Full Title Name:  Overview of the Laws Regulating Rescue and Foster Care Programs for Companion Animals

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Kristen Pariser Place of Publication:  Michigan State University College of Law Publish Year:  2014 Primary Citation:  Animal Legal & Historical Center
Summary: This overview examines how states deal with foster care and other non-profit rescue organizations. It details how states define such organizations and what laws may affect their operations. The paper also discusses potential legal issues that arise with pet rescue and fostering.

The types of people who work in rescue and foster care programs are often very passionate and caring; running these organizations requires a lot of patience and access to resources. However, there has been a lack of regulations and oversight in monitoring these groups. Additional legislation defining these organizations and laws to require licensing and inspections will ensure all organizations are accountable to the animals they shelter.

Although there are few states that currently define these groups, other general laws on animal facilities may be able to be applied. The first step to becoming a rescue or a foster care provider is to be licensed. Because there is no national law regulating these organizations, the requirements will vary from one state to another, and even from one city to another. In some states, a rescue or foster home may be regulated like a commercial kennel or similar to a shelter. The organizations may be subject to inspections from the Department of Agriculture or they may opt to work under contract as an agent of the shelter. Some states will have no regulations and simply leave it up to the city or county to regulate permitting and enforcement of the rescue and foster groups.

Once the organization becomes licensed the group will need to acquire companion animals to begin their work saving and re-homing the animals. This can lead to issues because under the law animals are still considered property and can the subject of contractual agreements. Disputes over ownership can happen. When this occurs a court will look to see if a valid contract was in place. Next, it will look at the terms of the contract and determine which party has breached those contract terms. Many shelters will contract with rescues and foster care providers and depending on how the contract is drafted, the shelter will either retain ownership of the animals or will transfer ownership over to the receiving party. A rescue group will also set up contractual agreements with their foster parent volunteers. Contracts with dog breeders can also become a problem if a rescue takes a dog surrendered by its owner when the animal should have been returned to the breeder according to its purchase contract.

Pet flipping is also becoming an animal welfare concern in the world of adoptions. Pet flipping is where someone finds a dog for adoption and then turns around and re-sells the animal for a profit. Rescue and foster groups are now considering revising pet adoption contracts to prohibit adopters from re-homing an animal once it is adopted. This as a practical matter could be difficult to enforce and retaining certain rights over the animal after it is sold can possibly leave a rescue or foster open to further liabilities.

The legal complexities however don’t just end with licensing and acquiring companion animals. Rescues and foster care providers must also abide by several other laws when operating their non-profit organization. A majority of the states have a spaying and neutering requirement that applies to both shelters and other releasing agencies. In addition, there has been a trend in animal rescue groups to travel across state lines and bring animals from high-kill shelters in the south to the north for fostering. Some northern states have instituted new laws and regulations in response, which may require quarantine, health certificates or additional veterinary inspections to help reduce the spread of contagious disease.

Many cities and counties may also have pet limit ordinances that limit how many pets an individual can keep at one given time. Courts have upheld these statutes as being constitutional so rescues that use foster homes will need to be sure that all volunteers abide by the statutes. In addition to pet limit laws, private nuisance and zoning laws can limit the number of animals that can be kept in residential zones. Rescues and fosters should also be aware of local tethering laws. Some cities may have anti-tether laws that prohibit tethering and others may permit it under limited circumstances. All rescue and foster volunteers should be sure to have the appropriate type of housing for securing the companion animals that they house.

Another issue that rescues and foster groups can run in to is breed specific legislation, which will prohibit owning and keeping certain breeds of dogs that have been deemed dangerous. Rescue groups wanting to help those breeds of dogs will have to operate outside of the city limits where breed specific legislation has been enacted.

Regardless of which dog breeds a rescue or foster group works with, it is important to have liability insurance. A majority of states have strict liability dog bite statutes, which mean that even if a rescue or foster volunteer does not intend for someone to get hurt, the owner or keeper of the dog will still be held liable for damages caused by the dog.

Lastly, animal rescues and foster care providers may be entitled to reimbursement costs when taking in and caring for sick or injured animals from cruelty situations. Authority for reimbursement can come either from state statute or a judge may order the defendant to pay restitution, even when the non-profit receives donations from the public.  

While a majority of states have not created regulatory regimes to define rescues and foster homes separately from shelters and kennels, other general laws will still apply to these groups. Rescues and fosters should follow the laws in their given jurisdiction and be aware that licensing requirements and inspections may apply. Other laws concerning contractual issues, ownership claims, sterilization and vaccination requirements, laws on importing animals from across state lines, laws that limit the number of pets permitted on private property, zoning and nuisance laws, tethering restrictions, breed specific legislation, tort liability, and financial reimbursement for when they are involved in aiding animals during criminal animal cruelty cases may impact the daily operations of these non-profits.


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