One Dog Plus Two Humans Yields a Big Fight

In March 2011, a dog named Chase ran away from home in Portland.  That spring, Jordan Biggs found Chase in Gresham and took him in, calling him Bear.  In May 2012, however, Sam Hanson-Fleming recognized Chase in Biggs’ SUV and claimed him.  Biggs refused to return the dog.  Multnomah County Animal Control Services ruled that Chase and Bear were, in fact, the same dog, and that Biggs had failed to file a notice with Animal Control or publish a newspaper advertisement for two weeks, required by county ordinance to claim a lost pet.  As a result, Animal Control awarded Chase to Hanson-Fleming.

Biggs hasn’t returned the dog.  Instead, she has sued for a determination that the dog was hers, relying in part on a claim that Hanson-Fleming’s negligence caused Chase to run away, and that she had followed the procedures required by Benton County, where she was a student at Oregon State.  The case may not be resolved for a long time.

The Relevant Law

The law still tends to treat pets as property.  Lost property traditionally has been awarded to the person who finds it if that person makes a reasonable attempt to find the rightful owner.  The problem is deciding what is reasonable.  Oregon and Washington have general laws for lost property, and many counties in Oregon have ordinances dealing with lost pets.

Under Oregon’s Lost and Found law, the finder of property worth $100 or more, whose owner is unknown, can claim it by filing a notice with the county clerk within 10 days of finding the property, and publish a notice in the newspaper for two weeks starting within 20 days of finding.  If no one comes forward within three months, the finder becomes the owner.  If the owner does come forward, the finder is entitled to repayment of the costs of finding, notice, care, and custody of the property before having to turn it over.

The Lost and Found law is almost never followed.  Technically, a finder who fails to go through the lost and found process can be held liable to the county for the property or its value, and the county would be entitled to keep the property if the owner is not found.  This also is almost never enforced.

Oregon does not have a statewide law specifically dealing with lost animals.  Multnomah County’s ordinance for found animals is similar to the state law for found property, but the time frame is different.  The finder is required to file a notice with Animal Control within five days of finding, and publish notices in the newspaper for two weeks starting within 15 days of finding.  The owner has 180 days to claim the animal, and is required to reimburse the finder for giving notice, urgent vet care, and keeping the animal.  If there is a dispute as to ownership, Animal Control is authorized to rule on it.

Benton County’s ordinance requires the finder to notify Animal Control within 48 hours of finding, and then requires the finder to user the Lost and Found law.  Biggs’ suit, however, turns out not to claim that she did this.  Instead, she claims to have licensed the dog, and that under the Benton County ordinance, that presumptively makes her the owner.  I am skeptical that this claim will succeed because Hanson-Fleming previously licensed Chase in Multnomah County, and because the Oregonian reports that Biggs didn’t file for her license until after Hanson-Fleming claimed him.

Among other large counties in Oregon, Washington, Marion, Deschutes, and Umatilla Counties do not have lost pet ordinances.  Clackamas County requires finders of lost dogs to notify the Dog Services office within three days of finding, but makes no provision for claiming the dog.  Lane County requires anyone who takes control of a stray dog to notify Animal Services within 24 hours and retain the dog for 72 hours’ so that Animal Services can investigate; there are no provisions for claiming the dog.

It is unclear whether the Lost and Found law or a county’s found animal ordinance would control over the other, so it is probably advisable to comply with both if you find an animal. Where the local ordinance is silent, the Lost and Found law will apply.

Washington’s Lost and Found law requires the finder to get the property appraised within seven days and file a notice of finding, stating intent to keep, with the sheriff or city police within the seven days.  (If you don’t want to pay for an appraisal, the District Court is authorized to do it, but there will be a fee, probably the $83 for a general civil filing.)  The city or county then publishes notice.  The owner has sixty days to come forward.  If the owner does not claim the property, the finder may claim it on payment of the cost of the notice plus a $10.00 fee,  Cars and a few other categories of property are excluded from the Lost and Found law; animals are not excluded.  There do not appear to be local ordinances for found animals in Washington.

Apart from the possibility of forfeiting the find for not following the proper procedure, in Oregon there is another risk if you don’t return a lost animal to its owner when claimed.  Oregon law treats it as first degree theft, which is a felony.  As a practical matter, unless the animal is valuable, the punishment is likely to be probation for a first offense, but there is always a risk of prosecution.

What to Do

In general, if you find a lost pet in Oregon or Washington you want to keep, you probably should follow the Lost and Found law for that state and any local ordinance that may apply.  The county Animal Control office is likely to be able to inform you of any ordinances.

If you own a pet that you don’t want to lose to a questionable claim, the easiest way to protect yourself is to have a microchip implanted.  That easily proves that you are the owner.  Keep all license records, vet records, and take pictures of yourself with the pet, preferably with distinctive markings visible.  In Chase’s case, his identity was proven from distinctive marks in old photos, and the license was important in proving ownership.

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