Peggy Bunker’s bitter dispute cost more than $25,000

By Kate Hogan and Reporting By Vickie Bane
Updated December 08, 2009 02:05 AM

When Peggy Bunker broke up with her fiancé, Richard Higgs, in May 2007, she left their five-acre mansion in Bedminster, N. J., with her boys: two West Highland terriers named Barkley and Willis. After accepting a new job, Bunker moved the dogs with her to Denver that August, and was blindsided a month later when Higgs filed a lawsuit to get back the animals – worth $1,800 each. “One day there was a knock at the door,” Bunker tells PEOPLE. “It was a sheriff who had come to tell me there was litigation filed against me in New Jersey.”

For Bunker, co-anchor of Fox’s Good Day Colorado, it was the start of a two-year legal battle that cost her more than $25,000, not counting the expense of making 23 trips to New Jersey for court appearances and visitations every five weeks with her dogs. Higgs, 42, a Wall Street bank executive, and Bunker, 37, are among what the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) says are a growing number of couples battling over pet custody. “It was expensive,” acknowledges Bunker, who turned down Higgs’s offer of $100,000 to walk away from the dogs, “but I would not have been able to live with myself if I had just turned and walked away. It was not an option.”

Higgs and Bunker, who were together for six years, purchased Barkley in 2003, shortly after moving in together in Bedminster, N.J. About a year later, they welcomed Willis. “I think I just really bonded with the dogs because if I wasn’t working, I was home with them,” Bunker says. Though life with her pets was great, her relationship with Higgs was crumbling. “I lived in hotels for a little while and then sublet an apartment in Manhattan,” Bunker says. “Obviously the dogs were used to all this acreage and space so I didn’t take them with me until I moved to Denver.”

That’s when the trouble began. After that fateful sheriff’s visit, Bunker traveled to New Jersey for a court hearing, and discovered Higgs was ready to fight. “He presented evidence that had his name on it, indicating he was the owner of the dogs, and that I had them in my possession. So the judge, only having one set of information to go on, ruled that I needed to return the dogs to the New Jersey jurisdiction until she could determine who rightfully owned them,” Bunker says. “Basically I would have been arrested if I had not handed over the dogs. It was a horrible moment.”

Higgs was ordered to go to Denver at his own expense to pick up Barkley and Willis. “It was like a scene from a Lifetime movie where you’re handing over your children and you’re so mad,” Bunker recalls. “I looked around furiously trying to find a way to stop it from happening.” She called a lawyer, and the drawn-out custody battle began. “Did I ever think it would take this long and cost this much money? Absolutely not,” she warns. “People should think about that when they get a pet, and decide who gets the animal in a split, to be on the safe side.”

On Nov. 20, following an eight-day trial in October, a judge ordered the dogs returned to Bunker. Higgs, who wasn’t in court for the verdict, refused to comment on the case. Now Bunker and her husband of 18 months, CJ Hummel, 38, an investment banker who flew with their pets to Denver the next day, are re-bonding with Barkley, 6, and Willis, 5. “We were driving home from the airport with the dogs in the backseat,” says Bunker, “and CJ said, ‘Look we’re a family.’ It made me cry. We are a family.”

Read more about Peggy Bunker’s dog fight in the new issue of PEOPLE magazine, on stands now.