Pet Legal

Legal Column

posted July 15th, 2011 by
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Dear Lawyer Lloyd,
Q. I have a neighbor that really dislikes me and my two dogs. I have done everything I can for the past few years to be cordial to this guy, but he has made comments like, “Boy, I would hate to be your dog if he ever got in my yard.” Recently, I was walking my dogs past his house and he said, “You know I work on my cars all the time and if some antifreeze leaks out and your dogs drink it, then that would just be tragic.” I have called the police but they said they cannot do anything since he hasn’t broken any laws. What can I do about his threats and what can I do legally if he poisons my dogs?
Thank you, Frustrated in Owasso

Dear Frustrated,
A. This is a three part question and a subject I am asked about often.
First, there is the threat. In reality, they amount to threats against you and your property. Therefore, the police can do something about the matter. In fact, you can demand an emergency protective order (EPO) for you and your pets’ safety. The police have the forms with them to issue EPOs.
The EPO is a temporary solution until the matter goes before a Judge. After you contact police and request an EPO be filed, you’ll be given the opportunity for a hearing in Court and so will the person the EPO is filed against. If the Judge agrees that you have a “real threat of imminent harm against you and your pets,” then he may issue a permanent protective order against your neighbor.
If your neighbor harms you or your pets while he has been ordered to leave you alone, then the punishment for such a crime will be considerably more substantial than without the protective order.
The second part of your question has a legal and pet health answer. I visited the ASPCA’s pet poison control website for some helpful tips.
The site advises not to panic.

Respond rapidly, but take a minute or so to safely collect and have in hand any materials you think are involved in harming your pet. This may be of great benefit to your vet and/or APCC toxicologists, as they determine what substance your dog may have ingested.
If the pet needs veterinary attention, be sure to take the substance’s container. Also, collect in a sealed plastic bag any material your pet may have vomited or chewed. If you witness your pet consuming material that you suspect might be toxic, do not hesitate to seek emergency assistance, even if you do not notice any adverse effects.
Sometimes, even if poisoned, an animal may appear normal for several hours or for days after the incident.
Call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) at (888) 426-4435.

There is a $65 consultation fee. The website notes that if your pet is having seizures, losing consciousness, is unconscious, or is having difficulty breathing, telephone ahead and go immediately to your veterinarian or emergency veterinary clinic. If necessary, he or she may call the APCC.
Finally, there are legal aspects to your question. Pets are considered a personal property in Oklahoma, so harm to a pet is damaging your property. If your neighbor poisoned your pet, and you can prove that he did it, then he/she would be liable to pay for the value of your pet in the event of death.
They would also be responsible for costs associated with the loss, including veterinary bills, burial or cremation expenses, and any other reasonable out of pocket expenses.
The neighbor may be liable for punitive damages as well since his conduct would be egregious.

You may also be entitled to claim damages for mental anguish if you have some type of physical manifestation resulting from the mental anguish. An example of this would be loss of sleep and appetite, stomach ache, headaches, etc., but those damages are sometimes hard for a physician to relate them to mental anguish.
I am sorry to hear your problem and hope your neighbor does not act upon his threats. Hopefully, it’s all talk, as it is most of the time.
Sincerely, Lawyer Lloyd

Dear Lawyer Lloyd:
Q. I am disabled and I have a service dog to assist me. Recently my Landlord said I could not keep a service dog in my rental home and is threatening to evict me if I do not “get rid of my mutt.” First of all, I am completely offended by his comments against my well-trained, certified service dog. Secondly, can he evict me over this?
Thanks, D.K. Tulsa

Dear D.K.
A. The quick answer is maybe. Yes, he can evict you if your lease prohibits guide, signal, or service dog animals.
In fact Oklahoma has a Law that addresses this exact issue.
Specifically, Oklahoma Statutes Title 41 of the Residential Landlord and Tenant Act. § 113.1. titled “Denial or termination of tenancy because of guide, signal or service dog” states that “A landlord shall not deny or
terminate a tenancy to a blind, deaf, or physically handicapped person because of the guide, signal, or service dog of such person unless such dogs are specifically prohibited in the rental agreement entered into prior to November 1, 1985.” If your lease does not SPECIFICALLY prohibit such dogs, (even if it excludes ordinary dogs) then your landlord would be in violation of Oklahoma Law if he attempts to evict you for that specific reason.
Since evictions are handled through the small claims Court, then you will be allowed to appear at the eviction proceedings filed by the landlord, and state your case. Be sure to bring evidence that your dog is a service dog as well as evidence of your disability (if your disability is not obvious), as well as paperwork showing your physician has recommended that you maintain a service dog.

Good luck, Lawyer Lloyd

Protective Orders for People Expanded to Cover Pets

posted May 15th, 2011 by
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By Lloyd Benedict

Over the past few years, I have written about the various legal means to protect our furry and helpless little friends, hoping to educate readers about how to maintain and protect their pets within the bounds of the law. It is a privilege to own a pet, and not a right. There are many animal laws that must be followed and consequences when they are not.

Despite the consequences, Tulsa has historically, in my opinion, been weak on law enforcement against the violators of animal laws compared to other cities in similar size throughout the country.
This inadequacy is not just my observation. Our lawmakers have known for many years that laws protecting animals ultimately require a slow process within the Courts to bring about protecting our pets, especially when the pets’ safety may require immediate action.

An example is the typical “mean neighbor” situation. You know the drill. The neighbor torments your dog and you finally decide to peacefully confront him to request an end to the abuse. The neighbor threatens you and your pet. Now fearing for your safety as well as your pets, you decide to call the police, but they are slow to respond because nothing has actually happened other than a threat. Now what? Another common scenario is when you are in a rocky relationship and you fear your significant other will become abusive to not only you but to your pet. Threats are made and you are now in fear of eminent harm. Now what? November 1, 2010, Oklahoma lawmakers addressed this problem when they amended the law to allow Protection Orders for human victims to include the victim’s pets. Oklahoma Protective Order Statute, Title 22 § 60.2, states: (edited for readability with the amended portion in bold) A. A victim of domestic abuse, a victim of stalking, a victim of harassment…

….The person seeking relief shall prepare the (protection order) petition or, at the request of the plaintiff, the court clerk or the victim-witness coordinator, victim support person, and court case manager shall prepare or assist the plaintiff in preparing the petition.

…The person seeking a protective order may further request the exclusive care, possession, or control of any animal owned, possessed, leased, kept, or held by either the petitioner, defendant or minor child residing in the residence of the petitioner or defendant. The court may order the defendant to make no contact with the animal and forbid the defendant from taking, transferring, encumbering, concealing, molesting, attacking, striking, threatening, harming, or otherwise disposing of the animal.

It appears that Protective Orders would not be issued solely to protect pets. The person seeking the Protective Order may “further request” the Court to include protection for their animal, following their belief that they are in danger of harm. It is then up to the Judge to hear the victim’s testimony and determine whether a real threat exists.
This statute incorporates the use of the Emergency Temporary Protective Order law which allows the victim seeking protection for them and their pet to possibly obtain immediate protection until the matter is heard before a Judge.

I contacted the Tulsa County District Court to learn how popular the added pet protection order has been. One of the judges’ clerks that handles protective orders said pet protection is becoming more frequent. She said one of the Judges has placed the name of the pet or pets in his order, providing specific protection for those pets. Additionally, she said the Judge is proactively asking victims (if not in the original request) if there is threat of harm against their pet(s).
The Tulsa District Court is not just looking out for us, but for our furry family members, too.

Over the past few years, I have written about the various legal means to protect our furry and helpless little friends, hoping to educate readers about how to maintain and protect their pets within the bounds of the law. It is a privilege to own a pet, and not a right. There are many animal laws that must be followed and consequences when they are not.

Despite the consequences, Tulsa has historically, in my opinion, been weak on law enforcement against the violators of animal laws compared to other cities in similar size throughout the country.
This inadequacy is not just my observation. Our lawmakers have known for many years that laws protecting animals ultimately require a slow process within the Courts to bring about protecting our pets, especially when the pets’ safety may require immediate action.
An example is the typical “mean neighbor” situation. You know the drill. The neighbor torments your dog and you finally decide to peacefully confront him to request an end to the abuse. The neighbor threatens you and your pet. Now fearing for your safety as well as your pets, you decide to call the police, but they are slow to respond because nothing has actually happened other than a threat.

Now what? Another common scenario is when you are in a rocky relationship and you fear your significant other will become abusive to not only you but to your pet. Threats are made and you are now in fear of eminent harm. Now what? November 1, 2010, Oklahoma lawmakers addressed this problem when they amended the law to allow Protection Orders for human victims to include the victim’s pets. Oklahoma Protective Order Statute, Title 22 § 60.2, states: (edited for readability with the amended portion in bold) A. A victim of domestic abuse, a victim of stalking, a victim of harassment…

….The person seeking relief shall prepare the (protection order) petition or, at the request of the plaintiff, the court clerk or the victim-witness coordinator, victim support person, and court case manager shall prepare or assist the plaintiff in preparing the petition.

…The person seeking a protective order may further request the exclusive care, possession, or control of any animal owned, possessed, leased, kept, or held by either the petitioner, defendant or minor child residing in the residence of the petitioner or defendant. The court may order the defendant to make no contact with the animal
and forbid the defendant from taking, transferring, encumbering, concealing, molesting, attacking, striking, threatening, harming, or otherwise disposing of the animal.

It appears that Protective Orders would not be issued solely to protect pets. The person seeking the Protective Order may “further request” the Court to include protection for their animal, following their belief that they are in danger of harm. It is then up to the Judge to hear the victim’s testimony and determine whether a real threat exists.
This statute incorporates the use of the Emergency Temporary Protective Order law which allows the victim seeking protection for them and their pet to possibly obtain immediate protection until the matter is heard before a Judge.

I contacted the Tulsa County District Court to learn how popular the added pet protection order has been. One of the judges’ clerks that handles protective orders said pet protection is becoming more frequent. She said one of the Judges has placed the name of the pet or pets in his order, providing specific protection for those pets. Additionally, she said the Judge is proactively asking victims (if not in the original request) if there is threat of harm against their pet(s).
The Tulsa District Court is not just looking out for us, but for our furry family members, too.

Lloyd Benedict is a principal in the Benedict Law Office, Tulsa, and is a member of the Tulsa County Bar Association Animal Committee.

Dealing with Difficult Neighbors Over Pet Issues

posted October 15th, 2010 by
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BY LLOYD BENEDICT

Do you live next door to a mean, spiteful, pet hating person? Do you live next to a busy body who has called the police every time your dog howls at a siren? We have all heard the stories of the mean old guy who poisoned his neighbor’s dog or shot their cat with a BB gun because he thought they were a nuisance. In fact the stories are endless on how neighbors have declared war against each other over their pets.

Being on either side of this issue can be no laughing matter, and has been the subject of many neighbor disputes that have lead to legal intervention, or worse, retaliation against the pet itself. If you find yourself in this situation, you best arm yourself with legal information on how to remedy the matter.

The best way to resolve these issues is to work it out amongst yourselves and only use law enforcement or the Courts as a last resort. In many cases, simply talking to the neighbor and working out some type of compromise can usually solve the problem. If the problem still persists, then there is still a relatively inexpensive and quick way to resolve the problem before losing your cool. This can be accomplished through the Early Settlement Program offered through the City of Tulsa. According to the City’s website the City of Tulsa offers individuals, through the program, the opportunity to voluntarily resolve disputes before getting involved in costly, and often lengthy, legal proceedings. In short, through their Human Rights department, the Early Settlement program provides a confidential, but formal, out-of-court mediation service to help you settle your dispute. In over 80 percent of the cases handled by Early Settlement, both parties reach a lasting, mutually acceptable resolution.

When a case is initiated with Early Settlement, their office contacts the other party in order to advise them of the issue at hand. They are then informed that they are party to a dispute, and that the initiator is willing to work the problem out peacefully, through the City’s office, before taking more extreme measures. Early Settlement encourages all parties to work together rather than risk the added expense and trouble of going to court. You can get further details about this program by calling (918) 596-7786.

On the other hand, if the neighbor is unwilling to work it out peacefully and the problem still persists, then you may wish to file a complaint with the Police Department or Animal Control. Whether you find yourself having to resort to calling the Police, or you are the person who the Police may be calling upon, there are many animal laws in Tulsa that you should be aware of. Many of these laws may have nothing to do with the original dispute but may be added concerns once police become involved.

One example of these Tulsa laws would be that it is unlawful to own any dog or cat over four months old, unless such dog or cat has a current vaccination against rabies and is licensed. A license for one year, which requires a one-year rabies vaccination, is $5.00. Alternatively, Tulsa allows you to obtain a three-year license for $15.00 as long as your pet receives a three-year rabies vaccination. If you have your pet microchipped along with a three-year rabies vaccination, the total fee is only $5.00. A violation of this Ordinance could cost you a $75.00 fine per each unlicensed dog or cat and another $75.00 fine for each that is unvaccinated. For further information concerning how to obtain a license for your dog or cat, contact Tulsa Animal Welfare at 669-6299.

Another law most pet owners are familiar with, but many choose to ignore, is Tulsa’s mandatory Leash Law. The law states that dog owners cannot allow any dog to run at large. What many people do not realize is that this law applies to cats too. An exception to this law is that a dog is allowed to be unleashed when it is obediently at heel. In any event, violators of the leash law may find themselves receiving a $200.00 fine and the risk of having their pet impounded. Having your pet impounded will cost you more substantial fines and fees in order to redeem your pet, especially if he/she is not licensed, not vaccinated, and not spayed or neutered. Worse yet, a large number of impounded dogs and cats are only boarded for three days before they are euthanized if not claimed by the owners within that time.

Tulsa Police also regularly enforce the “Barking Dog Law” also known as the Animal Nuisance Ordinance. This law prohibits owning or possessing any animal which is a nuisance. A Nuisance is defined as any animal which habitually commits any one or a combination of the following acts:

a. Scratches or digs into any flower bed, garden, tilled soil, vines, shrubbery or small plants and in so doing injures the same;
b. Overturns any garbage can or other vessel for waste products or scatters the contents of same;
c. Chases any person or domestic animal, or kills any domestic animal;
d. Barks, howls, brays or makes any other loud or offensive noise common to its species or peculiar to itself, so as to disturb the inhabitants of the community;
e. Runs at large.

It is probably safe to say that “habitually” means more than once and rather frequent. Violators of this offense could face imprisonment in the City Jail for 30 days or a fine of not more than $500.00, or both.

Tulsa law requires every pet owner to attach a current license tag, for the animal, to collars or harnesses worn by their dogs or cats, unless the dog or cat is permanently and uniquely identified with a microchip implant or tattoo. Violators of this offense can be fined $200.00.

Tulsa pet owners must keep every female dog or cat “in heat” confined in a building, veterinary hospital or boarding kennel in such a manner that another dog or cat cannot come into contact with it except for controlled breeding purposes. Violators of this law can also be fined $200.00.

You may wish to also take note it could cost a hefty $200.00 if you violate Tulsa’s Pooper Scooper law. No animal owner shall allow their animal to defecate (without the owner removing the excreta deposited) on public or private property other than that of the owner. The law is not specific to dogs and cats.

If you were wondering how many pets you may own in Tulsa, it is unlawful to own, keep or possess in any one household more than a combined total of five dogs and cats over the age of four months; provided that no more than three of such animals shall be dogs over the age of four months. Violating this law can land you 30 days in jail or a fine of not more than $500.00, or both.

One of the most important laws pet owners need to be aware of is that Tulsa requires every dog and cat over the age of six months to be spayed or neutered, unless the owner has secured a hobbyist exemption permit. The fine for this is also $200.00, which typically exceeds the cost for spaying or neutering at your local vet.

As you can see, being aware of these offenses can save you substantial penalties or possibly give you the knowledge needed to report irresponsible and uncooperative neighbors. After all, these laws are not just to punish wrongdoers, they were also designed to protect our animals.

Pets vs. Cars

posted April 15th, 2010 by
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By Lloyd Benedict

One of the most traumatic events you may encounter as a driver is striking an animal with your automobile. At any one moment in Tulsa there are multitudes of animals running at large on our streets.

As we also know, at any one time there are even more vehicles traveling on those same streets. Predictably and quite frequently, the two will tragically cross paths resulting in injury or death to the pet as well as considerable damage to the vehicle. In fact, many of these encounters cause serious injuries and death to the drivers who lost control of their car while attempting to take evasive action. At minimum, these experiences are extremely upsetting to both the driver and the owner of the animal.

If you are unfortunate enough to hit a dog or cat with your car it is essential to get the animal help immediately! However, DO NOT CAUSE FURTHER RISK TO YOURSELF AND OTHER DRIVERS while attempting to render aid to the injured animal. The first thing you should do is immediately call Police and carefully follow their instructions on how to handle the matter.

Aside from the emergency and emotional aspects of these disturbing circumstances, there are also legal consequences to consider. Tulsa Ordinance Title 37 Section 802 (C) imposes a duty upon all drivers who strike an animal with their vehicle. The law states; the driver of any vehicle who kills or injures an animal in the street shall stop and attempt to locate the owner and, failing to find the owner, shall within 24 hours notify the Police Department of the accident. Violators of the offense may face a fine of $500.00. The Ordinance also requires the driver to “stop.” Failing to stop could amount to animal cruelty.

Intentionally hitting a domestic animal and then failing to stop is a felony conviction and can be punishable by imprisonment up to five years. Accidentally hitting a domestic animal and failing to stop is a misdemeanor carrying a $500.00 fine or up to one year in county jail or both. It should be mentioned that this law not only applies to dogs and cats but also to horses, cows, sheep and any other domesticated animals. However, I think it’s safe to say you shouldn’t worry about the occasional squirrel who wrongly thinks his quick maneuvering skills are far better than your breaking skills.

On the other hand, the law also frowns upon the careless owners of the animals injured or killed by vehicles. Such violators may face substantial penalties and fines for allowing their animals to run at large on the streets. Specifically, Tulsa Ordinance Title 7 Section 304 states that; It shall be unlawful for any person to turn any animal loose on any street or public place in the City of Tulsa. Every person violating this section shall be guilty of an offense and, upon conviction, shall be punished by imprisonment in the City Jail for a period of not exceeding 90 days or by a fine of not more than $750.00 plus costs, fees and assessments, or both such fine and imprisonment.

Aside from fines and penalties imposed from the City, careless pet owners who allow their animals to run at large may be exposed to civil lawsuits. This situation can arise when the animal/automobile collision results in damage to the vehicle or injuries to the driver and passengers. As I mentioned earlier, these types of accidents commonly cause serious injuries and even death to the drivers who lost control of their vehicle while swerving to miss an animal. If it is proven that the animal was the cause of such accident, then the pet owner may be found liable for the victim’s damages. As you can imagine, monetary damages owed by careless pet owners to a person killed under these circumstances could amount to millions of dollars.

Typically, if the pet owner is also a homeowner, then their homeowner’s liability insurance may cover up to the amount of their insurance limit. Fortunately, in most of these cases, damages owed by negligent pet owners for injuries to the driver or their vehicle are amounts well within their policy limits. Generally homeowner’s liability insurance limits are $100,000 to $300,000, which are adequate to cover the majority of these damages. Note however, many insurance companies exclude coverage for any injuries to persons or property caused by their animals. I would suggest you contact your homeowner’s insurance agent and ask if your policy covers damages caused by your animal. If your policy does not cover such losses, then you may consider changing insurance companies to one who sells policies that will cover animals. Think of it this way. Let’s say the doorbell rings and you open the door as you routinely do. Suddenly, untrained Fluffy, your family dog, shoots out the front door. Excited about his new-found freedom, Fluffy runs straight into the path of an oncoming car. In a matter of seconds, dogs like Fluffy have the ability to cause injury or death to innocent motorists as well as to himself, while financially destroying his owners.

Ask Laywer Lloyd

Dear Layer Lloyd,

I am going through a divorce and one of our many disagreements is who will get custody of our cat. I refuse to give up my cat.
Unfortunately, he wants the cat as bad as I do. I have been told that since Courts can award joint custody of children, they can do the same for pets. Is that correct? Thanks. R.M.- Jenks OK

Dear R.M.,
Custody disputes over the family pet are becoming popular. Some people are even prepared to spend thousands of dollars over this issue alone. However, you should be aware that the laws concerning child custody are completely different than the laws dealing with pet custody. Simply put, pets are personal property, so the Court handles disputes over animals the same way it deals with who gets the sofa. Fortunately, Oklahoma Divorce Courts require mediation when property and custody disputes cannot be resolved before trial. Typically most mediators can convince the parties to work out many difficult disputes.
In any event, if the parties cannot agree, then the Courts have the ability to make that decision for you. Please forward your questions to [email protected]

NO EXCUSE For Animal Abuse

posted January 15th, 2010 by
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By Lloyd Benedict

We should take a few moments and think about the well being of the little furry guys that bring so much joy and companionship to our lives. Pet ownership is by no means a minor responsibility, as pets are very vulnerable and totally rely upon us for their every need. It’s unimaginable to believe that there are many folks that abuse and neglect animals. More regretfully, much animal abuse goes unreported. It is my hopes that this article will help Tulsans become more vigilant in dealing with animal abuse and neglect.

Oklahoma has strong laws compared to other States that address animal cruelty, as our penalties range from a misdemeanor all the way to a felony that carries five (5) years in the State Penitentiary. Interestingly, Tulsa does not appear to have a specific Ordinance for such violations, but instead appears to rely upon our State law for such. According to Oklahoma State Law Title 21 ß1685:

Any person who shall willfully or maliciously overdrive, overload, torture, destroy or kill, or cruelly beat or injure, maim or mutilate, any animal in subjugation or captivity, whether wild or tame, and whether belonging to himself or to another, or deprive any such animal of necessary food, drink or shelter; or who shall cause, procure or permit any such animal to be so overdriven, overloaded, tortured, destroyed or killed, or cruelly beaten or injured, maimed or mutilated, or deprived of necessary food, drink or shelter; or who shall willfully set on foot, instigate, engage in, or in any way further any act of cruelty to any animal, or any act tending to produce such cruelty, shall be guilty of a felony and shall be punished by imprisonment in the state penitentiary not exceeding five (5) years, or by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding one (1) year, or by fine not exceeding Five Hundred Dollars ($500.00). Any officer finding an animal so maltreated or abused shall cause the same to be taken care of, and the charges therefore shall be a lien upon such animal, to be collected thereon as upon a pledge or a lien.

Despite Tulsa’s absence of a specific animal abuse Ordinance, the Tulsa Animal Welfare website is extremely helpful in understanding how to identify abuse and neglect and how to properly report it. Their website can be viewed in its entirety at www.cityoftulsa.org/city-services/ animal-welfare/abuse.aspx. According to their website, it is important for a person witnessing animal abuse to understand the types of animal cruelty. That is to say, there are two categories of cruelty: Passive and Active. Passive cruelty is typified by cases of neglect, where the crime is a lack of action rather than the action itself – however do not let the terminology fool you. Severe animal neglect can cause incredible pain and suffering to an animal. Examples of neglect are starvation, dehydration, parasite infestations, allowing a collar to grow into an animal’s skin, inadequate shelter in extreme weather conditions, and failure to seek veterinary care when an animal needs medical attention. On the other hand, Active cruelty implies malicious intent, where a person has deliberately and intentionally caused harm to an animal. If you witness or know about persons committing these offenses, the site recommends that you call Animal Welfare or the Tulsa Police Department immediately.

Tell the person answering the phone:

• Where the animal is – street address would be extremely helpful
• Describe the breed
• Size
• Color
• Any distinct markings on the animal
• Where it may live
• If it is wearing a collar or tags, as well
as description
• Also describe the situation that you believe constitutes cruelty to the animal(s) and a description of any individuals and/or vehicles involved.

If you witness such animal abuse and are reluctant to get involved, you may want to consider the fact that the same folks committing these crimes appear to be connected to other destructive behavior in our society. According to Inhumane.com studies show there is overwhelming evidence that human abusers, murderers or violent criminals began their abuse first with their own pets. In 1997 Boston’s Northeastern University and the MSPCA did a study that found 70% of all animal abusers have committed at least one other crime and that 40% had committed violent crimes against humans. Studies also found that a history of animal abuse was found in 25% of male criminals, 30% of convicted child molesters, 36% of domestic violence cases and 46% of homicide cases. 30% of convicted child molesters and 48% of convicted rapists admitted animal cruelty in their childhood. In 2000, 7% of animal cruelty cases involved child abuse. The perpetrators either abused the children or forced them to witness the cruelty to animals. 13% of the animal cruelty cases involved domestic abuse. 1% of animal cruelty cases involved elder abuse. In light of these studies, it is our duty as citizens to report animal abuse as it may be our only visible indication of a much deeper crime being committed upon our neighbors.

Lloyd Benedict is a principal in the Benedict Law Office, Tulsa, and is a member of the Tulsa County Bar Association Animal Committee.

Finders Keepers? Think Again.

posted October 15th, 2009 by
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Story By LLOYD BENEDICT

AT SOME POINT IN OUR LIVES we happen upon lost items of value, such as jewelry, sunglasses, and occasionally even a cute cuddly pet. The first thought most folks have when they find something of value is whether or not they keep the item they found. The quick answer is maybe, but one should know how Oklahoma laws deal with these matters before they become too attached to their find. Rescuing an animal from a shelter is not the same as finding a stray animal. The reason is pet owners lose all ownership rights if the pet is not claimed from the shelter within the time required by law. In Tulsa, the reclaim period can be as short as three days before the pet can be put up for adoption. Once a pet is adopted from the shelter, the new owner will have full legal ownership. Finding strays, on the other hand, can raise the question of whether the pet was abandoned, or did it simply get loose from its loving owner. In such cases, rescuing a stray requires more than giving your new found pet a loving home. Hopefully this article will allow you a better understanding of what your legal rights and responsibilities are when you lose or find a pet.

As I have discussed in previous issues, pets are considered personal property, so Oklahoma law treats lost and found pets the same way it treats a lost and found watch or any other personal property. Even more strange, Oklahoma courts rely upon contract law to handle lost and found property. The rationale for the law handling these matters in such a way is so that the Courts can impose and enforce duties owed between the owner and the finder. We see this type of contractual relationship all the time in matters that do not involve lost and found property. For example, a customer gives his clothes to the dry cleaners, which in turn has temporary custody over the clothes. When the customer pays the dry cleaner for services, then the customer can have his property. Make sense? Now let’s apply these same principles to a lost and found pet situation.

Let’s say a pet owner loses their pet and it is found by another person, who in turn now has custody of the pet. Now what? Well according to Oklahoma law the person who found the pet and the original owner owe a duty to each other, just as the owner of the clothes and the dry cleaners owe a duty to each other. But what possible duty does the finder of a pet owe to the owner of a pet and vice-versa?

To answer that question we need to examine Oklahoma’s Contract Statutes. These laws can be found in Oklahoma Statutes, Title 15 Sections 511 through Section 518. Section 511 says that one who finds a lost property does not have to take custody of it but if they do then it is as if they were hired to take care of the property. So, if you choose to keep the pet you found, then the law says you can be held to the same duty as you would be if you were hired by the pet’s owner to take care of it. The significance of this Statute is that it gives the owner and the finder the legal basis to sue each other in Oklahoma Courts if they breach their duties to each other.

Section 512 also says that If the finder of a thing knows or suspects who the owner is, he must, with reasonable diligence, give him notice of the finding; and if he fails to do so, he is liable in damages to the owner, and has no claim to any reward offered by him for the recovery of the thing, or to any compensation for his trouble or expenses. Basically, this means that if you find a pet then you have to make a pretty good effort to find the owner. Examples of efforts to notify the pet’s owner may include, at a minimum, posting found pet signs throughout your neighborhood, calling area vets to announce the find, or posting on Craigslist or other websites for lost pets.

As you can see, another important aspect of Section 512 is that the law allows the finder to be compensated for his/her expenses of taking care of the pet by the owner. If the owner fails to pay for reasonable expenses, or reward, if requested by the finder, then the finder may have grounds to not give the pet back to the owner until such is paid. But remember the finder cannot make such request unless they can prove they made a diligent effort to locate the owner. If the finder cannot prove they made a diligent effort to find the owner, then the owner can sue the finder for damages for unlawfully keeping the pet.

Also, the finder can require the owner to prove ownership. According to Section 513 the finder of a thing may, in good faith, before giving it up, require reasonable proof of ownership from any person claiming it. This could be a problem if your pet has no collar or is not micro-chipped. The owner may also use other evidence to prove the pet is theirs such as photos of the pet, vet records, or even the fact that the pet is excited to see its owner. If you have not had your pet microchipped, hopefully I just convinced you to do so.

Interestingly, Section 514 states that the finder of a thing may exonerate himself from liability at any time, by placing it on storage with any responsible person of good character, at a reasonable expense. Therefore it appears that a finder of a pet can simply board the found pet and not surrender the pet to the owner until the finder is paid for the costs as well as any other expenses entitled under Section 511.

Sections 515 and 516 deals with the finder’s right to sell the found pet should they wish to do so. This law states that the finder of a thing may sell it, if it is a thing which is commonly the subject of sale, when the owner cannot with reasonable diligence be found; or, being found, refuses upon demand to pay the lawful charges of the finder, in the following cases:

  1. When the thing is in danger of perishing, or losing the greater part of its value; or,
  2. When the lawful charges of the finder amount to two-thirds of its value.

Equally under this Section a solid argument can be made that if the law allows the finder to sell the pet, then the same law allows the finder to permanently keep the pet.

The last Statute to be aware of is Section 518. This law states the owner of a thing found may exonerate himself from the claims of the finder by surrendering it to him in satisfaction thereof. In other words, if the owner owes the finder any compensation for taking care of the pet, then the owner can simply give the pet to the finder instead of paying anything.

Another question that will arise is how long does the finder have to worry about the owner claiming his pet or other property? Or said another way, how long does the owner have to sue the finder? The answer for this can be found in Oklahoma Statute, title 12 Section 95 that says that a person has two (2) years to bring their action against another for taking, detaining, or injuring personal property, including actions for the specific recovery of personal property. The clock for the two years would not start ticking until the owner learns that the finder has their pet. On the other hand it appears, since the finder’s duties are strangely based on contract law, then the finder may have up to three (3) years to sue the owner for expenses of taking care of the pet. In any event, lawsuits can be avoided for the owner and finder by doing the right thing. In most cases a thank you and an offer to reimburse expenses usually takes care of matters. In either case, hopefully the owner and the finder will understand each other’s attachment to the pet and do what is in the best interest for the other as well as the pet.

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