Found pets: Are animal controls holding pets for ransom?

It should be pretty simple. Your pet is lost and someone turns him or her into animal control. You go to retrieve your found pet and pay a fine or holding fee. When you get there, you find out you owe hundreds if not thousands of dollars for them housing your lost pet. Are animal controls holding found pets for ransom?

Kathy Pobloskie and her dogs.

Kathy Pobloskie and her dogs.

This scene is played out daily around the country. Some facilities are literally holding dogs and cats for ransom as the fee continues to rise each day your pet is held. In most cases, the fine being charged to retrieve found pets far outweighs what people would pay to adopt that animal from the same facility or what it costs them to house your pet.

“We’ve been advising people that when they find a lost pet, they should take that dog or cat into animal control and log him or her into the system,” says Kathy Pobloskie of Lost Dogs of Wisconsin. She first wrote about the problem last week in her Wisconsin Watchdog blog. “When we hear that a fee of $400 isn’t uncommon at some facilities, we start to question our own advice on found pets.”

Lost Dogs of Wisconsin works to reunite missing dogs and found dogs with their families. Photo courtesy of Lost Dogs of Wisconsin.

Lost Dogs of Wisconsin works to reunite missing dogs and found dogs with their families. Photo courtesy of Lost Dogs of Wisconsin.

Lost Dogs of Wisconsin - and its sister organization Lost Dogs Illinois - works with people to help them reunite with their missing dogs. They also network found dogs to get them back to their families. They give people advice for finding missing dogs and have volunteer caseworkers that help each person navigate the system.  Because of that caseworker connection, her group hears this story far too frequently.

“We are first one they call when they can’t afford to reclaim their found dog. There is only so much we can do,” she adds. “We can ask to negotiate but sometimes the people just walk out and they leave in despair. We’ve helped negotiate and helped raise funds for fees on a few occasions."

Pobloskie says those fees could be nominal fees to over $1,000. The worst she’s documented was $4,000. As her group and Lost Dogs Illinois works with animal controls, they also find a wide range of solutions locally. Some animal controls will scan in the field for a microchip or check IDs and return animals to their families without checking them into the facility.

"In animal control, the good will they would generate by showing compassion far outweighs the revenue they would bring in by over charging,” she adds. “At most facilities, it costs around $200 for them to house and then euthanize a dog. Why are they holding a found pet for ransom when they could be reunited with their family and they don’t need to euthanize them or keep them in the system.”

Beast and his family were reunited through the Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission. Photo courtesy of MADACC.

Beast and his family were reunited through the Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission. Photo courtesy of MADACC.

Reuniting lost and found pets with owners also takes a huge burden off the animal welfare system. According to the ASPCA, 40-60 percent of the pets in the shelter system are lost pets. Nationally, only about 20 percent of missing dogs and 2 percent of missing cats that come into the system are reunited with their family. If that number of found pets reunited with family members increased, the number of other lives saved would be dramatically increased.

“People have gotten a lot more savvy about searching for their missing dog or missing cat using social media and other methods,” says Pobloskie. “However, there are many elderly people with no computers or Internet access and they aren’t on Social Media. Their missing pet is such a lifeline for them, but it takes them longer to connect with animal control…and the fees just keep adding up.”

She tells the story of an elderly woman searching for her 10-year-old mixed breed dog. She did have a computer and did find her dog on the Facebook listing. When she got to the shelter, they wanted to charge her $180 to get her dog back. She negotiated down to $160, which she was able to pay. The dog had been there less than 24 hours.

“That was a heck of a hotel stay - $160,” says Pobloskie. “People say if you can’t afford a pet, don’t get one. There are so many families that take great care of their pets and treat them like a valued member of the family. But, they live paycheck to paycheck. It should be easier to reconnect them with their pet.”

There are communities that are creative, that work first at connecting the found pets with their owner before checking them into animal control. According to Pobloskie, Calgary has an incredible 90 percent rate of returning found pets to owners. They use a creative licensing program with lots of incentives to get owners involved.

“The key with successful licensing programs is that they need to be non-punitive. As soon as programs become punitive, participation drops off,” says Pobloskie. "Unfortunately, too many people fear a big brother aspect of licensing – they may be afraid of getting in trouble for having too many pets or they may be undocumented themselves. Microchipping, when done correctly, is a more popular option.“

It cost $65 to adopt a pet from Chicago Animal Care and Control. Here are the fees to reclaim a found pet.

It cost $65 to adopt a pet from Chicago Animal Care and Control. Here are the fees to reclaim a found pet.

In the city of Chicago, only four facilities take in found pets – Chicago Animal Care and Control and Animal Welfare League take in a variety of animals (both are open admission shelters and will euthanize when they run out of space). CACC's fees for found pets are in the photo above.

Tree House Humane Society and Harmony House for Cats both take in just cats and are no kill, non-profit facilities with limited space. Both cat groups have been operating in Chicago for over 40 years.

Tree House Humane Society in Chicago accepts found strays and also brings many strays in through their Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) efforts. This cat came into their care recently and needs a foster.

Tree House Humane Society in Chicago accepts found strays and also brings many strays in through their Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) efforts. This cat came into their care recently and needs a foster.

Harmony House doesn't charge a fee to reunite cats with owners. Tree House will ask for reimbursement for incurred medical expenses, which often happen if an injured stray comes into their care. Both groups are more than happy to reconnect lost cats with their family - something that doesn't happen often enough.

Outside of Chicago, there are upwards of 25 animal control or holding organizations. In some suburbs, you could be blocks from several different jurisdictions depending on what direction your pet heads when they get lost. That adds to the confusion when it's time to find a pet and often adds to the time a pet may be in animal control waiting to go home.

"Some stories are just heartbreaking. A mother and her 10-year-old son walked into an animal control to recover their dog," says Pobloskie. "All the way in the little boy told anyone he met that they were there to get Buddy. When the mom got to the front desk, the fee was so high, they couldn't pay it. They just left animal control, leaving their dog behind."

If you're in that situation, she recommends asking for someone in charge and then working to negotiate a better rate. Reaching out to one of the lost pet groups or local rescues that work in that animal control could also be helpful to reclaim your found pets. You can learn more from her blog and by following Lost Dogs of Wisconsin and Lost Dogs Illinois. Information on lost cats can be found on Lost Cats of Illinois.

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    Raining Cats and Dogs

    I am a crazy cat lady and puppy mill warrior that blogs to advocate and educate about pet issues. In American animal controls, millions of pets are abandoned each year and an estimated 4 million die just because there are not enough homes. It truly seems like it’s Raining Cats & Dogs.

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