Accusations of greedy motives and arguments over visitation rights made it easy to forget that the court hearing Thursday centered not on the child of warring parents but on a four-legged animal, albeit one with his own Facebook page and thousands of fans worldwide.
When the rancor had subsided, state Superior Court Judge Joseph Cassini III ruled that Patrick the Pit Bull, the popular pooch found nearly starved to death in a Newark trash chute in March, will stay at an animal hospital while the criminal case against his owner proceeds.
The ruling ended — for now — a custody battle that has raged since the end of April when Cassini issued an order that Patrick would stay at Garden State Veterinary Specialists, the Tinton Falls facility where he underwent surgery after he was discovered in mid-March at Newark's Garden Spires apartment complex.
"The judge considered the law and the evidence and ruled accordingly, and that means justice for Patrick," hospital administrator Patricia Smillie-Scavelli, who has been overseeing the dog's recovery, said outside court.
The Associated Humane Societies, which initially treated Patrick at its Newark shelter before recommending he be moved to the animal hospital, filed a motion last month seeking to vacate Cassini's order and take possession of the dog. Cassini ruled Thursday that the state has the right to decide how and where to preserve evidence in a criminal case.
"This should not be subject to the whims and desires of those who claim an interest in him," the judge said. "American Humane Societies' interest that it had initially no longer exists."
The fuss can be explained in the context of Patrick's near-instant and startling celebrity: After word of the dog's plight reached the news wires, thousands of letters poured in from around the world to the Essex County Prosecutor's Office and the animal hospital. Smillie-Scavelli said she had received more than $30,000 within three days and ultimately had to ask people to stop donating. Patrick had hundreds of fans on Facebook before Smillie-Scavelli took the page down when the legal wrangling began.
Harry Levin, an attorney representing the humane society, accused the city of Newark of colluding with Smillie-Scavelli to capitalize on Patrick, whom he called "a cash cow." He added that an AHS vet saved the dog's life initially, and that the not-for-profit's contract with Newark empowers it to arrange for his adoption.
William Strazza, representing Newark, returned the accusation and noted that AHS trademarked Patrick's name and sent a cease-and-desist letter to Newark last month seeking to stop officials from mentioning the dog in public as part of Mayor Cory Booker's efforts to build a new animal shelter.
"If you follow the money trail, it leads back to Associated Humane every time," Strazza told the judge. "They're acting like a jilted lover. They should just go away."
Levin said AHS wants to keep the dog at its Popcorn Park Zoo, which caters to abused and neglected animals, and then find a home for him. Smillie-Scavelli has said she is interested in eventually adopting Patrick. Cassini didn't say Thursday how or whether he would rule on custody of the dog after the criminal case against Kisha Curtis is resolved.
Curtis has pleaded not guilty to two fourth-degree animal abuse offenses and two disorderly-persons offenses.