HILLSBORO, Ore.—There were no dogs in Washington County Circuit Court Judge D. Charles Bailey's courtroom on Monday morning, just people. People arguing about dogs. One very fat wiener dog, in particular. A dog named Obie.
What brought this collection of attorneys and clients to this court on Monday is the same thing that had television crews battling over whose camera got to occupy the only spot in the courtroom: a custody battle over five-year-old Obie, the obese dachshund.
"I don't want to be here all day," grumbled the pony-tailed attorney sharing the dog's docket, before the judge entered the chamber. "Fascinating as wiener dogs are."
It wasn't supposed to be like this, to be ugly. Obie's was once a tale of redemption and rescue, of overindulgent tragedy to biggest-loser triumph. Two short months ago, the granddaughter of an elderly couple in Washington State posted a plea on the Facebook page of Oregon Dachshund Rescue, a story about a very fat "doxie," whose name was then "A.J."
The third comment on that post was from Portland resident Nora Vanatta, an emergency medical technician with ten years of experience as a veterinary technician and two dogs of her own, including a labrador retriever and dachshund. Vanatta offered to foster this wiener dog that had morphed into a full-fledged kielbasa, to put him on a strict weight loss plan and nurse him back to skinnihood.
One of the rescue society's volunteers, Patricia Malone, took Vanatta up on her generosity, drove to Washington to pick up the doxie in her small sport-utility vehicle (a passenger car was deemed too small, Malone testified in court Monday), and spirited the animal to Vanatta in Oregon, where the healing began.
First, though, the foster mom had to do a little remodeling for the doxie she quickly named Obie. She built a ramp, because the pooch was too fat to lurch himself up the 4-inch step that leads from inside the house to her fenced back yard. She installed a new dog door—one wide enough for Obie to fit through.
Then, Vanatta got creative. Obie's gut was so massive that he had sores on it, from dragging his belly across the ground as he walked. His armpits were so clogged with fat that he'd developed chronic dermatosis. She needed help caring for Obie, she decided, so she set up a PayPal account and a Facebook page, which had by Monday's hearing accumulated 71,000 fans. She called the local sales rep for Purina, who offered to pay for all the doxie's food for the coming six months. And when Good Morning America got wind of Obie's plight and asked if the dog could fly to New York for an exclusive, Vanatta said yes.
This development did not sit well with the Oregon Dachshund Rescue, said its owner and founder, Jenell Rangan, in court on Monday. If Obie had flown first-class, that would have been one thing, she said. But she learned via an angry phone call from the producers of the Oz Show that the wiener dog traveled in the cargo department, "with the jet fuel, and his huge weight."
"He needs to be a dog, your honor," Rangan told the judge. "He needs to be adopted to a family that will not expose him to the media. He needs to be a dog."
On Oct. 18, Rangan sent Vanatta a threatening letter via certified mail, demanding Obie returned to the rescue by Oct. 24—or else. Two days before that deadline, Portland animal rights attorney Geordie Duckler filed a lawsuit.
Duckler, who cut his eye-teeth battling the state of Oregon over custody of a white-tailed deer named "Snowball" back in 2007, claimed in court Monday that his case is a simple one: Vanatta was never anything but a foster parent. Obie belongs to the rescue society. And the rescue society now wants him back.
"It has nothing to do with the best interests of the animal," Duckler said. "Plaintiff owns. Defendent doesn't own. Plaintiff wants property back."
Problem is, custody battles involving animals aren't so simple. That became clear earlier this summer, when the Beaver State saw another high-profile custody battle play out, between a Portland man and the woman who found a husky mix, rescued him and refused to give him back when the original owner happened to spot the dog in the parking lot of a coffee shop.
Who really owns a dog, if no official paperwork is signed as the pup gets transferred from one person to the next?
She built a ramp, because the pooch was too fat to lurch himself up the 4-inch step that leads from inside the house to her fenced back yard.
Duckler argued in court that the doxie belongs to the rescue society. But Malone drove to pick up the dog from its original owners and handed him off to Vanatta, but without ever actually drafting any official transfer-of-ownership paperwork, according to Vanatta’s attorney, James McCurdy. The volunteer delivery driver, in fact, wasn't registered as such with the rescue society when she delivered Obie to Oregon. So legally, it's questionable whether the dog could ever have actually been considered the ownership of the rescue society's.
Or anyone, at this point, as Judge Bailey made clear in issuing a preliminary ruling that the dog will stay with Vanatta for now.
"Based on the record I have in front of me, it is just as likely that this is [the rescue society's] dog as it is Ms. Vanatta's dog," Bailey said. "I am denying the request to have the dog returned."
Obie seems to be doing just fine at the moment, star-spangled or not. He's lost 15 pounds since Vanatta took him in. Perhaps rather than investing in a drawn-out court battle, Bailey advised, the two sides could remember what really matters here.
"I want to make sure you guys realize what you're doing," Bailey said. "You have two very good people who are fighting over a dog which essentially seems to be getting taken care of in good fashion. Think about how you are going to proceed here."