When a family pet is viewed as property — things can get sticky — which Hollye and Troy Dexter of Chatsworth are learning the hard way, as they fight to keep their beloved dog “Stitch.”
The long, messy story began in 2007 when Hollye’s neighbor, knowing she was an animal lover and rescuer, approached her for help in finding a home for her 16-year-old daughter’s French bulldog that was being neglected. She would leave the dog for days inside a room with no fresh air or exercise, having to relieve himself on the carpet, while she partied with her friends. Stitch, whom she had for several months, had been given to her by another teenager, who purchased him at a pet store and had him for several months.
Hollye assured her neighbor she would try to find a home for the puppy, but once she and her husband met him, they decided to keep him instead. The Dexters adopted Stitch and had him registered and microchipped. A week later, Hollye received an angry, expletive-laden phone call from the teenager demanding she return her dog. Hollye informed her that since she was a minor she would only deal with her mother, so instead, her adult boyfriend called and said the dog belonged to him. Hollye agreed to meet with the girl’s mother and handle the matter legally, but in the interim, the boyfriend reported to the police that Stitch was stolen by the Dexters. He also showed up at the meeting between Hollye and the girl’s mother, picked up Stitch and disappeared for the next two years — until one day, Hollye received a call (thanks to the microchip) — that Stitch was found in the middle of a highway in Nevada City, Calif. with a cigarette burn on his neck.
The Dexters made the 10-hour trip to once again bring Stitch to their home and to safety. The boyfriend had been living in a guesthouse in Nevada City, and subsequently sued the Dexters, so for the past 20 months they have found themselves embroiled in a court battle to keep the dog they’ve now had for almost 2 years.
Due to the boyfriend admitting he lost Stitch at least five times, as he was an outdoor dog that ran loose and chased bears (despite French bulldogs being unsuited for outdoor living), coupled with the fact that he has no physical proof of ownership, the Dexters were confident the judge would rule in their favor. Instead, they received a decision by mail, which ruled in the plaintiff’s favor.
The judge cited a lost property statute dating back to the 1850s and geared toward ranch animals, not family pets. The Dexters’ appeal must show that the judge misused an outdated and irrelevant statute. “In his ruling he compared Stitch to a bicycle — except you wouldn’t go to jail for leaving a bicycle in a hot car,” Hollye points out.
“If we win in the court of appeals, it will create good law that awards good pet ownership — and finally recognizes sentients as our animal companions,” notes renowned animal rights attorney Shannon Keith, who is representing the Dexters, along with attorney Jill Ryther. “We’re hoping the appeals court recognizes that the lower court made the wrong decision, and that we have both law and fact on our side.”
Says Hollye: “When we went into this, we thought it was a slam dunk — we were shocked and devastated that the judge would rule against us.” Luckily, the Dexters filed a successful petition to keep Stitch with them during the appeals process, with the first hearing set for Aug. 25 at the Chatsworth Courthouse. As parents of two grown children and a five-year-old, as well as rescued animals, Hollye says this case has become a full-time job that has left them literally bankrupt, and although they feel the final outcome is a coin toss, they will remain steadfast until the end.
“Letting this guy have Stitch back would be like delivering him to his death. There’s no way we can in good conscience ever give this dog back,” she says.
For more information on this case and to sign the petition, visit savestitch.webs.com.