Do Community Pets Need a Legal Status?

In the American justice system, a person accused of a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.  I’ve been wondering if unowned pets – including those surrendered to or picked up by animal control, those abandoned at or taken to a veterinary clinic, as well as those taken in by compassionate animal lovers – shouldn’t be legally afforded a certain status: Presumed Wanted.  That is to say, every pet, regardless of whether he appears to have no owner or even if it is known that his owner surrendered ownership of him, should be granted the presumption of being wanted by someone.  That someone might be the current owner (in the case of a lost pet) or a future adopter (in the case of a surrendered pet).  If we were legally obligated to to presume that there are people out there who want every unowned pet in this country, that would be the end to pet killing, right?  (Of course, as always, I separate needless killing from true euthanasia of pets who are medically hopeless and suffering.)  Just as we do not sentence criminal defendants who are presumed innocent, we could not kill a pet we presume is wanted by someone.

I know there are many facets to this complex issue and I hope you will chime in with your thoughts.  As a general outline, I am thinking in terms of the “finder” – the person or shelter who has possession of the pet – having a few basic obligations:

1.  If the finder is unable or unwilling to provide basic humane care for the pet for at least the legally mandating holding period afforded to strays in shelters, he must turn the pet over to the shelter.

2.  If the finder decides to provide basic humane care for the pet for at least the legally mandated holding period, he must report the found pet to his local shelter (or national database, if one existed).

3.  Once the legally mandated holding period has expired, the finder must either offer the unclaimed pet for adoption, adopt the pet himself, or turn the pet over to the shelter so that he can be offered for adoption.

This would only work if every shelter offered listings (available at the shelter and online) of all found pets reported (or if we had a single national database for this information).  Does your local shelter offer this?  I tried searching for places to list a found pet online and there are many – too many to be useful in any meaningful way.  This is an area that needs improvement.  As things stand, when someone loses a pet, they are advised to browse the online listings of area shelters, visit the shelters in person since online listings may be lagging (or non-existent, in some cases), browse and post ads in the local newspaper, on Craigslist, the social networking sites, visit area vet clinics to inquire if they have taken in any strays and to post flyers, leave flyers posted at local pet businesses and on phone poles, conduct physical searches of the area where the pet was last seen, etc.  All this must be done daily.  While the owner works at his job, takes care of his kids, etc.  It’s impossible.  And if we had a legally mandated reporting system in place, it would be unnecessary.

The Presumed Wanted status for unowned pets would also remove the discretion of shelter staff and vets who receive strays to kill them, unless the pet was medically hopeless and suffering.  It would instead obligate those who choose to accept a stray pet to provide care during the required holding period, report the pet to a central agency and then to offer the unclaimed pet for adoption.

As I said, I know this is a multifaceted issue.  What are your thoughts?

9 thoughts on “Do Community Pets Need a Legal Status?

  1. OH, I like this idea. I stress to people to always consider a pet “lost” rather than a “stray.” I use when one of my hounds goes missing; an older Beagle ended up 5 miles from me and died – the person at the shelter, to whom I had given my lost report, received the found report but “was having a bad day.” Since hounds and others can travel distances quickly, national or regional data bases would be awesome.

  2. The county pound here does post found pets on-line fairly quickly, updating during the day, with mostly pretty decent photographs. They’ve got a lot of room for improvement overall (they’re nowhere near no-kill), but this does seem to be something they do pretty well. However, I know it’s not complete, because – since they *aren’t* no-kill – they’re not trusted by everyone, and so not everyone reports lost pets to them. I’ve been hesitant myself when we’ve run across stray pets – even though I gather they do offer the option of retaining the found pet at your home until a claim is made.

    Here in California, one of the provisions of Hayden Law is that pets who are lost or enter the shelter system aren’t considered owned by the finders, vets, or shelters – they’re ‘involuntary depositories’ of those pets. This limits what they’re allowed to do, although I think there’s still too much leeway, especially with regard to ferals. And, of course, there are places who just disregard the law as it suits them. See: Fresno, among others.

    A presumption that every pet is wanted somewhere … would be an interesting approach, a subtle realignment – I wish I knew more about animal law. The way the issue is addressed in Hayden Law seems to me to classify pets in the shelter system as being a sort of found luggage, and I’ve never been sure if that’s really what’s wanted. On the other hand, it must surely be better to be found luggage than roadside litter and dumped garbage, which seems to be how all to many regions consider their ‘strays.’

    Myself, I’ve been thinking … what seems to be one source of sticking points in the legal status and welfare of pets are local limits on numbers and species permitted. And these laws, if the ones we’ve got locally are any indication, are – well, illogical, I suppose would be the polite way to put it – outdated, another – rooted in traditions that are most of them not borne out by science or even common sense. They’ve also resulted in all animal shelters being sited in the back of beyond, which isn’t any good for anyone.

  3. Presumed Wanted is so concisely, expressively put. Because it’s similar to Presumed Innocent, it’s easy to remember and, as you point out, it speaks to the American value of fairness. It’s also a nice counter to that horrible word used for shelter animals: “unwanted.” I would always want a lost pet of mine to be Presumed Wanted.

    To me the technical issues seem solvable. Both Petfinder and PetHarbor run found-pet listings from members of the public and adoption listings from shelters that elect to use the services. So a single nationally recognized and accepted, free, baby-simple, web-based listing service for unowned pets could be an adjunct to both, maybe a joint project between Petfinder and PetHarbor so that shelters, vets and members of the public could choose either one and still have the info end up in both — they could keep their branding but share info.

    Interfaces with CL and local news sites could also be created so that, no matter where you went in your digital travels, you would find the same template to either list or search. An app for mobile devices could be available, too — fill out the universal template and press send, and the info goes into the listings. (There’s currently an adoption search app available for PF, but AFAIK it doesn’t allow a listing to be created.) A grant and a technical working group could probably address this. It seems not unlike the interoperability issues faced by police, fire, and other first-responder agencies, and those are gradually being solved.

    But if you’ll forgive a rant, to follow up on Eucritta’s note above that some shelters in California already disregard Hayden’s Law with impunity, if CAPA or some other version of Presumed Wanted were passed in every state, the No Kill movement would need significant funding to sue shelters into compliance.

    For example, if CAPA were passed in Tennessee, MAS would have to be sued to force them to list their “strays,” because they simply won’t do it otherwise, regardless of what the law says.

    At the moment there isn’t even sufficient legal funding for volunteers who are banned from shelters for criticizing killing, or for owners whose pets are killed in violation of stray-hold requirements. Such people are always middle-class, with their discretionary funds locked up in direct care, and there’s no reliable source of money for strategic lawsuits.

    The Southern Poverty Law Center destroyed the Ku Klux Klan through legal action alone, and I think the NK movement could benefit from a lot more of it. But the SPLC has a $216 million endowment. Which makes it all the more shameful that such a vast amount of money that could be applied to useful legal work, as well as to many other shelter-reform efforts, is diverted into the coffers of the Big Three. (Okay, end rant.)

    Blessed Silence, I’m very sorry for your loss.

  4. This sounds like a good idea to me. Our local shelter does a pretty good job on posting animals that are possible lost/strays. Our local paper used to post ‘found’ animal listings for free but I don’t know if this is the case now. I think the main problem here is that if a found animal has serious injuries they get taken to the emergency vet and they won’t do a thing without cash up front. Unless there is a way to work with them the presumed wanted would only work for animals found during the working day. Those found in dead of night would be out of luck.

  5. You know, here in Clarksville the situation at our Animal Control “shelter” very closely mirrored that of MAS and Robertson County (where Aruba is now) during the reign of the previous AC Director, complete with a kill rate of 77-80% and a list of “unadoptable” breeds that would be taken directly to the kill room.

    The local Rescue Community had struggled against this situation for many years, attending every City and County Board meeting dealing with AC or companion animals, writing letters, sending petitions, etc, until one day one of the AC Volunteers went directly to the Mayor and provided documentation to show that the Director had been lying about various aspects of his job performance for years. Within the week he was fired, and somehow Clarksville managed to hire Karen Josephson as the new Director. Karen had been the AC Director in Cheatham Cty, but also had been involved in Rescue, and had managed to decrease the kill rate at the Cheatham AC from the high 70’s down to the mid-30’s.

    She says she approaches her Animal Control work from the perspective of a Rescuer–believing that every animal has the potential for rescue and rehabilitation.

    The following video interview by Project Rescue is an example of how seemingly hopeless situations can change, almost overnight, and how much can be done with very little. Karen has been here for less than 3 months, and already the Community has rallied around her and the AC Shelter, is actually fundraising for AC, and even the most negative County Board members are singing her praises and trying to find money to give to the Shelter! It’s unbelievable, but wonderful!


  6. Great video, Lorraine! Thanks for sharing that. I’m glad the shelter animals have Karen, a progressive director who’s willing to embrace the public. I’m sure someone in that situation can easily become jaded if they don’t realize that the majority of the pet owners are responsible and the public needs the opportunity to help.

    I like how she’s willing to educate people about normal procedures at the majority of government shelters (in the video about Joey, the abused dog).

  7. Legal status for community pets: non-human dependants?

    Make it the law that pet owners must report missing pets and that communities must help locate them?

    I’ve been trying to research programs needed to implement the No Kill Equation. When it comes to Proactive Redemptions (increasing the return to owner rate), there is MUCH more communities can do!

    (You might be familiar with “Missing Animal Response” under Reforming Animal Control on the No Kill Advocacy Center site, but the author of that article provides even more valuable info in the recorded webinar, below.)

    Even if shelters, rescues and volunteers are unable to help look for lost pets or search for the owners, they can provide links to sites that provide cutting-edge pet recovery info. All stakeholders need a paradigm shift in the way they think about “strays”.

    Community solutions: “Proactive Redemption” assistance for communities that goes beyond lost pet flyers and checking with shelters.

    Part of the solution to return more pets to their worried families will result in fewer strays, fewer feral cats, fewer animals in shelters, & fewer animals in rescue groups.

    Best Friends Animal Society and present …

    “Think Lost, Not Stray,” recorded webinar.

    By Kat Albrecht, founder of Missing Pet Partnership, the only law-enforcement-based pet detective in the United States.

    Topics include:

    A paradigm shift: Knowledge saves lives!
    Science-based pet recovery.
    Animal Control: Policy & procedure changes that help reunite pets with owners.
    What can be done to increase owner reclaims?
    Why do people give up looking for pets?
    What human behaviours inhibit pet recovery rates and reclaims?
    How does the term “stray” affect outcomes?
    66% of lost cats who were recovered were found in their own territories. Important info about “The Silence Factor” (sick cats hide & need we need to actively search for them). Only 2% were recovered from shelters.
    What size/type of posters and signage are most successful? How to “protest” to advertise lost/found pets.
    How does pet behaviour and personality affect search area and technique?
    How does shelter and rescue attitude and assumptions negatively affect the return to owner rate?
    How to use baby monitors to monitor humane traps.
    Training for volunteer pet detectives.
    Shelter Missing Animal Response programs & preventing entry into shelters (services shelters can offer to owners who’ve lost pets).

    Cutting-edge, science-based pet recovery info:

    Another community based approach:

    Neighborhood Cat Watch.


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