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Dog Fight

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The day Peggy Bunker split from fiancé Richard Higgs in 2007, she left their five-acre Bedminster, N.J., home. She gave back the ring. But she couldn’t part from Barkley and Willis, their West Highland white terriers. Once she landed a local Fox anchor job in Denver, “I grabbed the dogs,” says Peggy, who left town with them after a regular visit.

The move set off a two-year war, adding Richard, 42, a bank exec, and Peggy, 37, to what is, according to Animal Legal Defense Fund founder Joyce Tischler, a rising number of exes fighting for pet custody. “At first the usual response was to treat [pets] as personal property,” says Tischler. “There’s been a change in attitude.”

After Peggy took the two purebreds (each worth $1,800), Richard hired an attorney called “the F. Lee Bailey of dog law” and won a court order to fly them home. Peggy would spend $25,000 in legal fees, plus the cost of 23 trips to New Jersey, yet when Richard offered her more than $100,000 to walk away, she turned it down.

On Nov. 20 a N.J. judge ordered the dogs returned to her after she proved she had been their primary owner. “He was good to the dogs,” Peggy says of her ex. “But that doesn’t make them his.” (Richard Higgs refused to comment.) Now Peggy and new husband C.J. Hummel are bonding with Barkley, 6, and Willis, 5. “Driving home with them, C.J. said, ‘Look, we’re a family,'” she says. “It made me cry.”