Finders/keepers When it comes to animals, possession is not 9/10ths of the law.

A common question, asked by many of my clients: I found a stray dog/cat in terrible condition – fleas, malnutrition. I put up flyers and posted on Facebook but after several days (or weeks or a month), I decided to keep it. Then someone who claims to be the owner contacted me. Do I have to give it back to someone who can’t take good care of a pet?

First, you need to establish that this person is actually owner and not an imposter. Is there a microchip ID? If not, does this person have photographs of the animal with them, in their home? Make sure they have a credible claim of ownership before you even consider turning the animal over to them.

Whether you can ultimately keep the pet as your own depends on the many factors. You don’t have the right to take a pet from its owner just because you are a better caretaker. If you have solid proof of abuse or neglect under the animal cruelty laws, you should contact your local Animal Cruelty Investigator. Your local police can direct you to the right person. The A.C.I. will conduct an investigation to find out whether the animal was in poor condition because its owner couldn’t take care of it, or from being outdoors on its own for a long time. If the A.C.I. charges the owner with cruelty or neglect, you should ask if you can foster the animal pending a resolution of the charges. This could lead to a voluntary surrender at the end, depending on the outcome of the case.

Another issue is how much time has passed since you tried to find the owner. What efforts did you make and how persistent were you in advertising the “found” pet? Conversely, how hard did the owner try to find the lost pet? If months or years have gone by, you may have a credible case for equitable ownership of the animal through various legal theories known as waiver, estoppel, or laches.

One approach can be to contact the local Animal Control Officer when you find the lost pet. They are required to turn the lost pet over to a publicly run shelter until the owner can be located within 7 days as required by law. See N.J.S.A. 4:19-15.16. You should offer to foster the pet for the waiting period at your expense. They may allow you to do this to save public resources. If they won’t let you foster, make it clear to them that you want to adopt the animal if the owner does not surface within 7 days. Under the law, the shelter is required to hold the animal for 7 days unless it is unhealthy. Make sure you follow up with the shelter and the A.C.O. on the 6th and 7th days – do not assume they will remember to call you.

If you find yourself in such a situation, you should seek legal advice and take care not to rely solely on self-help. Theft of a companion animal is a 3rd degree crime under N.J.S.A. 2C:20-2(b)(2)(b), which can carry a jail sentence between three to five years.

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