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UPDATED: Should Owners Have 30 Days to Reclaim Lost Pets?

Update: The Houston City Council has postponed the vote until March 26.

The Houston City Council is scheduled to vote Wednesday on a proposal that would eliminate a 30-day redemption period in the animal control ordinance allowing prior owners to reclaim animals that wind up in the city pound.

Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care officials proposed the amendment after the owners of a missing German shepherd sued a rescue group that pulled the dog from BARC and refused to return him. The case exposed a conflict in the existing ordinance, in which BARC -- like all municipal shelters -- has the right to euthanize animals after a 3- or 6-day holding period, but which technically gives prior owners a 30-day period to reclaim the animal.

Allowing the 30-day period to remain could have a chilling effect on personal adoptions and pulls from rescue groups, because BARC could not automatically guarantee ownership, BARC Spokesman Chris Newport says. The ordinance would allow BARC to assume ownership after the holding period, and thus be able to transfer ownership to an individual adopter or rescue group.

"We need to provide the greatest number of animals the greatest chance of getting into a new home. In order to do that, we need to be able to provide a degree of certainty to the rescue groups that work with us, that if they pull an animal from us, it's going to be good to go, and they're not going to get into a fight, or they're not going to be questioned" if an owner comes forward later, Newport says.

But opponents of the proposal call it an egregious governmental overstep that essentially allows missing pets to be seized without due process.

Leading the charge is self-proclaimed "dog lawyer" Zandra Anderson, whose legislative work on behalf of breeders, has made her a polarizing figure in the local animal rescue community. Anderson also represented Leah Purcell, the owner of the notorious dog sanctuary Spindletop, where authorities seized nearly 300 dogs found to be living in filthy conditions in August 2012. Authorities also learned that 38 dogs had suffocated in a building on the property in June 2012. (At no time during our coverage of the seizure did Anderson or Purcell release the names of those dogs; many owners whose dogs were not recovered in the seizure still have no idea what happened to them.)   That's why we find it a little strange that Anderson is amping up the emotional quotient, accusing the Greater Houston German Shepherd Rescue group of refusing to return an Iraqi War veteran's dog, even though the veteran and his family allegedly did everything they could to find their dog after he went missing in October 2012.

Anderson represented the veteran, Carlos Bautista (now a Houston police officer), in his suit against the rescue, which pulled the dog from the Brazoria County animal shelter. The rescue's president, Austin Brisco, refused to return the dog, even after Bautista proved ownership and offered to reimburse the rescue for its adoption and vet expenses, according to the suit.

Anderson had represented Alfonso and Lydia Lira in a similar suit, filed one month before Bautista's. In both cases, the rescue group believed the prior owners were irresponsible, and believed the dogs would be better off in other homes.

Brisco told us in an email that the rescue group would generally be more cooperative in such cases, but in the Lira case, "the dog was a stray picked up by Animal Control off the street [and] was held for six days....also, the fact the dog was Heartworm positive, un-neutered, had an infected tooth, and had no tags and no microchip further influenced our decision [sic]." (Per the suit, the rescue told the Liras they could apply to adopt their dog back, but they declined).

He also wrote that since the dog "was set for euthanasia the day we picked him up, so if we would not have acted, the dog would not be alive. The rescue feels that if we take custody of an animal from a shelter that making sure the animal is going to be well taken care of going forward is paramount." (Per court records, the Liras bought the dog from a breeder for $2,500 and spent $10,000 training the dog, who was then "bred by the training facility ... to carry on the excellent traits of the dog.")

However, the Liras claimed in their lawsuit that they had diligently checked shelter postings, and used other online forums, to find their dog, and that BARC mistakenly classified the dog as an "owner surrender," which means he was never posted on the shelter's Petharbor.com service as a lost animal.

And Anderson took umbrage to what she considered vilification of her clients, writing in one brief in the Lira case that "there are ... overly zealous rescue individuals who think if a dog gets out then the owner must be bad. This fringe thinking does not represent how most folks feel about dogs and the fact that people are not perfect, nor does it reflect the law. The law does not require perfection of people in any realm including dog ownership."

The Liras prevailed and their dog was returned; there is a pending appeal.

In Bautista's case, the dog was heartworm positive. However, in February, the rescue returned the dog and Bautista dropped his case.

However, Anderson is still citing the cases as a way for her supporters to argue against the change to City Council members.

"We have Constitutional rights in our property and the City is trying to take away our dogs without any due process," Anderson's Texas Dog Lawyer site proclaims. "This is a harsh result for something that could happen to anyone. Dogs are family so please help prevent this callous law from passing." (Here's another thing that's callous: not having the common decency to tell a bewildered pet owner if their dog was one of many who baked to death in a metal building).

Newport stresses that these cases are rare, given the mandatory hold period for animals with identification. Stray or unidentified dogs are held for three days, while animals with ID -- license, name tag, microchip -- are held for six days following BARC's first attempted contact with the owner.

Several other Houston-area rescue groups showed their support in the amendment by signing an amicus brief in the Lira case. The brief states that "should original owners maintain any property right in a properly impounded animal, local facilities that euthanize, members of the public who adopt, and private facilities and shelters that receive transfers would be faced with significant concerns" including lost "transfer opportunities with private shelters and rescues because of their concerns related to transfers not giving full title. Private shelters and rescues may choose not to accept transfers for fear of lawsuits for recovery of ownership. Even where a private shelter or rescue accepts a transfer, it may be unwilling to expend funds on extensive treatment or spaying or neutering because of the possibility of a true owner returning."

We'll keep you posted.


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