A bitter canine custody battle between former neighbors led to an unusual ruling when a Florida judge granted joint custody over a rescued Labrador retriever.
Madeira Beach, Florida resident Tina Walker adopted 4-year old Lab-mix, Elario in 2016. But, following a court ruling 5 weeks ago, Walker has been forced to share custody of the dog she adopted, paid for, and registered in her name with her former next-door neighbor, David Somerville.
Unlike typical custody battles, Walker and Somerville were never married, divorced, or in a relationship beyond just good friends and neighbors.
“And I don’t understand it because in the state of Florida, a dog is property,” Walker said, frustrated and angered by the Pinellas County court’s decision to grant joint custody of her dog to a former friend and neighbor. “He’s licensed to me. I paid for the dog.”
Walker explained to Fox13 News that she and Somerville were incredibly close when she adopted Elario. When Somerville, a Vietnam veteran, had lung cancer, she took care of him. During that time, Elario provided the comfort and companionship to him that only a dog can give. The pair grew very close.
But, when Walker had Elario microchipped and registered to her name and address – a safety measure that every responsible pet owner should take – Somerville felt betrayed and their friendship became strained. As former close friends became embittered, Walker – and Elario – stopped visiting. Walker stopped allowing Somerville to walk her dog and take him to the park in the evenings.
That’s when Somerville sued Walker for custody.
According to court documents, David said “Elario and I have a very strong bond/love for each other… He has been with me 24/7 for the last year and a half… I believe that Elario is my dog and should stay with me.”
Somerville claimed that for a year and a half, he cared for the dog, provided food and supplies, and paid for his veterinary care.
Pinellas County Small Claims Court Judge Lorraine Kelly ruled on March 8 that Elario be shared by both parties, despite Walker being his legally registered owner and having moved away from the apartment building in which she and Somerville were neighbors.
“Both parties have health considerations that quality time with Elario makes better. Both parties have spent a great deal of time with the dog and witnesses say he shows great affection for both of his humans,” Judge Kelly said.
In a shared custody order, Judge Kelly set a visitation schedule in which Elario must leave home and stay with Somerville every other weekend from Friday to Tuesday.
“I loved him, for two-and-a-half years I took care of him,” Walk told Fox13 of her former neighbor. “So I don’t understand this at all. I’m betrayed, I’m broken-hearted, my dog is split up.”
“To me, it seems very personal, it doesn’t seem to be so much about the dog as much as it’s a personal attack,” said Walker.
Last week, she filed an appeal of the joint custody judgment.