Judge rules against Steamboat Springs woman in husky custody dispute
June 2, 2017
A Routt County judge ruled Friday that a Siberian husky named Sitka should return to the Front Range with her original owner, despite the bond the animal has formed during the past three years with a Steamboat Springs woman who considers Sitka a family member.
Calling it a hard case for everyone involved, Judge James Garrecht said that, under Colorado law, he couldn't take the best interest of the dog into account when deciding who was the husky's rightful owner.
"I don't think anyone here acted in bad faith," he said. "But the best interest of the dog is not the issue here."
Michael Gehrke said the husky, who he knew as Mya, ran away from his home near Cañon City in September 2013.
She was later found in poor health at an elementary school on the other side of the Arkansas River in Fremont County.
The dog was soon adopted by Ashlee Anderson and brought to Steamboat after efforts to find the original owner were unsuccessful.
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Anderson did not know the dog had a microchip that would eventually alert Gehrke that his long-lost dog had been found in the Yampa Valley.
Even after Garrecht's ruling in favor of Gehrke, both Anderson and the original owner remained locked in a tense custody dispute over the husky.
Anderson and her attorney plan to fight the ruling.
In the meantime, Anderson put up a $2,400 bond to keep possession of Sitka, while she and her legal team appeal the judge's ruling.
Floating the idea of a trial, her lawyer vowed to take the legal battle as far as it would go.
"They won the battle, but we'll win the war," Anderson's attorney, Emily Kelley, said after Friday's hearing.
A visibly angry and frustrated Gehrke emerged from the courthouse saying he would continue to fight until he had the dog in his possession.
"I'm pissed," Gehrke said. "I got my dog, but I don't got my dog.”
Gehrke, who sued Anderson to get the husky back, is being represented by Denver attorney Jay Wayne Swearingen, who specializes in animal law .
Asked how Anderson's attachment and love for the animal weighed on his decision to take legal action against her to get the husky back, Gehrke said he also still feels a bond with the dog.
"I'm attached to the animal," he said.
Gehrke had the husky for about three years before she went missing.
As Sitka was lounging on a deck at Anderson's home in Steamboat, lawyers for Anderson and Gehrke spent more than three hours trying to convince Garrecht that their client was the rightful owner of the dog.
Anderson's lawyer argued Gehrke never was the rightful owner, because the microchip had not been changed over to his name after he bought the animal from a friend.
They also argued the dog had been abandoned, and Gehrke did not seem to be attached to the dog.
Gehrke’s attorney argued it was very clear he was the owner after he bought the husky for $1,200 to be a playmate for Gehrke’s other dog.
The mini-trial grew emotional and even heated, at times.
As Susan Revack testified about how she tried unsuccessfully to locate Sitka's owner after she found the husky at the elementary school in Fremont County, Revack abruptly stopped her testimony after hearing Gehrke say something across the room.
"Did you hear that judge?," she asked, with a stunned look on her face. "He just called me a (expletive) liar."
Garrecht said he could not hear what had allegedly been said.
Anderson will legally be able to hold onto the dog until court proceedings continue in a few weeks.
Kelley is working on the case pro bono.
"We're disappointed in the judge's ruling," Kelley said. "However, this is the first step in a very lengthy process."
Kelley said she was encouraged to hear Garrecht cite some court cases in other states where judges have taken into account the best interest of the animal when deciding who should have custody.
He mentioned one case in New York, where a cat’s wellbeing and emotional attachment to someone were taken into account when deciding who should get the animal after a divorce case.
Garrecht said he thinks more states will be moving in that direction.
When Anderson adopted Sitka, the dog had a bad case of heartworm.
A veterinarian told her the dog would have died had she not been brought in for care.
"We live in Dog Town USA, and this is an animal-friendly community," Kelley said, when asked why she was doing the case for free. "And the way Dr. Gehrke has treated Ashlee, who has cared for this dog for the last four years, is deplorable. If it weren't for the actions of my client, this dog would be dead.”
Anderson is paying court costs and fees associated with the lawsuit.
She described the hearing as an “emotional rollercoaster” and said she was determined to keep fighting for custody of the dog.