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LAAS GM Brenda Barnette's 'Finders-Keepers’ Plan Can Result in Dog Attacks and Lost Pet Scams

ANIMAL WATCH-On Tuesday, June 25, the City Council will vote on Los Angeles Animal Services General Manager Brenda Barnette's ordinance to allow any stranger to pick up a stray or lost dog or cat and keep it, with the City's blessing. After 30 days, Barnette proposes, the finder could adopt it through LAAS, although it was never in the shelter. 

With Pit Bulls being the pervasive breed of loose and/or stray dogs in Los Angeles and most publicized bites/attacks attributed to them, how could any responsible shelter manager encourage that unsuspecting and inexperienced families--very likely to have other pets--take in a dog with unknown behavior or health history and put it with their pets and children?  

Dog behavior, after it has become comfortable and possibly territorial, may be very different from the friendly, hungry dog on the street looking for a meal. This "finders, keepers" plan is a recipe for potential tragedy! 

LOST PETS MAY NEVER BE FOUND BY OWNERS--DOES LA CITY REALLY CARE? 

Barnette's plan to reduce her impound statistics by changing the City ordinance and allowing finders to legally be under contract to the City in caring for stray/lost animals risks the safety and health of goodhearted, but unsophisticated, LA animal lovers, their pets, and others. 

On the other side, innocent, helpless pets may be taken in by those who do not have the knowledge, expertise or financial resources to care for them properly. As we know, animals--just like people have personal preferences. Some do not want to be or are uncomfortable around children or other pets. Some have special dietary needs. And, veterinary care is expensive. Once such a program is implemented, a government agency cannot discriminate in who is eligible to participate and keep a found pet. 

This concern, and the potential deprivation of their pets because owners cannot locate them in someone's private home, was first discussed at the May 23, 2017, Commission meeting, where it became obvious that this was not really about the welfare of the animals but ultimately intended to allow "rescuers" in neighborhoods to take in numerous lost pets before they get to the shelter and not have them add to the LAAS impound stats. 

The head of a "rescue" group already doing this testified at the meeting, stating she was the person who brought this proposal to Barnette. Subsequent meetings have found support only in those affiliated with animal-rescue groups or who volunteer at a shelter. Other pet owners did not support it.

This can be a lucrative endeavor. Even owners who take precautions can sometimes have a door and/or gate left open and their pet(s) escape.  Collars with tags are easily removed and microchipping is not a legal mandate. Even if not expressly requested or indicated, rewards for return of lost pets can be very generous and State law (Hayden Act) requires reimbursement for veterinary and other care.  

Thus, owners may end up paying more than they would to redeem their pets from the shelter and with more time and worry required to locate them. And, there is a possibility they will not get them back from an individual finder for many reasons, including that he/she or the family have become attached emotionally.  

The best ways to assure pets are not in this situation is to (1) SPAY/NEUTER TO DETER WANDERING/ESCAPE; (2) LICENSE TO ASSURE THERE IS A RECORD AT THE SHELTER AND A VISIBLE OFFICIAL ID TAG THAT VERIFIES RABIES VACCINATION; (3) MICROCHIP--PERMANENT ID! AND (4) KEEP ALL CONTACT INFORMATION UPDATED. 

DOG ATTACK STATISTICS AND RISING COSTS 

Last year, the U.S. Postal Service announced that Los Angeles had the second highest rate of dog attacks on mail carriers in the country. 

In 2018, California had the most USPS attacks by far at 918. Texas was second-at only 426, and New York -- with 339 bites -- rounding off the top-three states, according to Forbes

“Animal Attacks Cost the U.S. More than $1 billion a Year and Are Becoming More Common,” CNN reported on December 11, 2018. The rate of all animal attack injuries has increased over the past 10 years, according to Dr. Joseph Forrester, and dog bites were responsible for the third highest rate of deaths. 

Per the Nationwide Emergency Department Survey by the federal government, dog bites account for 26% of animal attack injuries. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that “in addition to causing pain, injury, or nerve damage, dog bites can become infected, putting the bite victim at risk for illness or in rare cases death.” 

LA CITY WOULD BE ASSUMING LIABILITY 

The risk of dog bites and attacks is rising in LA also, and the City's plan would cause the "finder" who keeps the animal under this contractual arrangement with Los Angeles Animal Services, to become an agent of the City during the 30 to 32-day period before they can adopt it, legal experts say. 

Therefore, the City could be liable for any injuries to/by the found pet and could also be financially responsible for any costs incurred by actions of the finder while acting in that capacity. Would this include any confrontation/altercation when someone tries to redeem their pet from the finder? 

However, the "finder" would also be liable personally if anyone is hurt by the animal or the animal is allowed to be injured. A finder's insurance -- if they have any -- may not cover these categories. This is one of the reasons State law and major "lost pet registries" recommend taking a found animal to the shelter. 

AND, the legal owner of the dog -- who may be searching every shelter in the City -- would also be liable under his/her homeowner's or other insurance because of the strict liability nature of the law on such incidents, which state that an owner is responsible for the dog's actions whether or not it is in his/her care at that time. 

Please note that, at the end, there are no provisions for retrieving your lost pet from the person who has kept it. The City apparently believes it can bypass liability by not discussing that issue. 

PROVISIONS OF THE PROPOSED ORDINANCE: 

Excerpted from CF 18-1030: 

      (d) If the animal is a stray dog that is not wearing a license tag or a stray cat, and the  

person finding the animal wishes to provide the animal with home care, the personal shall comply with the following within the first four (4) hours of finding the animal. 

(Comment:  HOW DOES SOMEONE KNOW IF THE ANIMAL IS A "STRAY" OR "OWNED"?

Collars and tags are easily removed, and microchipping is not mandated.) 

  1. Notify the nearest City animal shelter that the animal is in their possession, a description of the animal and where the animal was found, and the location of the animal along with their name, address and contact information (which can be a P.O. Box or a tent and a pre-paid cell phone--or no personal phone at all.) 

(Comment:  No physical inspection/verification by an officer is indicated or even possible.) 

  1. Receive an animal ID number from the Department to be used in all communications.  (This makes the finder an "agent" of the City.) 
  1. Provide two or more photographs (of different poses) of the animal to the Department suitable for posting on the Department's website. 

(Comment: Many dogs--such as, Rottweilers, Shepherd-mixes and German Shepherd dogs, Chihuahuas or "tabby" cats are almost indistinguishable by photos, but an owner immediately knows his/her pet at the shelter. And what happens if the photos are not provided?) 

  1. Bring the animal to a veterinarian or to the nearest animal shelter if the animal requires immediate medical care. 

(Comment:  How is the layperson to determine whether a fur-covered animal has an injury    requiring "immediate" care, as opposed to an animal that can wait?  Many owners do not even provide veterinary care for their own pets until a complaint it received from a caring neighbor and an Animal Control Officer issues a citation.) 

(e) Within the first twenty-four (24) hours ... the person finding the stray dog or cat shall comply with the following: 

  1. Bring the animal to a City animal shelter for a microchip scan and veterinary care or bring to the animal to a licensed CA veterinarian at their own expense for such scan and care. 
  1. Provide the Department with a record of the microchip scan and the veterinarian's diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis. Does this mean that under #1(above) there is the option to get free veterinary service at the shelter--which would legally identify the dog as property of the City? Private owners cannot get free veterinary care for pets at the shelter. 
  1. Make and distribute posters with the animal's photo in a two-block radius of the location where the animal was found and the finder's contact information. 

(Comment: Posters placed on utility or other poles are in violation of L.A City law. Is one or two posters enough? How long do they need to remain posted during the 30-day period?) 

(f) In addition, .... the person finding the stray dog or cat shall comply with the following: 

  1. Agree to keep the animal at the identified location for a period not to exceed 32 days and notify the Department within 12 hours of any change to the location where the animal is kept. 
  1. Immediately notify the Department if the animal is lost or stolen. 
  1. If the animal is returned to its lawful owner, immediately notify the Department of the name, address and contact information of the person to whom the animal was released. 

(Comment: How can the finder determine who the rightful owner is? Will owners be willing to give the finder--a stranger--their full contact information?  What if there is a dispute over the pet?) 

  1. After 30 days but prior to 32 days, bring the animal to the closest City animal shelter to

either surrender ... or adopt the animal and have the animal vaccinated, sterilized, and, if a dog, licensed. (The accompanying letter says adoption fees will be waived.)

(Comment: What if the finder doesn't make it to the shelter during the 2-day window?  Do Animal Control Officers go to the location to confiscate the dog, which is the City's property?) 

AS STATED ABOVE, THERE ARE NO PROVISIONS FOR THE RETURN OF THE ANIMAL TO THE OWNER! 

WHAT DOES THIS ‘FINDERS, KEEPERS' PLAN HOPE TO ACCOMPLISH? 

Some of this might work for a small, friendly dog that has good manners and is accustomed to a caring home. However, those are not the animals that crowd the shelters. Those owners come in quickly. HOWEVER, they may not be able to find their furry family member if it has not been turned in to the shelter. This is probably not a good idea for cats which do not usually adapt well to change (unless they are very friendly and outgoing.) 

The large dogs are the most likely to be taken in for nefarious purposes and/or placed with a similar adult dog, which may be territorial, and both the animals and humans can be jeopardized. At shelters, unless they come in together, most large dogs are kept alone for safety. 

Two more key concerns with this aspect of the proposal are (1) the dog/cat does not have current vaccinations and may be ill or contagious. (Neither dogs nor cats should be put together without assurance of rabies vaccination -- which is required for dogs by State law.) 

And (2), it is difficult/impossible for a layperson to determine whether a female dog/cat is spayed.  Leaving them even briefly with an unaltered male may result in mating and producing a litter of homeless animals. 

However, Brenda Barnette addressed that in her "policy" statement: "any puppies produced during this period will become the property of LA Animal Services." Under what law does she enforce that? If the City never owned or possessed either of the animals, what right would they have to the offspring? Is Barnette inferring that the finder is just an "employee/agent" of the City? Will LAAS get a search warrant to take the puppies from the legal owner? 

This seems like a plan without a purpose -- except for GM Brenda Barnette to avoid doing the job for which Los Angeles Animal Services receives nearly a $50,000,000 budget and she is paid over $250,000 annually, with benefits. If she does not want to impound and care for lost and stray animals, maybe this is not the right job for her. And, if the animals are not taken into the shelter, let's consider reducing the annual budget for this Department. 

CITY SEEKS TO AVOID LIABILITY AFTER CREATING A ‘CONTRACT’ 

So, since Councilman Koretz chose to bring this back to Council (it could have been allowed to just expire) and considering all his arrangements for the "retail-rescue" stores to exist in any zoning, he has now created the perfect arrangement. 

The animals could be kept by a "rescuer" for 30 days (Koretz and Barnette have increased the cat limit and voiced intent to increase dogs) then adopted free of charge from the shelter. The "rescuer" can then offer it for adoption to the public for a price -- which is pure profit. 

IS THE CITY VIOLATING THE FOURTH AMENDMENT BY DEPRIVING A PERSON OF HIS/HER PROPERTY? 

The City is granting the right of possession of a possibly owned animal to an unknown party, rather than obtaining legal ownership by impounding it for the required legal holding period. 

IS THE CITY POSSIBLY AIDING AND ABETTING THEFT? 

If a person keeps property, knowing the identity of the owner, that is a criminal act of theft, called embezzlement. The City will have no way to determine if this is occurring when it allows a "finder" to keep a "lost" animal. 

DOES THE CITY HAVE THE LEGAL RIGHT TO TRANSFER OWNERSHIP OF THE ANIMAL THAT HAS NOT BEEN IN ITS POSSESSION FOR THE LEGAL ‘HOLD’ PERIOD REQUIRED BY STATE LAW? 

Unless the City is impounding the animal and designating the "finder" as its agent, the legal hold period for the owner to identify and reclaim his/her property (pet) has not been met. How does the City then have the right to transfer title to something it does not own? 

LOST PET SCAMS -- SOME THINGS TO DO AND NOT DO 

As soon as you post anywhere that you have lost a pet, there will be someone trying to figure out how to prey on your grief and relieve you of your money. There are many scams described on the Internet that can be easily found. 

Here are just a few suggestions for protection, and readers may add more in the comments section below this article to help you not be victimized while you are especially vulnerable: 

Of course, immediately contact your nearest animal shelters/humane societies (there may be several, so be sure you identify all) and post your pet's photo and description on all available social media and local community sites, including Craigslist and Next Door.

Place flyers anywhere it is legal (Los Angeles does not allow posting on utility poles under its littering law.) Take flyers everywhere you go and hand them out. Some animals travel a long distance. Don't forget bulletin boards at laundromats, markets, in veterinary offices and pet supply stores. Ask local realtor/rental offices to post one for you. Get them to as many apartment building managers as possible in your area, in case a renter has found your pet. 

Do not immediately pull out your reward money for someone who responds, saying he/she has your pet without calling them back to verify contact information and arrange a safe meeting place that YOU suggest or with which you are familiar. 

Do not go alone to get your pet. Take along a neighbor or anyone available, especially if you are taking cash to pay a reward.

Do not allow a stranger to bring the pet to your home unless a friend or family member is present. A good idea is to meet them at a nearby public location or, if convenient, in the animal shelter lobby or a police station. 

Do not park immediately in front of the location, if possible, where the person claiming to have your pet can adjust the expected reward by the value of your car. 

Also, DO NOT leave mail with your address visible anywhere in your vehicle that someone associated with the "finder" might be able to view. You do not want to be the victim of a burglary while you are being detained talking about a pet (or supposed pet) that is "being brought over from another location."   

Often pet owners are so frantic to get their best friend back that they provide many details about their home location, hours they work, how many there are in their family and when they are home, etc. This is all information that crooks can use -- don’t give it to them. 

And, remember that good identification, including a permanent updated microchip is your lost pet's best friend. Get one today!

 

(Phyllis M. Daugherty is a former City of Los Angeles employee and a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.