Do Community Pets Need a Legal Status?
November 14, 2011
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?