A three-year legal fight over a German shepherd named Monte Carlo was resolved by the the Texas Supreme Court Friday in a case that may sound like an April Fool's joke but was anything but a laughing matter for those involved.
The court ruled unanimously that a Houston family did not forfeit their ownership claims over their dog even though he had been picked up by local animal control and transferred to a foster home. Nothing in Houston's ordinances “states or implies that a dog merely held by a private shelter, awaiting adoption, has been divested of the ownership rights of the original owner,” the justices stated in an unsigned opinion.
The case began when siblings Alfonso and Lydia Lira’s dog escaped from an open garage door on New Year’s Day 2013. According to case documents, Lydia Lira immediately began searching lost dog websites following Monte Carlo's escape. Meanwhile, the city of Houston’s animal control department picked the dog up. Though they posted his information online, they mistakenly listed him as a Belgian Malinois dog, so he did not come up in Lydia Lira's searches for missing German shepherds on the department's website.
Eight days after Monte Carlo's escape, Lydia Lira saw a message on a missing dog forum indicating her dog might be with the Houston animal control department. She visited the department that day, and identified Monte Carlo from a photograph. Animal control officers told her that Monte Carlo had already been transferred to the privately owned Greater Houston German Shepherd Dog Rescue. One of the rescue volunteers, Cindy Milstead, had agreed to foster the dog. When Lydia Lira called Milstead that afternoon to claim Monte Carlo, Milstead refused to give him back. The private rescue agency said the Lira siblings had lost their right to recover Monte Carlo because they did not come to claim him in his first three days at the pound.
The court disagreed, writing that the term “impounded” “does not suggest a transfer of ownership or the loss of the owner’s right to the return of his property,” the court's opinion read.
The opinion also noted that enforcement of property ownership claims was especially important in cases involving pets.
“A beloved companion dog is not a fungible, inanimate object like, say, a toaster,” the opinion stated, citing a previous Texas Supreme Court case.
Zandra Anderson, the lawyer who represented the Lira siblings in court and specializes in animal law, said she was thrilled the Court had ruled in the Liras’ favor. Although she has worked on hundreds of cases involving ownership of animals, including dogs, birds, horses and, once, a pair of wrongly confiscated capuchin monkeys, this was her first animal law case accepted by the Texas Supreme Court.
“You can never expect anything from the Supreme Court, or from any court,” Anderson said. “You just have to do your level best to make the outcome that you want happen, and I guess do a lot of praying.”
Monte Carlo had never run away before, Anderson noted.
“He was an inside dog,” she said. “A revered family pet. People will go to great lengths to right that wrong.”
Lawyers representing Milstead and the Greater Houston German Shepherd Dog Rescue did not immediately return a request for comment.
Anderson said animal law cases are more complicated than people might think.
“When it comes to the emotions provoked by a lost animal, or a case of ‘somebody’s got my dog,’ it’s like family law on steroids,” Anderson said.