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.
Brown said Stitch had been a gift from his friends: pop singer Aaron Carter and his sister, who’d purchased the bulldog for $3,500 and spent $3,000 more to send him to a celebrity dog trainer, according to court documents. But Stitch didn’t get along with Carter’s other dogs, Brown said in an interview, and needed a new home.
“It was super-cool. This little dog acted like Stitch from the movie,” said Brown, 26, who’d grown up with a German shepherd named Gandalf and a shepherd mix named Bubbles.
Brown toted Stitch everywhere, including to the park where he went rock-climbing. When the Dexters briefly had the dog in 2007, he was crushed, his mother, Susun White, said in court papers. “It is not often that a mom hears her grown son cry, but this was one of those times.”
Brown said he never mistreated Stitch, never left him without food or water. Rather, Chase disapproved of his relationship with her daughter, he said, and gave the dog away to spite him when she was watching Stitch while the couple were out of town.
By December 2009, Brown and Stitch were living on a ranch in the Nevada City area. One day, Brown noticed that Stitch was missing. He scoured the property, called local veterinarians, tacked up “lost dog” signs. His phone had been disconnected, he said, because he was a day late paying the bill.
Eventually he learned that, as a result of the good Samaritan finding Stitch, the dog had ended up with the Dexters — again. “I knew at least he was in a home, sleeping inside, being fed,” Brown said.
Brown and some friends showed up at the Dexters’ house in Chatsworth; Hollye recalled them demanding that Stitch be handed over — or else. Brown said the Dexters told him he’d have to go to court to get the dog back.
In February 2010, he filed a lawsuit.
As the case dragged on, Stitch nuzzled into the Dexter household. Troy and Hollye fed him pricey Wellness dog food. He slept in their bed — and snored.
Evan, 6, devoted a kindergarten project to Stitch, which was eventually submitted to the court. “I have a white dog. It has black spots,” Evan wrote. “It’s a good dog.”
To pay their mounting legal bills, the Dexters threw three fundraisers and a yard sale; each netted a few thousand dollars. Hollye also set up a Stitch Twitter account (354 followers as of mid-Tuesday), Facebook page (1,560 likes) and website (donations accepted).
The Dexters are “not willing to make the same mistake twice and allow Stitch, whom they have loved and cared for for years now, to return to an environment where he is in danger,” their attorney, Jill Ryther, wrote in court papers.
Brown wouldn’t budge, either. He borrowed money and sold his Subaru to help fund the legal fight. At one point, the Dexters offered him at least $2,000 for Stitch. Brown said no.
“It’s like Soleil’s child,” said his former attorney, J.T. Fox.
In 2011, the case went to trial. After three days of testimony, Pfahler made his decision.
Though Brown lacked paperwork, the judge wrote, he’d adequately proved that he — not Cathy Chase — owned Stitch when she gave him away. That the Dexters had microchipped Stitch didn’t matter.
“If a person obtained a stolen bicycle, and then the next day got a license for that bicycle, that does not make that person the owner of the stolen bike,” Pfahler wrote, primarily relying on the state’s lost property statute.
Pfahler found no evidence that Brown had neglected the dog or intentionally abandoned him. He ordered the Dexters to return Stitch. A year crawled by. They still haven’t.
The Dexters filed an appeal and were allowed to keep the dog during the process. When that didn’t pan out, their attorney suggested taking the fight to federal court. Friends reminded them of the time and money the case had eaten up. Perhaps it was time to end the legal skirmish? Perhaps it was time to give up Stitch?
The Dexters’ response: No way.