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City Council to Vote Wednesday on Controversial Pet Law

Hey -- who's my freakin' owner now?
Hey -- who's my freakin' owner now?
Courtesy Molly Dunn

The Houston City Council is scheduled to vote tomorrow on an ordinance dictating when the city may take possession of animals that wind up in the city pound.

Currently, the law provides a 30-day period for a prior owner to reclaim a pet, even if it's been adopted. Many in the rescue community, as well as officials with the Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care, want to eliminate the 30-day period and allow the city to assume ownership after the current intake-hold period.

That would mean BARC would legally own an unidentified animal after three days, and an identified animal (with a name-tag, microchip, rabies tag, etc.) six days after the first attempted contact of the owner. (BARC Spokesman Chris Newport tells us that those hold periods are the industry standard).

We'd love to explain to you why some people are opposed to this change. Problem is, the person who is most publicly leading a rally against the changes hates us, and won't talk to us.

That person is Zandra Anderson, self-styled "Texas Dog Lawyer," who once represented a woman who ran an alleged dog sanctuary called Spindletop, which turned out to be a den of neglect and death. Here's how much Anderson cares about dogs and their owners: she will not, to this day, let anxious pet owners and fosters know what became of the dogs they sent off to this very well-regarded and very expensive sanctuary. Thirty-eight dogs baked to death in a building there. Still others just vanished. Some of the owners never got to bury their dogs, and still don't know if they were really adopted by loving families, or had their corpses tossed in a mass grave.

Anderson and her lawyer pal, Jeff Shaver, have helped craft and push legislative efforts that support breeders. Now, in case you didn't realize this, one of the reasons the Houston Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care -- like most municipal pounds across the country -- is constantly overrun with animals is because there are too many of them.

There are irresponsible owners who don't neuter or spay. There's a certain breed of people who see dogs as dollar signs, and hope to crank out as many pups as they can. Some of these dogs will be adopted, sure. Some....well, they've got to wind up somewhere. (Breeder groups, such as the ironically named Responsible Pet Owners Alliance, are quick to claim that breeders have nothing to do with animal shelter overcrowding, since purebreds are rare in shelter. Which is true: But the offspring of whatever mutt a discarded purebred mounts can wind up there.)

So here we've got a municipal pound that was once a gulag, but which has made tremendous strides in the past few years -- largely because the new personnel appear to be people who actually care about animals' quality of life. Such a little thing, but it makes such a big difference.

One of the ordinance changes BARC wants to make is to eliminate a 30-day period owners currently have to reclaim pets that went missing and wound up at BARC, or with a rescue group. A hiccup in current law gives BARC the right to euthanize an unidentified animal after three days, and an identified one after six, even though the owner (if there is one somewhere) still has legal title. The new ordinance would give the city free and clear title after the holding period, so the city can transfer legal ownership to a rescue or an adopter.

The last thing we'd want to do is endorse a law that makes it easier for The Man to steal someone's pet. That's unconscionable. But we're also unsure how someone's pet could wait one, two, three, four weeks in a shelter (or in a foster/adoptive home) without the owner realizing.

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mack.JPG
I don't care who owns me, as long as I get my freakin' dinner...

So far, the best argument that folks who oppose the changes have made is this: what if a guy leaves home for an extended period, Fluffy gets out, and the pet-sitter doesn't look for her, and doesn't inform the guy?

Well, it seems to us that that guy has a number of problems, of which only one is a missing dog. For one thing, he associates with assholes. He entrusted his pet to an absolute creep. Frankly, we're not sure why this should be Fluffy's problem. Fluffy needs a good home. And if the guy who leaves her in the care of a complete tool can't provide a good home, someone else can.

Now, we can't understand how, if this were to happen, a reasonable rescue group would refuse to return Fluffy. But in fact, this is what happened with Greater Houston German Shepherd Rescue. Twice. And twice, the group was sued by, you guessed it, The Texas Dog Lawyer.

In both cases, the rescue believed the dogs were ill-cared for. Both were heartworm positive. The infection is transmitted by mosquitoes, which as we all know thrive in climates like Houston's. Adult heartworms, which can range from 4-12 inches, depending on sex, live in the heart, lungs, and blood vessels. They release larvae into the bloodstream. As the baby worms grow, they affect the heart and lungs. The severity depends on the number of worms, and how active the dog is; the heart may have to work overtime before it eventually weakens and gives out. This is painful.

It's also incredibly easy to prevent: you give your dog one pill a month. At SNAP, a low-cost clinic in Houston, a six-month supply costs between $36-$57, depending on the dog's weight.

In at least one of the lawsuits, the owners claimed that the missing dog became heartworm positive after it ran off. The rescue was skeptical, given the months-long incubation period.

Did the rescue overreact in one or both of these cases? Possibly. But it appears that in one of the cases, the rescue clearly ignored the law by not returning the dog without question. That the rescue defied the law seems to be more of a problem inherent to the rescue itself, rather than to any proposed amendments.

Anderson, through something she calls the "Texas Dog Commission," has mounted an email campaign with an Orwellian slant, proclaiming that "Houston Wants to Take Away Your Dog--Need Help Today."

The email alleges that the new ordinance "would allow the government to own your dog" if not found "within a brief holding period." Not a month, but a "brief" period.

The email also states: "they are trying to take valuable property away without any due process, not to mention that dogs are beloved family members." That sentence seems to tell us a bit about the "Texas Dog Commission's" hierarchy of domestic animals: they are property, like a car or refrigerator, first; and companion animals second.

Included in the email is a boilerplate petition opponents of the amendments can send to council members, stating "The City is attempting to do away with property rights without due process."

This might be the heart of the problem: pets are indeed property, like the aforementioned car and refrigerator, but they are also sentient beings that can feel pain and fear, become ill, and show aggression in fearful situations. In those respects, they are a most unique property, and maybe it's not unreasonable to attach a unique law.

Most of the folks we spoke to in the rescue community appear to favor the amendments, which we think says a lot. Pat Guter, a woman who wanted to explain to us why these amendments were a bad idea disappeared after first contact. Guter, who holds a law degree, told us that we ought to speak to Anderson about it. We told her that Anderson wasn't on the best of terms with us. Guter said that that wouldn't matter -- this issue was bigger than any grudges, or any petty politics. She us we'd be hearing more from Anderson, or from her, to get the word out. It did not shock us that we never heard from either.

The folks in favor of the ordinance tend to be more talkative. Steve Halpert, an attorney and BARC volunteer -- you know, a person who sees first-hand the kind of thing that's a little too hard for many of us to look at -- tells us via email that preserving the 30-day redemption period would have a chilling effect on adoptions from BARC.

"Why would any adopter subject a child to getting attached to an animal at BARC if a previously unknown owner can appear within 30 days and reclaim the animal? Several rescues have already informed BARC they will no longer transfer stray animals from BARC because of" one of the aforementioned lawsuits.

Halpert also notes an inconsistency in the current law: "BARC is prohibited by state statute from disclosing the identity of the new adopter to the previous owner. BARC is not prohibited from contacting the new adopter and asking them to return the animal, but BARC has no legal recourse if the new adopter refuses."

Furthermore, it appears that the current 30-day redemption period is further rendered moot if the law already allows BARC to put down an animal with a name-tag six days after the first attempt at owner notification.

As Newport tells us in an email: the proposals "simply formalize practices that are already fully authorized by law (i.e., don't do anything with an animal unless and until the relevant hold period has expired). BARC currently makes life and death decisions for dozens of animals every day that have been at BARC beyond the minimum hold periods."

To us, that's where the opponents' real fight needs to be. Preserving ownership means nothing if your pet is already dead. And if your pet ain't dead after the holding period, chances are it's because a rescue group pulled him. Shouldn't Anderson's supporters be pushing for an extended mandatory holding period -- a law that would preserve life, and not just title? In practical terms, of course, that would be absurd. But the intent would be noble.

What's not noble is employing fear tactics, or presenting various degrees of the truth. We hope that before the City Council votes Wednesday, council members will be able to base their decision on solid information. This means getting solid information from Anderson's side. They just better not ask for the names of the 38 dogs who died, so the owners may finally know. In our experience, if you ask that, Anderson will just take her ball and go home. And we'd hate for council members to miss the benefit of her wisdom before they cast their vote.


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