Can You Get Sued for Adopting a Rescue Dog?

When you take home a shelter or rescue dog, you assume it will be forever. Patri Sierra/Shutterstock

This is a story where you should be able to see both sides.

An animal shelter in Texas contacted a rescue group about a boxer that had been picked up as a stray. The shelter had held the dog past the standard stray hold and no one had come to claim him. The rescue group took him, put him in a foster home and then found him a loving, new family.

Seven months later, a family found out that their lost dog might have been picked up by that rescue group and placed in a new home. They called and asked to have him back. The rescue refused, so now the family is suing the rescue and the new owner to get their dog back.

The dog in the middle of this custody battle is named Tig ... or Bowen ... depending on which family you ask.

The family's story

lost dog flyer
The family said they put up lost dog posters when their dog went missing. Arjenna Strong/Shutterstock

The Childress family had 2-year-old Tig since he was a puppy, their attorney Randy Turner tells MNN. He escaped from their backyard in Glen Rose, Texas, last April when they were packing up to move.

"They immediately started looking for him, all over the internet, posting on Facebook, everywhere you look for a lost dog, They called all the city animal shelters in their area, called several veterinary clinics," says Turner, who specializes in animal law and represents a lot of animal rescues. "Weeks went by, months went by."

The family said they filed a police report in case he was stolen and even put up flyers. But they couldn't find the dog.

"It was heartbreaking," Daisha Childress told Fox 4. "I was really nervous of bad things that could have happened, and my daughter and him were really attached."

The rescue's story

Around the same time, someone found a stray boxer on the street and brought it to the City of Glen Rose Animal Shelter. The dog had no collar and no microchip. The shelter kept him for longer than the traditional 72-hour hold time, according to April Robbins, a volunteer and attorney representing Legacy Boxer Rescue. When no one came to claim him, the shelter transferred him to Hood County Animal Shelter, a larger facility that had more room. A local rescue group also provided a foster home for him for a few days in between his stay at the two shelters, Robbins tells MNN.

After the boxer spent more than three weeks in the shelters with no one stepping up to claim him, Hood County reached out to Legacy Boxer Rescue to see if they would take the dog.

"The shelter contacted Legacy Boxer Rescue and said, 'We have this beautiful boxer boy, would you be interested in him?'" Robbins says. "We said absolutely. We found a foster home. We signed an adoption contract with the shelter and took possession of the dog. At that point, the dog had been in the shelter process for 22 days."

The dog stayed in a foster home for about two months. Then "Bowen" was adopted by the Snyder family where he's been for seven months.

"It's a beautiful story. The dog was adopted with a new family," Robbins says. "They had lost their dog and their other dog couldn't stop mourning. They took their dog to meet this dog and their dog came to life. They bonded instantly."

The fallout

Turner says that earlier this year, the Childress family was looking on the internet and saw Tig's photo on the Glen Rose animal shelter website. Then they also found him on the Legacy Boxer Rescue website.

"One of the complaints people have said is, 'Why didn’t the family look for their dog?' They did look. They looked endlessly," he says.

According to Robbins, they reached out to Legacy Boxer Rescue and asked them if they would contact the adopters to see if they would return the dog. When the rescue refused, they did some research and found out who the adopters were.

"They contacted the Snyders and basically pleaded, 'He's our dog. Please return him. If not, will you let us love on him one more time?'" Turner says. "They never responded and they blocked them from texting them, calling them, contacting them in any way. The Childress family was just desperate so they came to me."

The Childress family is now suing the rescue and the adopters to get back the dog that they say is theirs.

Legacy Boxer Rescue has garnered support from other rescue groups and adopters who worry that the case might set precedent. If this case is decided in favor of the original family, they say people might stop adopting in fear that some day their pets might be taken away.

"It puts every adopter of every animal [in fear] that they could be sued in a similar case, which is not right," Sharon Sleighter, who runs the rescue, told Fox 4.

What the law says

stray dog in street
If your dog gets picked up as a stray, can you lose ownership of him?. Fabrizio Misson/Shutterstock

By law, companion animals are considered property — and they're still yours, in most cases, even when this particular "property" gets loose.

According to the Michigan State University College of Law Animal Legal and Historical Center, "Under common law, a person who owns a domestic animal still owns that animal even when the animal is not directly under the person’s control. For example, a dog who escapes from a backyard is still the property of its owner."

However, owners can lose their rights to their pets. They can lose them directly, obviously, if they take them to a shelter or rescue group and sign over ownership. They can also transfer ownership if they give the animal as a gift.

Owners can also relinquish rights to an animal by abandoning it — for example, leaving in in a public place without tags, which shows they are unable or unwilling to care for it. Similarly, if the animal is found running loose and the owner doesn't claim it within a mandated number of days, the animal in many cases becomes the property of the shelter.

But laws vary and depend on whether the animals was picked up by state or county animal control.

"There are really only state laws on lost dogs or cats that cover impoundment by the state or county," explains Rebecca F. Wisch, associate editor of the Animal Legal and Historical Center, via email. "These laws (often called 'holding laws') give a specific number of days that an impounded dog or cat must be held and what the pound or shelter can do after that time expires. The laws expressly state that the pound/shelter gains title/ownership to the animal after this time period (and usually details the steps the pound/shelter must undertake to find the owner)."

The laws don't apply if the animals are picked up by a private citizen or an animal rescue instead of a county or state shelter, she says.

"Because dogs and cats are personal property of their owners, the original owners retain title to those animals unless they are picked up by animal control or the owners intentionally abandon them. This creates difficulty when a private rescue picks up a stray dog and somehow the original owner does not see the 'lost dog' [Facebook] page or whatever. There are no specific laws that give title to the rescue (at least none that I know of!)."

Wisch points out that public shelters often rely on private rescues to care for animals. On occasion, however, there have been a few legal cases where the public shelter gave an animal to a private organization too soon and the owner sued the dog back and won. She cites one case in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina where a woman sued when her dog was adopted from a temporary shelter. She sued the new owner and won.

What this case means

Tig the boxer
This dog was known as Tig when he lived with the Childress family, but he goes by another name now. Daisha Childress

In the case of Tig/Bowen, Turner cites a 2016 Texas Supreme Court case in which a family's German shepherd ran away and was taken in by a rescue group. Alfonso and Lydia Lira sued Greater Houston German Shepherd Dog Rescue to get their 7-year-old dog, Monte, back. The court found that the Liras did not lose property rights because the dog had run away.

"Before the Lira case, I would have said the police power of animal control allows any disposition (sale, euthanasia, etc.) after the holding period, but I don't think that's going to always be the case — at least in Texas," says Wisch from the Animal Legal and Historical Center.

"The court really focused on property rights of the original owner and how the Houston ordinances created different 'statuses' for animals picked up by animal control. In the Lira case, the court said the Houston ordinances even allow an original owner to reclaim his or her pet/property within 30 days after the pet was sold by the city(!). But the court even went further to say 'nothing in section 6–138 indicates that transferring a dog from BARC to a private rescue organization ... severs the ownership rights of the original owner.' The court also noted that, where there is doubt in the local laws, that ambiguity goes against a finding that the property was forfeited by the owner. I don't know if the case reflects a recognition of the importance of dogs as a special form of property or the court's disapproval of private property forfeiture."

Wisch says the Tig/Bowen case may come down to how the city of Glen Rose and Hood County ordinances are interpreted.

"If there exists some ambiguity like in Houston, the precedent set by Lira may benefit the original owners in the new lawsuit," she says.

Legacy Boxer Rescue, however, says the attorney is citing case law that's very different from this case: one that involved ownership that still belonged to the former family versus this one that involves a completed adoption.

The rescue believes the outcome of this case could affect adoptions throughout the state, while Turner says that precedent was set back in 2016.

"The situation [Legacy Boxer Rescue] faces has far reaching ramifications that affect every rescue in Texas, every adopter, and everyone related to rescue," the group said in a Facebook post. "We believe the ownership of the dog was transferred upon adoption. The other lawyer disagrees. He does not believe the shelter or the rescue could ever transfer ownership of this dog. That cannot be right. It would call into question every adoption ever completed by a shelter or a rescue, other than actual owner surrenders."

Wisch says there's a good chance animal control ordinances are being reviewed across the state right now, simply because of this case.

"I have a strong feeling that cities and counties in Texas are carefully reviewing their animal control ordinances to make it very clear when ownership is divested from original owners now," she says.

Taking sides

It seems there is a lot of vitriol directed toward the Childress family and even toward Turner, their attorney, who has taken the case pro bono. Without knowing the facts, he says, many people online have condemned them for not working hard enough to find their dog or for not having their dog microchipped or having him wear ID tags. (Turner claims the collar must have fallen off when the dog ran away.)

"This is just a tragic case. I feel sorry for the Snyders," he says. "I originally suggested joint custody, kind of a shared visitation ... I was just trying to figure out some way that somebody doesn't get their heart broken."

While many people on social media were quick to point fingers, others could see both sides of the story. Some said they would fight with everything they had if someone tried to take their adopted pets, while others said they'd fight if someone tried to say they couldn't have their lost pet back.

"I don’t find anyone at fault," writes Kelly Hinds Hutchinson. "Dogs escape sometime. If he was in good condition and they filed reports and looked for him, I can see why they are upset, just as I can see why the people who have him now wouldn’t want to part with him. This is all about this dog being a part of two family's hearts. Make a shared custody arrangement and honor it. Neither family should lose someone they love if there are other options."

Wrote Sandy Teng, "So hard to make assumptions I know. But overall breaks my heart for new family and old."