I Was Accused of Larceny When I Rescued a Lost Dog

After dealing with the stressful aftermath of rescuing a lost dog, I talked to animal control about the legal steps to take in such a situation.

Kezia Willingham  |  Feb 5th 2015


A few weeks ago on a Sunday, I was on my way to a pet supply store with my daughter, Zinnia, to buy treats for a training class with my foster dog, Crystal. As we drove down a very busy five-lane boulevard in Burien, Washington, I saw two Pit Bull mixes darting in and out of traffic. There was no visible owner. Neither appeared to have tags on their collars.

I pulled over and called 911. I was scared the dogs would be hit by a car, and I didn’t know what else to do. Zinnia and I got out of our van and pursued the pups. They split up, so she went after the female and I went after the male. Nobody else stopped to help.

Several people were on the sidewalks, and others were waiting for buses, but no one was doing anything — except for a homeless man and his dog. We teamed up to try and help the male dog, who continued to trot away, clearly spooked. I asked a family grilling on their porch for a hot dog or something to lure the dog with.

Soon a police car arrived. The first thing the officer said was, “This is an animal control issue.” The homeless man shouted, “These dogs are gonna die if you don’t do something about ’em!”

Another officer arrived, and they went after the dog we had been trying to assist. I went back to Zinnia, who was sitting across the street from our car with the female dog — our foster Pit Bull was in the car, and we weren’t sure how she would react to the other dog.

A man came out of an apartment complex nearby. I asked him whether she was his dog, and he said no. Nor did he know who her owner was. “I’ve never seen that dog before,” he said. “She’s cute, though. What are you going to name her?”

Zinnia and I knew we could get the dog to safety, but the plan was no more detailed than that. Our veterinary clinic takes in lost and stray dogs and has animal control pick them up, so we introduced her to Crystal and began loading them into our car.

A man with a red hat, whom I’ll refer to as Man B, said something to Man A. Suddenly Man A said, “I know whose dog that is! Give her to me, and I will take her over there.”

“No, I am going to take her,” I told him firmly. “These dogs shouldn’t be running out in the street. We’ll deal with it.”

“Then I’m going to write your license plate down and call the police!”

Whatever, I thought.

We dropped the lost dog at my house, placed her in a crate, and then drove to our training class at the Seattle Humane Society. As I pulled up, I received a phone call. It was the police, asking me to bring the dog back to Burien — the owner had reported that I had stolen her.

I explained that I was at a training class and would drop her at my vet clinic afterward, but the officer asked me to return the dog to the owner at his residence. I said I was not comfortable with that and wouldn’t even know who the owner was, as I had never seen him before. I agreed to drop the dog at my vet clinic before the end of the day.

A few minutes later, the officer called back and accused me of larceny and told me to make returning the dog a priority. I was frustrated because I would have to miss my training class and I didn’t like being accused of committing a crime when I had simply helped a lost dog. But I agreed to meet at the Burien Police Department as soon as I could.

In the meantime, I called Seattle Animal Control to ask if I could just drop the dog off there since I am a Seattle resident. “No, because you found the dog in Burien,” was the reply. Burien Animal Control was closed on Sundays, so that was not an option.

When I arrived at the Burien Police Department, no one was there. As in, not a single soul. Or if there was someone there, they were not visible and did not answer the after-hours bell when I rang it, repeatedly.

If I was frustrated before, I was even more so now. I had canceled my plans, and I was bending my day around someone whose dogs had gotten loose and was demanding that I return his dog.

Not knowing what else to do, I called 911 to report that I was at the police station, waiting.

Then I stood there with Zinnia and the dog.

I had no idea who the true owner of the dog was. How did I know that Man A hadn’t just changed his mind and decided he wanted the dog for himself? The dog had no tags. I felt it would be best for animal control or a vet to be the middleman.

A police officer pulled up in his patrol car. I assumed he was the one who had asked me to make returning the dog a priority. He wasn’t.

“I am sorry, officer, but I am going to emotionally unload on you,” I told him. After explaining the whole thing, I asked him to stay with us and witness the return of the dog. When a man pulled up and emerged from his car with a chain leash hanging off his neck, I was quite grateful for the presence of the officer.

The officer was very kind and assured me that he would look into the situation the next day when animal control was open. I thanked him and went home.

After the whole thing was over, I looked up the legal definition of larceny. It must meet two criteria: The object of value must be taken by trespass and one must not have the intent to return it. Neither applied in my case, but I was still uncomfortable about it.

The next day I told my foster coordinator, Lori, about it and asked about the proper legal steps to take in such a situation. She connected with me with Sgt. Tim Anderson of King County Animal Control, who was kind enough to answer questions regarding how things work in his jurisdiction. Laws and procedures may vary widely by city, county, and state, so it is always best to be aware of the rules of the community in which you find a lost or stray dog.

What to do when you rescue a lost or stray dog

  • Call the local animal control and report that you found a dog.
  • Then take the dog to animal control in the jurisdiction where you found him or her. You can also provide a description and keep the dog at your residence for 72 hours (the length of time may vary in other municipalities).
  • You are obligated by law to try and return the animal to the owner, even if the dog has no tags or collar.
  • Don’t call 911 unless there is a true emergency involving the animal or it’s your last resort.

I didn’t realize before this how complicated rescuing an animal off the street could be. I’ve rescued a number over the last few years and never been accused of stealing one.

I now know that the police officer who accused me of larceny was incorrect, but I guess he was trying to get quick closure to a situation that he may not have known how to properly handle.

I don’t know what happened to the dog after she was returned to her owner. I do know she wagged her tail when he arrived to pick her up.

The last thing I expected when I stopped to help these two dogs was that I would be accused of committing a crime, and I did not appreciate that, at all. The only thing I would do differently in the future is to take the dog directly to a shelter or vet clinic. That way, you know the dog will be in a safe place while they look for the owner. They have access to microchip scanners and are familiar with the process of returning lost and stray animals. I don’t regret helping these dogs, and I learned something from the experience.

What about you? Have you ever had any legal trouble while performing a rescue? Tell us in the comments!

Read more about lost dogs:

Kezia Willingham is a Breadwinning Laundry Queen who works as a Health Coordinator for Head Start. She is a regular contributor to Catster and Dogster. Her writing has appeared in Literary Mama, The New York Times, The Seattle Times, and multiple anthologies. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family, which includes a number of rescued cats and dogs. You can follow her on Twitter.