Stella Case No. 068, Originally Published: 10 December 2003
Doug Baker, 45, of Portland, Ore., said he met “Fremont” while driving four years ago. The German Shepherd was in the road, cars swerving around him. He was limping. Baker says he believes God steered him to the dog, and he stopped to pick the animal up. “Our eyes met, and we connected,” he says. “My life’s never been the same.”
Baker spent $4,000 in vet bills to get the dog well. “People thought I was crazy,” he remembers, “but I’m telling you, God wanted me to save him.”
Baker, who lived on a houseboat, would leave the dog with Lisa Klein, his girlfriend, during the night and bring him to his office during the day. “He was with one of us nearly 24 hours a day, and he really only trusted us,” he says. “He was scared of people.” Indeed the dog had a “reputation” for lunging and snapping at strangers.
When he had to go out, Baker would hire a dog sitter. In September, Baker took Klein to dinner and paid the dog sitter $30 to watch Fremont. When they got home, they found a message from the sitter: Fremont had run away. A truck driving by backfired and scared the skittish dog, and he got out of the yard — through an open gate, Baker alleges.
Baker went far beyond the usual procedure of looking for the dog and putting “Lost and Found” ads in the newspaper. He bought a display ad so he could include a photo. He offered a $1,000 reward. He circulated fliers and put up a web site.
Then it gets drastic. He let his auto repair shop go out of business so he could devote full time to the search. To pay the search expenses, he started taking early disbursements from his retirement fund. He says he had planned to ask Klein to marry him by tying an engagement ring to Fremont’s collar so he could “deliver” it to her, but since the dog wasn’t there to do that he postponed the engagement.
Then it gets weird. Baker hired an animal tracker to follow the dog’s scent. The tracker declared the dog had been abducted, so Baker hired four different “animal psychics” to divine where the dog was. Each session cost $55 to $100, and every one of them said they “communicated” with the animal. But when their leads came to a dead end, Baker hired a witch to cast spells to bring Fremont home.
Then it gets scary. “I went out and put my own urine in the area where Fremont was last seen,” Baker says, reasoning “he might smell my scent and then stay put.”
By day 60, Baker had spent over $20,000 on finding Fremont. Shortly after that, the Portland Oregonian newspaper ran a long story on his search, just as Baker was ready to hire a fifth psychic. The story noted he cries over Fremont every day, and has a hard time going into his dining room because of memories of Fremont being in there.
But Baker got his happy ending: two days after the newspaper article ran someone who saw the story phoned in a tip. Baker went to the neighborhood the tipster suggested and found Fremont in the street, about two miles from where he had disappeared. Baker’s vet says the dog very likely roamed the area for the two months he was gone — he was apparently not “abducted” at all.
Well, that’s not really the end — if it was, this wouldn’t be the Stella Awards. That’s right: Baker is suing.
Although upon finding Fremont he told the newspaper “All I want to do now is rebuild my life,” apparently he wants someone else to pay for that rebuilding. Two days after getting the dog back, Baker and Klein hired Geordie Duckler, a Portland attorney who says he’s the only Oregon attorney to specialize in representing pet owners. Duckler brags that he has 50 open cases and has represented animals from birds to alligators.
Duckler has filed suit against Lisa Dunbar, the pet sitter, in Multnomah County Circuit Court demanding $160,000: $20,000 for the cost of his search, $30,000 for the income he lost by letting his business collapse, $10,000 for “the temporary loss of the special value of Fremont based on his qualities, characteristics and pedigree,” and $100,000 in “emotional damages.”
“I lived a nightmare,” Baker says. “Yesterday was the first day I didn’t cry, and last night was the first night I didn’t go out and scream.”
At a news conference, Duckler said he hopes the lawsuit “helps redefine personal-property laws,” saying pet sitters should be held to “a higher standard of care” than people watching, say, someone’s car.
Dunbar of course has hired an attorney to help defend her, and says her lawyer has told her not to comment on the case. “All I can say is they are lying,” she told the Oregonian, “and they’re taking advantage of the media.” While the suit says she didn’t do enough to help find Fremont, she says she “was out looking from the minute it happened. I even took time off from work to help look.”
People indeed can form close, loving, even deep bonds with their pets. But who thinks it’s reasonable to spend over $20,000 to find a lost dog, and let their business fail in the meantime? Obviously one person did think it was worth it — and that’s his decision to make. Once he made that decision, he needs to live with its consequences.
Baker knew his dog was skittish around strangers. The newspaper reported that the first thing he did when he found the dog was put a collar on him; didn’t he take the most basic precaution of having tags on the dog all along so that if he did get lost, his owner could be found!?
And if it was “God’s will” for him to find the dog in the first place, why wasn’t it “God’s will” for him to lose it later? Perhaps Baker “lived a nightmare,” but now he has gone and created a far, far worse nightmare for the woman who tried to look after his cowering animal. Surely that’s not part of God’s plan.
- “Looking for Fremont”, Portland Oregonian, 30 November 2003.
- “Love, Search for Dog Priceless in End”, Portland Oregonian, 4 December 2003.
- “Owner Sues Pet Sitter in Loss of Dog”, Portland Oregonian, 6 December 2003.
The case was even written up in the ABA Journal (a publication of the American Bar Association), which noted that Dunbar and her business-partner mother were sued, and had no insurance to cover them. It also said they were “considering” a countersuit, but they left it unclear on what grounds that would be based.
But in all my searching I didn’t find any mention of the case other than what is already presented here — no mention of the suit’s conclusion, no other mention of a countersuit, and no follow-ups by local media in Portland. Attorney Geordie Duckler, meanwhile, is still the principal at “Animal Law Practice” in Oregon, and proclaims, “I am the most well–known and experienced animal law attorney in this country.”
My 2021 Thoughts on the Case
Upon re-reading this case for repost, the main thing that made me raise an eyebrow was the phrase, “At a news conference…”. Seriously: call in the media for a lawsuit over a dog that had been found. That right there gives a sense of his character.
The case was a Runner-Up for the 2003 Stella Awards, and the last case report from that year.
Comments on the cases of big industry suing over their trademarks being visible in Hollywood movies:
George in Texas: “I did not see the ‘George of the Jungle’ movie, as I don’t watch movies anymore. But ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ (1939) has a scene showing men with Caterpillar tractors demolishing people’s homes in Oklahoma during the Depression. Certainly that ought to be viewed as badly as what they did in the Jungle movie. Yet I don’t recall ever hearing that Caterpillar sued them over that movie. Is suing somebody who disparages your product or uses it in an unflattering way merely a modern phenomenon, or what? Or is it because the scenes depicted in 1939 actually happened? Either way, it sounds to me like Caterpillar is having ‘sour grapes’.”
Jonathan in Oregon points out the real danger to Cat’s image: “I’ve always looked at Caterpillar equipment and thought of it (and by inference the company) as being strong and formidable; able to take on anything thrown at it and emerge victorious. After reading this story, what came to mind was a bunch of prima-donna executives with manicures and soft, never-done-a-day’s-work hands. Oh, the humanity! Buck up, Caterpillar. You’ve certainly diminished my perception of your company.”
Walter in New York: “Wham-O is obviously not in tune with the Hollywood adage ‘it doesn’t matter what they’re saying about you, as long as they’re saying something.’ I thought this product fell into obscurity. Any exposure in the movie will probably only remind people of the great fun they had in their younger years using this product (for one summer). It would interesting to measure the sales of Slip N Slide before and after the movie’s release. What happens if profits go up? Does anybody remember what happened when Reese’s Pieces took off after the makers of M&M’s turned down exposure in ‘E.T.’?”
Marc in Illinois: “Sometimes corporate execs are too touchy about negative publicity. Reportedly, UPS was offered the role of featured company for the movie ‘Castaway’. They were worried about the negative publicity of having their company associated with a plane crash and loss of a shipment. FedEx accepted the role and got a ton of publicity with the positive message that eventually, the surviving packages got delivered. Bet the execs at UPS are still kicking themselves over that one.”
Nah: the guy that made that decision was probably fired!
Bill in Illinois: “The actions of Caterpiller and Wham-o border on the ridiculous. It is just a sorry reflection on today’s society and particularly lawyers who look under any leaf for a fee. It is time that judges started making plaintiffs involved in stupid suits pay all the costs of the suit, defendant and court. I think we would soon see the volume of these suits fall sharply.”
Interestingly, no one had a comment about the name of the “Slip ’n’ Slide”. Doesn’t that sound suspiciously like a type of lawsuit, rather than a toy? Seems to me like Wham-O is practically begging to be sued….
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