Rights for Wrongs to Your Beloved Pets

Posted September 21, 2011 in Animal Law by Arthur Buono

Casino was a healthy and happy pit bull the day he left Diane Kurfis’ yard on an unescorted frolic. Just hours after being picked up by a police officer and taken to a New York City shelter, Casino was euthanized – killed by lethal injection. It’s a story about what can go wrong, and did, to a devoted and loved companion animal.

  • Escaped family dog meets sudden end in city kill shelter
  • Wrongful death or injury to your pet prohibited by federal and state laws
  • Your recovery not limited to the replacement value of your pet


You know about finding a lost or stolen dog. Time is critical, which is why proper identification, including microchipping if desired, is so important. Bad things can happen fast.

But you don’t expect bad things to happen fast when your dog’s brought to the shelter. Shelters have rules requiring dogs to be held for a minimum time before being put down. Even no-kill shelters have rules for holding dogs before they can be adopted out to new owners.

Unfortunately these rules aren’t always followed. There will also be exceptions for animals that are seriously injured or are vicious. In Casino’s case the shelter says the animal was euthanized after a vet determined it was in respiratory distress and could not be helped.

Not So Fast!

If your dog’s euthanized at a government animal shelter in disregard of the law, regulations, or shelter policy or rules, you may have a legal remedy. It may even be a "federal case."

Ledy VanKavage is the Senior Director of Legal Training and Legislation for Best Friends Animal Society. If that rings a bell, Best Friends is the organization that took in a number of Michael Vick’s pit bulls, including some of the "hard cases" deemed inappropriate for placement in private homes.


"Animals are still considered property of their owners," VanKavage says. "If a government-run shelter or any government official, like a police officer, wrongfully kills your animal, that’s a taking of your property without due process. That’s unlawful, and the federal Civil Rights Act provides you a right to recover for your loss."

Don’t think that because your mutt hasn’t got a pedigree or didn’t cost a lot that your injury and your recovery can’t be substantial. According to VanKavage, "depending on the circumstances, the damages can be large. A Hell’s Angels’ club in California got $1.8 million in damages after law enforcement shot three of its dogs during a search."

Besides federal law, owners will have one or more state law remedies if a state shelter or state official wrongfully kills their dog. Most states have civil and/or criminal laws requiring a certain level of care for lost animals. These may also provide a right to sue for violations. And every state has a "common-law" action for "conversion." That’s a wrongful taking or destruction of property. These laws apply not just to the government, but to private persons who might harm your pet as well.


From state to state, and even court to court, the law is not exact on what an owner’s damages might be. Washington-state animal law expert Adam Karp says the trend is "to place what’s called an ‘intrinsic’ value on a companion animal. So you’re usually not limited to the ‘market’ or replacement cost of a new one. Intrinsic value recognizes the peculiar or special value of the companion to the owner. It’s quite like a family heirloom – something that might not be worth much or anything to a stranger, but is irreplaceable to the owner."

So what of Casino, and other animals who meet his fate? I asked Cia Bruno, a New York animal law expert, what went wrong, and what can be done. She was straightforward.

"Any time a dog is killed within the holding period there should be some investigation. And as a practical matter for that to happen the owner would have to sue. The holding period is mandatory and the exception to it for sick animals sets a very high standard to ignore it."


Besides, says Bruno, "pit bulls are prone to heavy breathing as are all short-nosed breeds. There’s no telling yet whether the dog was mishandled either by the police or at the shelter, which could have aggravated this. Handling of animals by custodians is governed by law too so any mishandling, say by the police, might also be unlawful.

"What it comes down to is the holding period is there to safeguard the owner’s rights to due process. It gives the owner time to recover the animal. That the owner actually visited the shelter looking for the dog and was turned away is very troubling. That’s precisely what the law is for, to give the owner an opportunity to recover the animal.

"What’s so crazy is that inanimate property like a wallet or a chair is treated with more respect and care than a lost dog or cat. The ‘lost property’ law requires lost property to be held far longer than a living thing."

Adam Karp agrees. "The government has a duty to respect a person’s property, including a companion animal. The holding period in the case of lost dogs and cats is there precisely to provide due process in these cases.

"As far as euthanizing these animals, if the state wanted to declare your dog a vicious or dangerous animal and kill it, there would be a lot more notice and process given to you. But if your perfectly behaved animal just has the misfortune of being taken to a kill shelter, the state can kill it when the holding period expires, just like that."

Art Buono co-authors the Lawyers.com blog.

Related Links: