ATLANTA — There's a spot on Army Lt. Jay Johnson's bed that is heavy with emptiness, he says, and it can only be filled with his beloved Missy.
He was in Iraq when his family broke the news to him that volunteer rescuers who scoured New Orleans after hurricane Katrina had taken away his furry Shih Tzu.
An ID chip implanted in Missy should have ensured her return to him, he says, but instead she was allowed to be adopted by another family. Mr. Johnson hopes to reclaim his dog by suing the entity which took ownership of her after the storm: the Humane Society of North Texas.
"I fight against people who do harm to other people, and I feel it's my obligation to fight in this case," Johnson says.
He's one of about 20 Katrina survivors in the US who have sued humane societies, animal rescue agencies, or people who adopted the animals, for the return of a "Precious" or a "Bandit."
The lawsuits are efforts to reunite family members – even fuzzy ones – who have been separated by Katrina. They also raise troubling questions about whether animals should be treated as property or as members of the family – and which homes they belong in.
"We're trying to distinguish between dog-nappers and good-faith finders, and that's a huge gray area right now from hurricane Katrina," says David Favre, a law professor at Michigan State University in Lansing and an animal law expert.
Volunteer groups estimate that 50,000 pets were stranded after the storm. Some died, others went wild, skirting the shadows of New Orleans and its parishes. Sometimes heroically, volunteers scouring the flooded city in duck boats and canoes rescued about 15,000 of those animals – including dogs, cats, parakeets, and even goats.
But many animals disappeared, whether picked directly from the muck or given to out-of-state adopters by the multi-agency bureaucracy that coordinated the rescue effort – even as original owners continued a desperate search.
"I think many rescuers got judgmental, they saw so much horrible stuff and they decided that they didn't want to hear the reasons why the dogs were left behind," says Becky Correia, of Stealth Volunteers, a group trying to reunite owners with pets they lost after Katrina.
In many cases, overwhelmed shelters were forced to find new homes for pets that had not been claimed even after pictures were posted on the Internet.
Now, courts in North Carolina, Florida, and Texas have stepped in to sort out where the pets lost after Katrina belong.
As thousands of Americans became part of a huge Katrina pet adoption project, court documents describe how class and race have become issues since some defendants claim that the animals are better off in wealthier homes than in poorer ones, where care may be substandard.
"These animals are only moving in one direction, from poor to rich and from black to white and, as an American, that really bothers me," says Steven Wise, an animal rights lawyer in Florida, who is handling two custody cases.
St. Bernard Parish resident Thomas Exnicious III is in the midst of an emotional battle to be reunited with his Chihuahua Tricksy.
Before he left his home August 27, 2005, he poured plenty of food in Tricksy's bowl, planning to see her in a day or two. But in the massive rescue effort after the storm, Tricksy was swept up and moved from shelter to shelter. She was finally handed over to the Animal Compassion Network (ACN) in North Carolina, which in turn adopted the dog out.
The organization defended its decision in court documents. "... Consistent with its program for adopting animals to suitable homes, [ACN] adopted out ... the dog known as SBP 351," the lawsuit says.
In another case, Pam Bondi, a state prosecutor in Tampa, Fla., adopted a Katrina St. Bernard dog from St. Bernard Parish, and named him Noah. Earlier this month, the dog's original owners, who had named him Master Tank, flew to Florida and filed a lawsuit against Ms. Bondi and the Humane Society of Pinellas and gave a press conference. Bondi has refused to return the dog, because she says a case of heartworms is evidence that the dog was neglected before the storm.
State laws, so far, are on the side of the original owners because pets are considered property, not family, law experts say. "Finders, keepers" laws state that property must be abandoned for at least a year before original owners lose their rights to it unless the finders can prove they made a good-faith effort to find the owner. In Louisiana, the requirement is three years. In January, a New Jersey judge ordered a family to return a dog adopted after Katrina to its owner in New Orleans.
"The finders are going to have a good claim only if they've made a very strong effort to notify or return the dog to the original owner," says Mr. Favre.
For his part, Johnson isn't giving up on his Missy. "I can understand [the new family] falling in love with it, but it's not theirs. They have to give the dog back," he says.