April 22. 2016
AUSTIN — Your dog may be missing but it’s still your animal, even if the city scoops up the pup and turns it over to new owners.
At least that was the recent ruling from the Supreme Court of Texas in the case of Monte, a Houston pooch who went AWOL, wound up in the pound and ultimately found his way to a rescue group that refused to return him.
“Part of the problem is, they have these agreements with these rescue groups,” Houston animal-law attorney Clarissa Kay Bauer said. “At what point do they have good title so they can adopt it out?”
Experts said the case ultimately turned on that point, which left a legal loophole that was big enough to walk a German Shepherd through — an ordinance that didn’t expressly state that animals become city property if they’re not picked up after a specific number of days.
“The impact is wide-reaching,” said Arlington attorney Don Feare, who teaches animal law at the Texas A&M University School of Law. “Ninety-nine percent of the cities out there are going to be impacted by this.
“Very few say, ‘at the end of three days they become our property.’”
Monte’s owners, Lydia Lira and her brother, Alfonso Lira, aren’t talking to the media, but their attorney, Zandra Anderson, said the tale began New Year’s Day 2013 when 7-year-old Monte, an inside dog, escaped through Lydia Lira’s Houston garage door.
Lydia Lira began searching in person and online immediately, but was unable to locate Monte.
As it turned out, his online photo had been placed under another breed.
“The city of Houston’s animal control department, known as BARC, picked up Monte on Jan. 2,” high-court opinion said. “BARC scheduled Monte to be euthanized on Jan. 7.
“On Jan. 5, BARC sent a request to local dog rescue organizations to see if any would accept Monte. On Jan. 6, Greater Houston German Shepherd Dog Rescue (GHGSDR) responded.” The city gave Monte to the rescue organization, which placed him with a volunteer.
Two days later, Lydia Lira learned where Monte was and asked for his return, offering to cover any expenses.
The volunteer declined the request and the Liras went to court, recovering custody of Monte at the end of February 2013 after a two-day trial.
But the legal dog fight eventually went to Texas’ highest civil court The GHGSDR did not immediately respond to an email request for comment, but Feare said problems in the process of impoundment and subsequent custody arose before the rescuers became involved.
“It really is the fault of the shelter for not properly identifying the dog,” Feare said. “They were almost guaranteed not to find the dog.”
Anderson agreed, but said there wouldn’t be any issue if your dog got out and ended up in your neighbor’s back yard.
And, she said, the city and the rescuers were in the same position as the guy down the street.
“There were no laws extinguishing the owners’ rights,” Anderson said. “A rescue organization has no legal power greater over a dog than a citizen.”
However, the court wrote that “the city can, when it wishes, draft an ordinance that expressly divests an owner of property rights to his dog.”
Fran Ortiz, a University of Houston Law Center expert in animal law, said Houston subsequently changed the ordinance to address the ownership issue.
Ortiz filed a brief in favor of the city, arguing that the original ordinance did give BARC title, and said the case came down to how the court construed that issue.
But ultimately the facts may have weighed as heavily as the court’s construction of the ordinance.
“These people were treated grossly unfairly,” Feare said. “It was easier to say, ‘This isn’t right. How do we undo it?’”
John Austin covers the Texas Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him firstname.lastname@example.org.