Dog 'rescued' from Greek island by North Vancouver woman at centre of custody battle
Tug-of-war over dog brought to Canada from Greece threatens to become an international incident
A curly haired dog spirited away from Greece — and now living in B.C. — is caught in a custody battle that's threatening to become an international incident.
Earlier this year, the dog was taken from a Greek island by a North Vancouver woman, who had gone there to help Syrian refugees.
She claims the dog was neglected, ill and abandoned.
But the Greek-Australian family who raised the dog deny that — and are demanding its return.
They've gone to the police, while the North Vancouver woman has gone to a B.C. animal rights lawyer, who is warning the original owners to back off.
Max renamed as Dex
Max, the dog, has been renamed Dex and is oblivious to the fight over his ownership.
The mop-haired mongrel pads about Monique Wilberg's architect-designed North Vancouver home.
Wilberg, 54, is the former chief operating officer with Gateway Casinos.
Last December, she decided to travel to the Greek island of Lesbos with her son, to volunteer in the Syrian refugee camps there.
She arrived on Dec. 31 and stayed at a unit in a villa owned by Eleni Atsikbasis, a Greek-Australian woman.
At the time, Lesbos was being inundated with boatloads of migrants flooding in from the coast of Turkey, just six kilometres away.
'Stray' shaggy dog
Wilberg says she quickly became distracted by a shaggy dog she found outside the property she was renting.
She says the dog was "filthy and matted and stinky … he was a stray to my mind."
Wilberg claims there appeared to be no one looking after the dog.
"There was no dog house, there was no water dish, there was no food dish."
And she says the bedraggled animal had been left to the mercy of the elements.
She claims there were below freezing temperatures, gale force winds, torrential rain, snow and an ice storm in the month she cared for Max.
Wilberg also says Max had a litany of health problems, ranging from an infected dewclaw to ear infections, a cracked tooth and buckshot in his rear right leg.
Family pet raised from a pup
Speaking with CBC News from Greece, Atsikbasis insists Max was well cared for and regularly seen by a vet.
She says she is Max's original and rightful owner and the dog was a family pet, raised from when he was a puppy in 2009.
Atsikbasis, 45, grew up in Australia but divides her time between Athens, where her daughter lives, and the family property on Lesbos, where her parents reside.
A filmmaker and documentary producer, she admits that neither she nor her parents were on the island from Dec. 23 until she returned on Jan. 6.
But she says Max was in good hands, looked after by her staff on her rental property.
"He has his own shelter with a dog house and a safe place, so … he's able to feel safe and go home."
Wilberg disputes that.
"No one ever came to ask, 'Have you seen Max, is he being fed, does he have water because he normally comes here for that?' … That never happened."
'Furious and betrayed'
Atsikbasis says that when she returned to the island she noticed Wilberg "really fell in love with the dog."
And the heart of the ownership dispute appears to be a misunderstanding — or disagreement — over a conversation about a "holiday" for Max. Atsikbasis says Wilberg suggested Max should go with her to Vancouver for a few months.
"At that one split second I said, 'Yeah, the dog could go on holiday,'" says Atsikbasis,
"Then the same evening, I said, 'It's not possible … it's my daughter's dog, and she'd be devastated.'"
But Wilberg says she had a very clear understanding that she could take Max on a vacation.
"She texted me, 'Yes you can take him.' And so no, there was a very clear understanding, because I think she wanted to do the right thing."
Within a few days, Atsikbasis says, Wilberg left unexpectedly — taking Max with her.
She says her daughter, Melia, 16, was heartbroken.
"He was my first pet. I loved him and he was very important to me. He still is," says Melia.
"From the first moment I saw him I loved him and I still do. And I want him to be part of my family again."
Texts follow Max's trail
Screen captures of texts sent back and forth indicate Atsikbasis immediately demanded Max be returned.
"This is insane - Where is Max?" reads the first in a chain of texts supplied by Atsikbasis.
"He's en route to Canada!" responds Wilberg.
"On a flight!"
Atsikbasis: "You must call me — my daughter found out and is freaking out.
"Wilberg: "Shit …This is the last thing I expected … painful."
But Wilberg continued to Vancouver.
International legal battle
The Greek-Australian family contacted RCMP at Vancouver airport, who questioned Wilberg upon her arrival with Max but let her go.
Since then, Atsikbasis says she's filed a theft complaint with local police on Lesbos and has contacted the Canadian Embassy in Athens and the Greek Consulate in Vancouver.
The Greek consul general in Vancouver confirmed to CBC News he is aware of this incident, but can do nothing at this time.
In March, Wilberg had animal rights lawyer Rebeka Breder send what amounted to a "cease and desist letter" to Atsikbasis.
The warning reads in part: "We … are writing to you to demand that you cease all communications with her in regard to Max.
This letter also confirms that Ms. Wilberg is the rightful and legal owner of Max.
"If you fail to abide by this demand, we will seek instructions to vigorously pursue any and all available legal remedies against you, without further notice to you."
Defining a 'stray'
The core of Wilberg's argument is that Max was a stray under Greek law.
But Atsikbasis disagrees with that interpretation.
Wilberg takes aim at Atskibasis's fight to get Max back.
"I really wish all of the time and energy and devotion that they are taking to pursue this … was actually given to Max — and it wasn't."
Asked if she would take Max again given the controversy, Wilberg doesn't hesitate.
"I would do it again, yes, definitely. The thought of leaving him behind, I would have left my heart there. It would have been impossible to do."
But Atsikbasis's daughter says Max wasn't Wilberg's to take.
"She might have fallen in love with him, but you don't do that sort of thing for a good cause … I don't know what the law is in Canada, but maybe if you have a dog for a month or two, maybe it's officially yours?"
Holding back tears, she adds, "I would go all the way to Canada just to see him … I would want to go up to her door, ring the bell and I would beg her to give Max back if I could."
It's a sentiment echoed by her mother.
"We want to get our family member back," says Atsikbasis. "You don't take someone else's animal."
With files from Yvette Brend