Lawyers Give Advice To Keep Animal Shelters Out of Trouble

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Puppies at Annual Meeting

A cat owner moves out of her apartment, leaving the pets behind. Her former roommate’s family  brings the cats to the animal shelter, and they are adopted. Then the original owner shows up at the shelter, demanding the cats back.

A rescue group gives a dog to a foster guardian for temporary care, but when it’s time to return the dog, the foster guardian says she doesn’t have it.

A dog is adopted, and becomes ill. The new owner claims that the shelter should be liable for the veterinary bills.

When it comes to animals, people can sometimes fight like cats and dogs. The Committee on Animals and the Law discussed some of these legal issues at a recent program during the 2020 annual meeting of the New York State Bar Association titled “From Theory to Practice: The Legalities of Animal Shelter and Rescue Operations.”

Elinor Molbegott, a practitioner in East Williston who represents a number of shelters, told the audience that shelters and rescue organizations need sound legal documents to deal with incidents like the real cases listed above. Shelters need adoption, foster and surrender agreements, as well as waivers and releases. And they should require proof of ownership and proof of identity of the person surrendering the animal.

“How do you know the person is the animal’s owner?” asked Molbegott, who said she has seen animals euthanized after being turned over to shelters by landlords, neighbors or relatives of the owner.

Sometimes, pet owners surrender an animal and then change their minds. “If you have a good surrender form, you make it clear they are relinquishing all rights,” Molbegott said.

Along with the right documents, Molbegott urged “common sense and a sense of humanity” on the part of animal organizations. And she recommended good insurance, saying that lawsuits are inevitable.

Judith L. Siegel, senior staff attorney of the Pro Bono Partnership in White Plains, laid out what people need to know to set up a nonprofit shelter or rescue operation in New York State. She warned that establishing and running an organization can be complicated, and funding can be scarce, and recommended that advocates first look to see if another group is pursuing the same mission.

“People think every good idea deserves a nonprofit; that is not the case,” Siegel said.

She also cautioned nonprofit organizations about pitfalls. “Can you engage in political activity? Absolutely not,” she said. That will get your nonprofit status yanked.

How about a loan to a board member? “That’s a hard no.”

Jack Fein, president of the Dutchess County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, traced the history of animal protection efforts, and the laws governing them, back to Colonial times. Animals generally are protected by three types of organizations – government-run shelters, private shelters and rescue groups.

Regulation of private shelters and rescue groups has been on the rise. As of 2017, 35 states had laws requiring them to be licensed or registered, up from 20 in 2012, he said.

Some shelters have an open adoption policy, on the theory that any adoption is better than life in a shelter, Fein said. Others screen adoptive owners more carefully; they tend to have fewer animals returned, he said.

The panel also featured a visit by two dogs, Tangy and Hechi, rescued from China, where they were destined for the dog meat market. Their rescuer, Penelope Smith-Berk, owner of Northwind Kennels in Bedford, also brought the dogs to the main reception hall of the NYSBA annual meeting, where they gave lawyers a bit of puppy love.

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