Ellen Degeneres breaks down on her show after an adopted dog she gave to friends gets taken away by the rescue agency

By Alex Tresniowski
November 05, 2007 12:00 PM

He’s a scruffy little fella, hates cats, loves kids, cute as can be and no bigger than a bag of kibble. But, as puppies sometimes do, Iggy, a Brussels Griffon mix, has created one huge mess. Let’s see—three owners in three weeks, a two-hour standoff involving police, death threats, angry phone calls, warring lawyers and a weepy on-air plea that’s already a YouTube classic. (On the plus side, Iggy is housebroken.) “This has become so insane,” Ellen DeGeneres, the comedian and talk show host at the center of Iggygate, aptly summed up on her show Oct. 17. “All that you’re supposed to do is put a dog in a loving home.”

Only in Hollywood could such a noble goal get so surreally out of hand. It all started in late September when DeGeneres, 49, and her partner of nearly three years, actress Portia de Rossi, 34, decided to adopt a dog to raise in the new home they recently moved into in Los Angeles. They settled on Iggy, a 4-month-old from the Mutts and Moms rescue group in Pasadena. But even their dog trainer Zack Grey, who worked with Iggy during 12 days of obedience training, couldn’t teach him to get along with DeGeneres’ three cats. “He’s a rambunctious puppy,” says Grey. “But Ellen and Portia really love their animals, and they loved Iggy, and it’s because of that love that they decided to find Iggy another home.”

DeGeneres, who already has two dogs, opted to give Iggy to her friend and hairdresser Cheryl (who prefers that her last name not be used). Cheryl, her husband, Gordon, and their two daughters Zoe, 11, and Ruby, 12, “all just adored Iggy,” says a family friend. “He was their new baby. They had everything set up for him, and he and their [Maltese poodle mix] Buddy ran around in the backyard, and it was just the cutest thing. They were really excited to have him.”

And that’s exactly what DeGeneres told Mutts and Moms cofounder Marina Baktis when the veteran dog rescuer called to check on Iggy Oct. 12. “Ellen and Portia told her the truth [about giving Iggy away] in a very celebratory, ‘isn’t-this-great-news’ kind of way,” says a source close to the couple. “And [Baktis] said, ‘That’s my dog, you have no right to decide where he goes, that’s my decision.'” In fact, at the time of the adoption, de Rossi signed a contract that states that adopting owners cannot transfer a dog to another home.

A simple misunderstanding, no? Well, not quite. Keith A. Fink, the attorney for Baktis and her Mutts and Moms cofounder Vanessa Chekroun, says the idea that DeGeneres and de Rossi weren’t aware they couldn’t re-home Iggy is hard to believe. “They are very bright, and I’m sure Ellen has signed many, many complicated contracts,” he says. “But they ignored this contract.”

On Oct. 13 Baktis phoned Cheryl and asked that she return Iggy. “She wanted us to drive to Pasadena immediately and hand Iggy over to people we knew nothing about,” says Cheryl, who by then had owned Iggy for 17 days. “We agreed to fill out an application but not to hand Iggy over.”

Instead Baktis and Chekroun drove to Cheryl’s home the next afternoon for what they called “a home inspection,” claims Cheryl. “Vanessa explicitly promised they would not remove Iggy.” (Fink says Chekroun made no such promise.) But according to Cheryl, once they arrived, Baktis picked up Iggy and refused to put her down; police officers were summoned to figure out exactly who owned the dog. Since Mutts and Moms had not yet listed DeGeneres as the owner on the microchip implanted in Iggy and scanned at the scene by Baktis, police agreed that Mutts and Moms was still Iggy’s rightful owner. After a tense two-hour standoff, Baktis and Chekroun left with Iggy. “Ruby had to witness her dog being taken away from her,” says Cheryl.

Yet no one, it seems, was more distraught than DeGeneres. On Oct. 15 she skipped the giddy dance number that typically opens her talk show and instead “she went straight to her chair and started talking,” says the source close to her. “And she cried. The staff didn’t even know she was going to do that.” Through tears, DeGeneres told the story of Iggy and pleaded for his return. “I thought I did a good thing [but] because I did it wrong, those people went and took that dog out of their home, and took it away from those kids,” she said. “And I’m begging them to give that dog back.”

Her emotional four-minute speech led fans to jam Mutts and Moms’ phone lines and Web site. “They have received thousands of hateful e-mails and some bone-chilling death threats,” says Fink. “It’s scary.” On Oct. 17 DeGeneres told her audience, “It’s gotten out of hand … I want nothing, nothing more than that dog returned to that family. But you don’t resort to violence. So anybody out there, please stop that.”

But there would be no peace. Baktis has told friends that she considered letting Iggy stay where he was, provided Cheryl and her husband “were evaluated like any other adopter,” says Scott Sorrentino, Baktis’s friend and the president and cofounder of the Rescue & Humane Alliance of Los Angeles. But “when Marina went out to [Cheryl’s home] she didn’t have a good interaction with this family,” says Fink. On the spot, Baktis “decided unofficially that, no, this family was not going to get that dog.”

On Oct. 17 Mutts and Moms placed Iggy with another family in California; they are declining to provide any information about the new owners. Cheryl’s family friend says the news that Iggy wasn’t coming back hit daughter Ruby hard: “She was really holding out hope the longest of anyone and thinking, ‘Of course everyone’s going to know Iggy belongs with us.’ To a kid, this is all just so unfair.”

Who, then, was ultimately to blame? Radio shock jock Howard Stern fanned the flames by accusing DeGeneres of adopting and then giving away as many as nine dogs in the past. Her supporters say that DeGeneres, in fact, has fostered several rescued dogs, providing them temporary shelter and spending thousands of dollars to nurture them before finding them suitable homes both with and without the help of rescue agencies. In Iggy’s case “Ellen did the right thing and found the puppy a good home,” says her trainer Grey. “Regardless of how he got there Iggy was in a great home, which is the mission of anyone who rescues animals.”

But those who know Marina Baktis say she is just as devoted to the cause of saving stray dogs. For years she was a volunteer with the Los Angeles Animal Services, where “day after day she would watch as the puppies were adopted and the moms were left behind to be killed,” says Sorrentino. “About three years ago, she started Mutts and Moms with a mission to save as many moms as possible.” But because of the Iggy flap, Mutts and Moms is now temporarily closed, and Baktis, says Fink, “is an emotional wreck.”

With any luck, the controversy over Iggy may help save more animals down the road. “One thing that I hope comes out [of this] is that people realize the importance of adopting a pet,” DeGeneres said on her Oct. 23 show, which was partially devoted to pet adoptions (see box). Cheryl and her daughters, however, haven’t thought about adopting a new dog just yet. “They’re just trying to get through this,” says their family friend. “It’s been really hard.”

And as for scruffy little Iggy? Here’s hoping he’s found a happy new home in a world without headlines or controversy. Or cats.