving on,” said Thomas Koenig, director of Montgomery’s Animal Services Division, which runs the county shelter.

For three months, Koenig’s agency had carried out what he described as “thought-out and reasonable” rules to take in stray dogs, seek their owners and, when appropriate, prepare them for adoption. “Much of what we do — in theory at least — is designed to put our shelter out of business,” Koenig said.

Kent, 57, first encountered Lucky at 7 a.m. on Aug. 16, after walking out of his home in Gaithersburg.

The black-and-white dog, approximately 1 to 2 years old, was tied on a leash to a mailbox post across the street. Kent walked over and petted the dog, which had open sores and missing hair and no identification.

Kent then headed to work. By noon, worried about the dog, he drove home. The dog was still tied up with several people standing nearby. One told Kent that an animal control officer was on the way.

Exactly what happened next remains in dispute.

“Mr. Kent refused to turn the dog over,” Koenig said.

Kent countered that by the time animal control arrived, he was holding Lucky by the leash he had untethered from the post. As the officer said the dog would be taken to a shelter, put up for adoption or euthanized if no one wanted him, Kent balked. “I’ll take the dog,” Kent remembers telling him.

And with that, the lawyer brought in a roommate with a big appetite and some stomach problems. Kent took him to a vet, who diagnosed flea infestation and intestinal issues. “He’s lucky that you found him,” Kent said he was told, adding that’s how he gave the dog its name.

With Kent’s help, Lucky regained his health, and soon the dog was joining Kent at the lawyer’s office in downtown Rockville. When clients arrived, Lucky sat on the floor. When Lucky needed a break, Kent took him for a walk. “They were like best friends,” said Kalle Bannister, a paralegal.

During an evening walk on Oct. 23, Lucky was off his leash, Kent acknowledged in court filings, and near Rock Creek Regional Park, where the dog bolted after a deer. Kent searched all evening but could not find Lucky. The next day, with help from his brother, they learned Lucky was at the county shelter after the dog had been taken there by someone who had spotted him.

Kent went to retrieve Lucky but was told his ownership standing was not clear, according to his court filings.

“I was devastated,” Kent recalled.

He returned the next day with paperwork: an intake form showing the visits with Lucky to the veterinarian, photos of him with the dog, and affidavits from two relatives and a Rockville attorney attesting to Kent’s care and control during the previous three months.

“I am asserting all my rights as owner of Lucky,” Kent wrote in a handwritten statement given to the shelter Oct. 25, “and am demanding his return.”

But his papers did not line up with Montgomery County’s laws governing the “redemption” of impounded animals, Koenig said. Among the law’s standards, a person must show legal title and a pet license. “He could not produce sufficient documentation,” Koenig said in an interview.

To understand the rules, Koenig said, it is important to appreciate that the shelter must guard against impostor owners trying to jump the adoption line after seeing pictures of a newly found pooch on the “Lost & Found” section of the shelter’s website.

In Kent’s first court action to get Lucky back, the attorney cited the portion of Montgomery’s animal-control laws that defines a pet owner as a person who “temporarily or permanently harbors or controls an animal.”

With the shelter talking about Lucky possibly being up for adoption, Kent was worried about the shelter’s neutering and spaying policy. He filed a second complaint, seeking the temporary restraining order against any alteration of Lucky. “It appears,” Kent wrote in his filing, “that I am being punished for allowing an abandoned and injured dog to come into my heart and then being honest about it.”

In an interview, Kent acknowledged that he had not gotten a license for his new pet and had walked an active animal with no leash on the evening of Oct. 23. “Look, I’m at fault for some of this, too,” he said.

But as he wrote in court papers, “I don’t want any money. I just want my dog back.”

The two sides were due in court this week.

Koenig arrived at the district courthouse with Benjamin Freedman from the county’s legal office. Kent showed up with several friends, including lawyer Barry Helfand. Freedman and Helfand walked into a break room to discuss a settlement.

In the hallway, conversation among the Kent crowd centered on castration. “This whole subject makes me hurt,” Bannister said, “and I’m a woman.”

Helfand emerged.

“It’s done,” he said. “This dog will not be neutered. There will be a vasectomy.”

Thirty minutes later, the parties stood before District Judge Eric Nee as the settlement was read aloud.

Among the terms: a vasectomy and rabies vaccination for the dog, with Kent to be declared the owner via adoption. Nee took it in, at one point making sure he understood who all the principals were.

“The dog is Lucky?” he asked.

“Yes,” Helfand said. “Clearly, the dog is lucky.”

His first job was training service dogs in prison. The dogs go on to transform veterans’ lives.

National debates over pit-bull bans moves to Prince George’s County.

About 400 pit bulls euthanized last year in Prince George’s, officials say.

Local newsletters: Local headlines (8 a.m.) | Afternoon Buzz (4 p.m.)

Like PostLocal on Facebook | Follow @postlocal on Twitter | Latest local news