A few weeks ago, a careless utility company employee sparked what is certain to become an interesting and emotionally charged court case.

The employee allowed two beagles to escape from a backyard in the Woodlands, Tx. The frantic owners did everything they were supposed to do, even posting the missing dogs on Petharbor and Craig’s List. When the owners heard that a neighbor had the dogs, they rushed right over.

The neighbor told them that she had found the dogs, but the dogs were no longer there. And then she told them to get off her property.

Imagine their surprise when they learned that the SAME NEIGHBOR had found the dogs and then adopted them through Houston Beagle and Hound Rescue. The neighbor has been refusing comment. The rescue group maintains that it followed protocol exactly by waiting the statutory seven days prior to allowing the dogs to be adopted, which means they, in their opinion, have no liability here. Their theory, then, is that the adopters are now the legal owners of the dogs because the rescue followed the statute.

Here’s the problem. Technically speaking, the rescue did what it HAD to do. Ethically speaking, they didn’t. Most animals that come in to rescue need some work before they’re adoptable. Maybe it simply didn’t occur to them that these dogs needed more time before going up for adoption, because they were medically and socially ready for placement. On the one hand, the rescue followed the law and put the animals up for adoption when they were legally free for adoption.

On the other, as a lifelong rescuer, I do not think they made a proper choice. They should have seen that these dogs were very well cared for, which makes it more likely that they were accidental strays that had owners. They should have put more effort into due diligence. These animals were posted on multiple websites, and it would have been simple to discover that they were owned animals. While rescues are not obligated to do so, it is good practice with animals coming from this sort of “good Samaritan” turn in to check Craig’s List and other sources to see if they are listed as missing.

The legitimate owners could have avoided this whole mess with a few precautions.

  • Lock the gates, and require the utility companies to read the meter remotely. If they HAD to have access to the yard, and you have them on remote read, they have to notify you when they need access.
  • Make sure the animals were wearing identification tags.
  • Get them microchipped.
  • Don’t leave them outside in the yard when no one is home.

Now it appears that this case may well end up in court. There is NO question that the good Samaritan/adopter is behaving unethically.  Given her refusal to speak to the owners, and her subsequent refusal to speak to the media, combined with the multitude of “lost dog” signs posted by the owners, it seems entirely likely that she knew perfectly well to whom the dogs belonged.

Under Texas law, companion animals are considered property. Under these particular circumstances, I think it is highly likely that a judge will order these animals returned to their original owners.  And they should be.

What’s sad here is that this entire situation could have been avoided if these adults had all chosen to do the right thing.

  • The original owners could have taken more proactive precautions to protect their pets.
  • The rescue could have been more diligent in verifying that these dogs were in fact unwanted or homeless.
  • The finder/adopter could have chosen to do the right thing at any step in the process.

Even more sadly, I’m afraid that the negative publicity that will accompany this disaster will make people less willing to adopt rescued animals, for fear of losing them to an original owner. And that is just not okay.

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