The Texas Supreme Court has ruled that owners can reclaim their dogs even after they have been lost and sent to an animal shelter, contrary to current public policy. Lira v. Greater Houston German Shepherd Dog Rescue, Inc. involves a brother and sister attempting to reclaim their German Shepherd, Monte Carlo, after he escaped from their yard.
The facts of the case are not in dispute. The day after Monte Carlo escaped from his yard, he was picked up by Houston’s animal control department, with no identifying tags or microchip. The department posted his picture on a rescue website, Pet Harbor, but mistakenly listed him as a Belgian Malinois and an owner surrender. The dog tested positive for heartworm so instead of being sold, he was transferred to Greater Houston German Shepherd Dog Rescue for fostering and treatment. This happened six days after he was found, in compliance with the city ordinance’s minimum three-day waiting period to dispose of stray animals.
The Liras searched for their dog for a week, contacting different animal control agencies and searching the Internet for lost dog postings, until they had finally reached the animal control agency that picked up Monte Carlo, which informed them of the dog’s transfer. The Liras immediately contacted the rescue group to get Monte Carlo back, but their request was refused.
The Liras subsequently sued the Greater Houston Shepherd Dog Rescue. The trial court found for the Liras and ordered the dog returned. The court of appeals reversed this judgment, holding that the Liras lost their right to recover possession after the waiting period was over. The Liras appealed this to the Texas Supreme Court, asking that the trial court’s judgment be reinstated.
The Court held that the Liras did not give up their ownership right to Monte Carlo once he was taken in by the city animal control and that he still belonged to the Liras when he was being fostered by the rescue group. Monte Carlo died during the litigation, but the Court determined that he should have been returned. The Court cited common law authority that holds that laws should be construed to prevent the forfeiture of rights of property. A separate 2013 case established that pet dogs are “a special form of personal property,” to be given special consideration in their disposition.
The facts of this case seem to support the Texas Supreme Court decision that Monte Carlo should have been returned to his owners. On the face, this is a good decision, allowing owners of lost pets in Texas to take comfort in knowing that they can reclaim their dogs if they are lost and end up at a shelter or rescue.
However, this decision also reinterprets a well-established public policy that once a lost animal is placed with a shelters or rescue they can be adopted out to permanent homes without fear that the original owner has a claim on the animal later. This will make the adoption of animals more difficult as potential adopters may not want to take the chance that their new dog or cat could be repossessed after they have become attached to the animal.
It remains to be seen whether the Texas Supreme Court will set a timeline in a future case or whether the Texas legislature or Houston City Council will impose new statutes or ordinances that create a time limit for when a dog owner forfeits ownership once the dog is lost. This case may not govern alternate scenarios, for example, when the dog or cat is actually sold or adopted out to an individual instead of merely being held in foster care for treatment of heartworm. NAVS will continue to monitor future litigation in Texas and report how the lower courts implement this ruling.