My beagle just ran away and she doesn’t have any dog tags. What happens if someone else finds her?
Unfortunately, this question does not have an easy legal answer. Unlike cruelty laws or impound laws, no state appears to directly address the issue of lost pets in its statutory code. Indeed, while many states define dogs and cats as the personal property of their owners by statute, these states exclude domestic animals from their lost property statutes. This is ironic considering the understood value we place upon companion animals in our society and the level of regulation states apply to animals.
The common law (the law that developed as a result of court decisions) generally holds that a finder of lost property has rights superior to anyone else in the property, except the true owner. Dogs and other companion animals are considered the personal property of their owners. Thus, the short legal answer to the question above provides that if a rightful owner finds his or her dog, he or she then can assert ownership. The reality that a court may consider other factors, such as how long the person who finds the dog has cared for it, the efforts that have been made by the original owner, and the relative "value" each party has invested in the dog in terms of veterinary or other care.
One important distinction must be made first when considering this legal question; that is, what is the status of the "finder?" Is the person who finds the dog an agent of the state (i.e., a local sheriff, animal control officer, or other law enforcement agent) or is the person a private party? The answer to this question will determine both the procedure for dealing with a lost pet and, most significantly, the time frame an owner has to recover his or her pet. In this discussion, both the status of a lost dog when the finder is a private individual and when the finder is a state agent will be addressed.
Beginning first with the issue of when a private party is the finder, it appears that only one court from Vermont has dealt with this issue. In that case, a mixed-breed puppy, who was trained by its owner to be a hunting dog, broke free from its chain and was lost. A couple of weeks later another person found the dog and took it in. She then called the local humane society (who advised her to keep the dog until it was claimed) and gave a description of the dog. The finder also posted some printed notices around town and arranged for some radio broadcasts reporting her finding of the lost dog. After the finder failed to hear back from the humane society or from any of the ads, she welcomed the dog into her home.
A year later, the original owner located the dog in the finder's yard and took it home. The finder brought an action in court to recover the dog. In awarding ownership to the finder, the court noted the public policy interests in giving ownership to the finder, such as limiting the roaming of stray dogs and encouraging care for lost pets. Such a policy of giving a lost pet to a finder who makes reasonable efforts to locate the original owner reduces the burden on public animal shelters as well as the number of animals scheduled for euthanasia. The court found the finder's efforts met this burden of reasonable efforts and the time period was long enough to justify giving her ownership of the dog. (See, Morgan v. Kropua, 702 A.2d 630 (Vt. 1997).
Whether this reasoning would be followed in states other than Vermont is unclear. Would the courts in your state hold that reasonable efforts and time are sufficient to overcome the common law rule of an owner's superior interest? Two states, Hawaii and Maine, actually do mention the term "stray dog" in their dog statutes. Hawaii law states that "[e]very person who takes into the person's possession any stray dog shall immediately notify the animal control officer and release the dog to the animal control officer upon demand." HI ST § 143-10. The animal control agency then notifies the registered owner in writing if the dogs has tags. This owner then has twenty-four hours after the notice is given to reclaim the dog. Should he or she fail to do so in that time, or the dog does not have tags, the animal shelter then retains the dog for nine days, whereupon it can be sold or destroyed. Similarly, Maine law also requires that a person finding a stray dog who takes control of that dog either has to take it to the owner, if known, or to the animal shelter where the dog was found. ME ST T.7 § 3913. The owner then has six days to reclaim the dog from the shelter.
Two things become apparent from these two statutes. First, both states require that the dog is either returned to the owner or given to an animal control officer or shelter. Second, these laws imply that the finder cannot retain the dog and must turn it over to municipal officials. Thus, the rule from the Vermont Morgan case that reasonable efforts to find the owner while caring for the dog is not allowed by these statutes.
This issue is further muddied by the fact that twenty states have enacted lost property statutes that set out a procedure when lost property has been found. These statutes set out a series of steps a finder must follow when coming upon lost property.
Generally, these statutes determine the procedure that a finder must undertake when finding lost property, which is usually based on the monetary value of the found property. In other words, a state will require further efforts on the part of the finder of valuable property versus ordinary, low-valued items. Most lost mixed-breed pets will fall into the low market value statutory requirements. These laws require finders to report and/or relinquish the property to local authorities, advertise the find in a local newspaper, or otherwise attempt to find the true owner. After a period of time (anywhere from three to six months), the finder may claim ownership to the property.
The problem with these statutes is that they may specifically exclude "domestic animals" from their provisions. However, the phrase "domestic animals" could be construed by those courts to refer to only commercial animals or livestock and not companion animals. This then leaves a vacuum in the law for the legal status of lost and found pets. Despite the fact dogs are considered personal property and no other statutes concern pets as lost property, these provisions may not apply to companion animals. Of the approximately twenty states and District of Columbia that have lost property sections, two specifically exclude domestic animals from their application (New York and South Dakota). Those states that do not explicitly exclude animals from their lost property statutes employ a statutory procedure for finders of lost property.
State lost property statutes reiterate the common law notion that a finder’s rights are inferior to those of the true owner. Under most laws, a finder either becomes a bailee, a person to whom goods are entrusted or retained for a period of time, or a depository of the goods until he or she places them with law enforcement. Connecticut, for example, makes a finder a bailee of lost goods, but also requires the reporting of the find to the local police department. Similarly, in Florida, a finder must relinquish possession to law enforcement officials. In fact, "[i]t is unlawful for any person who finds any lost or abandoned property to appropriate the same to his or her own use or to refuse to deliver the same when required" in Florida.
Under most such statutes, the property is retained by either the bailee or the police department for a certain period of time. In Connecticut, a finder will be notified after six months that no owner has come forward to reclaim the goods. Conn. Gen. Stat. Ann. §§ 50-12, 13. The property may then be turned over to the finder if he or she pays any applicable inventory fees to the police department. Florida law requires that a finder deposit a sum to cover inventory and notification with the police when he or she brings lost property. Fla. Stat. Ann. 705.102. As with Connecticut, Maine also allows a finder to recover the goods after six months, provided he or she pays half the value of the goods. Me. Rev. Stat. Ann. tit. 33, § 1056.
These statutes illustrate the difficulty in applying lost property statutes to companion animals. What police department or shelter for that matter is equipped to retain lost pets for six months in accordance with the state law? Animals, while considered property of their owners, are not goods in the traditional sense. They must be fed, watered, sheltered, and given love and attention. Thus, even where the lost property statute mandates that the goods must be turned over the to the police, public policy may dictate that a finder of a lost dog or cat is entitled to care for the animal until the owner is located.
Oklahoma’s law is then perhaps the most applicable of all the lost property statutes to lost pets. Instead of applying a procedure where a finder must relinquish the goods to local authorities, finders become lawful baileees entitled to compensation for care of the goods. Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 15, §§ 511. A person is not bound by this law to take charge of the good, but, if he or she undertakes this responsibility, statutory provisions must be followed. (Click here for a list of state lost property statutes).
It should be noted that most states have statutes related to the taking up of “estays” or estray animals. These statutes, usually dating back to the 1800’s, have generally been held by courts to cover only agricultural animals that have escaped their pens or pastures. Illinois’ provisions under the Estrays and Lost Property Act illustrate this distinction. The estray provisions of the Act state that “Any horses, mules, asses, cattle, swine, sheep or goats found straying, the owner thereof being unknown, may be taken up as estrays in the same manner as provided for lost goods.” IL 765 I.L.C.S. 1020/1, IL ST CH 765 § 1020/1. It is highly unlikely that a court would expand these antiquated statutes to include domestic cats and dogs.
While the lost property statutes may be inapplicable, it is possible that state licensing and registration laws may shed some light on the status of lost dogs. The licensing and registration system for dogs strives to legally assign ownership for dogs and keep dogs from running at large. In Michigan, for example, state law provides that the registration number assigned to a dog constitutes title to the dog owner. MCL § 287.302. Thus, ownership of a dog is legally recognized when an owner receives tags for his or her dog. The owner may then pass title to another individual by sale or other transfer. This is significant because it reinforces the common law notion of a rightful owner under common law.
In fact, Michigan law also provides that one who takes up a stray dog may receive compensation for boarding a dog. "Any person finding a dog registered under the provisions of this act shall be entitled to the sum of 25 cents per day for boarding such dog, such board to be paid by the owner. The commissioner of agriculture shall furnish such finder with the name and address of the owner, upon request." MCL § 287.305. While this statute recognizes and in fact rewards a finder of lost pets who cares for the animal, it does little to resolve the ownership conflict. Is the period of boarding indefinite while the finder bonds with the animal?
Finally, some states inadvertently recognize original title to dogs by criminalizing the stealing of dogs. For example, Michigan has a specific law that makes it a misdemeanor to steal, confine, or secrete any licensed dog. MCL § 287.286b. Likewise, New York also has a dog stealing statute under its section on licensing of dogs. Under that law, an owner must report the loss or theft of any licensed dog within ten days of the discovery. NY Ag & Mkts. Law § 113. Such laws, like most other criminal laws, require a certain intent. Here, one must possess the intent to steal a dog, and will not be applicable to one who merely takes up a stray dog.
It must also be made clear that the original question above presupposes that the beagle is lost and not abandoned. This, of course, will be based on an analysis of the owner's intent when the beagle was lost and the surrounding circumstances (e.g., did the beagle run out the door or was it "lost" by the side of the road far from its home?). Under common law, title to abandoned property, or property that is intentionally and voluntarily relinquished by the owner, goes to the next person who possesses the property. This rule of law is often statutorily granted to animal shelters; laws may explicitly state that when companion animals who are voluntarily "abandoned" to animal shelters, title automatically passes. However, abandonment of companion animals in unsuitable or illegal situations, such as on a roadside or at a veterinarian's office, may carry with it other legal ramifications. In fact, under most cruelty laws it is violation to intentionally abandon a companion animal. (Click here for an example of the Florida animal abandonment statute).
All being said, there is very little guidance under state laws as to title for lost dogs. The exception is where the finding party is the state itself. If the person who finds the dog reports it to animal control, the dog will be kept for a period of time that is determined by state law. Nearly all states mandate the seizure of loose dogs by state officials. These laws essentially empower local animal control agencies to pick up companion animals found running at large. (Click here for a more on state impound laws). Unfortunately, many of these laws often allow swift action if the dog is perceived as a threat to public safety. That is, many of these statutes provide for the killing of any dog found at large. While this is clearly not a comforting thought, owners should understand that loose dogs will likely be seized and impounded if found by animal control or other law enforcement. These animals are then kept for a statutorily proscribed length of time at an animal control facility (usually around seven days depending on state law). Virginia’s statute exemplifies such an impoundment law. The law explains that all dogs running at large without tags are subject to confinement. It then outlines the recordkeeping procedure for impounded dogs, the efforts the pound must employ to find the dogs’ owners, and how a rightful owner may recover his or her dog. Va. Code Ann. § 3.1-796.96. Regardless of how long an animal is kept by law, owners should understand that they will lose title to a pet much faster with when the finder is the state.
The detail incorporated into state impound statutes of recent years illustrates the public policy concerns inherent in taking up a valued and perhaps irreplaceable piece of property. Again, the Supreme Court of Vermont has addressed the issue of title when the finder of a lost dog is a state agent. In Lamare v. North Country Animal League, 743 A.2d 598 (Vt. 1999), an unlicensed dog escaped her yard and was later found by a couple who reported the find to the local animal warden. As required by the town ordinance, placed notices describing the dog in the village store, post office, and town clerk's office. After holding Billy for nine days from the date of impoundment without any response to the notices, Goff transferred Billy into the care and custody of defendant North Country Animal League, where Billy remained for approximately three weeks.
A short time later, the original dog's owners contacted the Animal League who then told them they must go through a formal adoption process. During the application process, the dog was adopted out to another couple. The dog's original owners then sued the Animal League and the case was decided for the League. On appeal, the court again affirmed the decision in favor of the League, noting that the ordinance and public policy enabled the League to pass title.
The town must have the ability to make some humane disposition of the animal after a certain period of impoundment has expired. Plaintiffs' narrow construction of the statute would effectively compel the town to care for impounded domestic animals in perpetuity if the rightful owner never came forward, a result plainly at odds with reason and sound policy.
Lamarre at --.
Despite the broad authority state agents are given with regard to animal control, it is highly unlikely that any local agencies would enforce a “shoot now, ask questions later” policy in this day and age. In fact, one California court has held that while local agencies are entitled to seize dangerous dogs under their police power authority, due process requires that owners are given a meaningful opportunity to be heard at a hearing. (See, Phillips v. San Luis Obispo County Dept., 228 Cal.Rptr. 101 Cal.App. (2 Dist. 1986).
Again, the short answer here is that a rightful owner has a superior ownership interest as to a finder in a lost dog. The case from Vermont explains that public policy may override this basic common law presumption to give a finder who has employed reasonable efforts to find an owner legal title. Two states, however, mandate that a finder take the stray dog to an animal shelter instead of retaining it. Clearly, a finder of a lost pet should report the finding to the local animal shelter who may be able to give some practical advice on what to do. Like so many areas of companion animal law, the law itself has much progress to meet the reality of pet ownership.