Ask an Animal Lawyer with Elizabeth Holtz


Q:  My neighbor moved but left his dog behind. The dog has been with us for months. Could the neighbor claim the dog as his if he returns?

First, a big thank you for stepping up and caring for this abandoned dog. If you hadn’t intervened, the dog might not be alive today. Generally, a person who abandons his dog and moves away loses the right to his “property.”  That’s right — in the United States legal system, and most legal systems around the world, animals are classified as property.

It may come as a surprise that animals are still categorized as property considering that science and commonsense tell us our companion animals are individuals with unique personalities. Most of us consider them to be members of our families. I doubt you would be as worried that your neglectful neighbor might one day want his couch back.

Abandoning an animal is a crime under most states’ cruelty laws. While animals are still considered property, the law is slowly changing. The Animal Legal Defense Fund recently filed a groundbreaking lawsuit on behalf of an Oregon horse named Justice that challenges animals’ status as property and argues that animals have the legal right to sue their abusers in court. Advances are also happening in the area of companion animal custody.

Recognizing the profound bond people develop with their companion animals, some judges are approaching companion animal custody cases much differently than they would disputes about a car or TV. Judges are increasingly considering which home is in the best interests of a dog or cat rather than approaching the case from a strict property analysis.

Your situation is much more straightforward. If your neighbor hadn’t moved but instead was hospitalized for a long period of time or forced to leave for reasons beyond his or her control, then things might be different. But as stated above, if your neighbor abandoned the dog, then you should be in the clear. Of course, nothing in life is certain. Even if the facts are on your side, someone could still contest custody. If you do find yourself in a dispute, I recommend consulting an attorney to ensure that the dog stays with the person who has stepped up and cared for her — you.

It’s also a good idea to keep records demonstrating that you are now the dog’s caregiver. For example, receipts documenting veterinary care, food, medicine, and toys provided will bolster your case if it comes to that. Licensing and microchipping your new friend under your name is also a smart move.

Thank you again for your compassion. I hope your new best friend has a long and happy life with you!

ElizabethHoltz trailer photo.jpg

Elizabeth Holtz works with the Animal Legal Defense Fund. A graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, she began rescuing injured and abandoned animals as a very young child, though she admits her mother did much of the work.


Hot New Lifesaving Law



Oregon’s “Good Samaritan Law” — which allows bystanders to free children or pets from overheated parked cars — is one year old. It’s always advisable to call authorities and wait for help, but the law now protects you if you break a window or pry open a door because it’s too dangerous to wait, and:

You have a reasonable belief that a pet or child is in immediate danger

You call police before or immediately after entering the car

You use minimum force needed to get into the car

You stay with the child or pet until police or rescue crews arrive

Even on a mild 75-degree day, the inside of a parked car can reach a miserable 104 degrees in 20 minutes, and a deadly 118 degrees in an hour. 

Sighting in on Puppy Mills


Coming soon to a City Hall near you: advocates in Portland and the Willamette Valley hope to pass local ordinances barring pet stores from selling pets from so-called puppy mills. Stores would offer adoptable dogs and cats from shelters and rescues rather than sell animals bred in facilities known for unhealthy and inhumane conditions.

At an April meeting in Portland, organizers from Best Friends Animal Society and the Humane Society of the United States shared experiences gleaned from passing 270+ similar bills now on the books across the US. “Some lawmakers worry that people won’t be able to buy purebreds if the bill passes,” said one organizer, “but this doesn’t ban breeding, and reputable breeders don’t sell their puppies in pet stores.”

Advocates are gathering support to introduce a bill in the next legislative session. Learn more at

Juno helps change the rules

An emaciated dog named Juno, rescued by Oregon Humane Society six years ago, has helped achieve a major legal victory for animal advocates in Oregon. A June 16 ruling by the Oregon Supreme Court turned aside the owner’s attempt to suppress a blood sample taken by OHS. The owner argued that Juno was personal property and that OHS had no right to take Juno’s blood without first obtaining a search warrant.

In rejecting that argument, the Oregon Supreme Court cited Oregon’s strong laws mandating that owners provide animals with minimum care. When an animal is legally seized and there is probable cause to suspect abuse or neglect, said the court, authorities are within their rights to obtain a blood sample without a search warrant. Juno, who was significantly underweight when seized by OHS, went on to regain his health and was subsequently adopted. The owner was later convicted of neglect.

The case began when an OHS officer, responding to a report of neglect, seized Juno after observing the dog's poor physical condition. Juno was then taken to OHS, where an OHS veterinarian took a blood sample, which showed Juno's emaciated condition was due to underfeeding.

“This ruling removes what could have been a major roadblock to cruelty investigations,” said OHS Executive Director Sharon Harmon. “We applaud the court for recognizing the special status of animals under Oregon law.”

Sometimes we all need rescue

Donna Lawrence wasn't a likely advocate for Pit Bulls, but 10 months after an attack by a Pit that caused her to miscarry and left her barren, she found a Pit-mix puppy who’d been beaten, burned, and left to die.

The eight-week-old puppy’s jaw was broken and her teeth knocked out because she licked her owner's infant baby's face. She was then set on fire and left for dead. She was found clinging to life with second- and third-degree burns, and horrible wounds covering her back.

Lawrence named her Susie, and raised the money to pay for the months of care her profound injuries required. She also championed her cause, ultimately passing "Susie's Law" in North Carolina — seeking stricter punishment for animal abusers.

Susie went on to be named 2014 American Humane Association Therapy Dog and 2014 American Humane Association Hero Dog. 

The film Susie's Hope, released Jan. 5, chronicles both Lawrence’s and Susie's stories. Sales support the Susie's Hope nonprofit, which works to end animal abuse. Learn more at

Help end horse soring

Congress enacted the Horse Protection Act (HPA) in 1970 to make illegal the barbaric practice of “soring.” This is a practice of deliberately injuring/inflicting pain on Tennessee Walking Horses’ hooves and legs to exaggerate their high-stepping gait, known as the “Big Lick, to gain competitive advantage at horse shows.

Though the HPA was signed into law more than 40 years ago, the cruelty continues in the Big Lick segment of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry.  A just-released video from an undercover investigator with The Humane Society of the United States exposed numerous instances of illegal soring at ThorSport Farm.

The Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, H.R. 3268/S. 1121, would amend the Horse Protection Act to end industry self-policing, ban the use of devices associated with soring,  strengthen penalties, and make other reforms necessary to end this torture.

Want to help eradicate this practice?  Write and call your state legislators. Learn more at humanesocietyorg.

Sherwood service animal case still pending

The practice of service animals accompanying children and young adults to school has increased in recent years, as the animals help monitor health conditions, keep their companions calm, and even from wandering off. But not all schools are sold on the idea.

John McDonald, a 7-year old with Autism, attends Middleton Elementary School in Sherwood. A community volunteer (and district employee) served as a handler for free the last two months of the 2014-15 school year so that John’s service dog Kai could attend school with him after the Sherwood School District demanded that John’s family provide a handler. On May 5, 2015, the Department of Justice launched an investigation into the matter, and the family retained Diane Wiscarson of Wiscarson Law. What will happen to John and Kai when school starts in September is uncertain at this time, says Wiscarson, whose practice is Oregon's only firm solely focused on special education family law. 

Washington County Gets a New Pet Code

If you live in Oregon's Washington County and you have a wandering cat, a yappy pup that annoys the neighbors, or you fail to pick up after your dog, there’s news for you: revised animal control laws are taking effect, and they just might affect you.

On January 20, 2015, Washington County's Board of Commissioners unanimously approved sweeping changes to take effect February 20. The changes include:

Establishment of Dangerous Dog Categories: 

Under the old enforcement codes, if a dog bit someone there was no consideration of circumstances, and the dog could be labeled "dangerous.”  The revamped codes will address that generalization.

"These changes will allow officers to look at the current situation and assess the dog based on the circumstances surrounding the incident," says Randy Covey, Washington County Animal Services Field Supervisor.

Class A Dogs: Those who have caused substantial physical harm to a person or another animal;

Class B Dogs: Those who have a biting incident but not a serious mauling;

Class C Dogs: Those who exhibit aggressive behavior while running loose.

There are increasing fines, fees and supervision required, depending upon classification of the dog.

Recognizing Cats:

"The old code is archaic in that not only is there no clear definition of neglect or abuse, it doesn't even mention cats," says Covey.

The new code rectifies that, and also requires owners to take responsibility for their pets. While leashes and licensing won't be mandated, residents will be within their rights to confiscate a cat on their property and take it to the shelter as a stray. Shelter staff will then try to reunite the cat with its owner, who will hopefully keep the cat confined to his or her own property in the future.

Failure to Scoop Fines:

Learn to use a pooper-scooper — or at least a plastic bag — otherwise, you're facing a ticket. An estimated 15 percent of fecal bacteria in local streams comes from dog waste, according to Clean Water Services, making this a serious public health issue.

Licensing Animal Rescues:

In addition to an inspection of their record-keeping systems, rescue facilities will be required to obtain a $100 annual permit.

Guidelines for Barking Dogs:

Whether or not you find a barking dog a nuisance is often subjective; however, the new code defines it as any dog barking continuously for five minutes in any 15-minute period. Owners may be fined if they don't quiet their canine.

Other changes:

Laws that specify leash length, a requirement that vets report rabies inoculations to the county, and the sale of animals in public places are all addressed in the revised codes as well.

For a full look and more details, go to

Michele Coppola is a veteran Portland radio personality and copywriter for Entercom Radio as well as the new Managing Editor for Spot Magazine. She shares a home and couch space with her three rescue pooches Lucy, Bailey, and Ginny--as well as Bryon, the stray man she married six years ago.

Mission to Unchain Dogs Rises to New Levels

Shadow with Melinda

Shadow with Melinda

For 10 years, a sweet yellow lab in rural Yamhill County spent all of his days and nights on a zip line on his owner’s unfenced property. While he was cared for, life on the tether was monotonous and restricted.

Melinda Miller, client outreach volunteer for Fences For Fido (FFF) approached the family in 2013 and offered them a free fence for their dog. That’s what FFF has done without judgment for six years, and later this year will unchain its 1000th canine.

Unfortunately, the family said no to the fence. They didn’t feel their dog needed it.

So the Lab stayed tethered — until Miller approached the family again the next year. This time, she had support for her cause in the form of Oregon House Bill 2783. Pushed by a coalition of animal welfare groups including FFF, the bill became law January 1, 2014, prohibiting the chaining of dogs for more than 10 hours at a time. It also restricts tethering, such as the yellow Lab endured, to no more than 15 hours.

At first, the family didn’t believe Miller when she told them about the law. But she sent them a copy of the new statute as proof — and this past July, the yellow Lab got his fence.

 “While FFF will always be respectful and patient with our families, we must be reflective of the needs of our community,” says FFF founder Kelly Peterson. “To that end, we needed to elevate the standards of care, asking our families to search out ways to better meet the needs of their four-legged family members yet not absolving our own responsibility as an organization to be there for them.”

In truth, laws are a critical component to solving the overarching problem of chaining. Peterson feels that’s especially important as FFF expands to other areas.

“It has helped us reach out to more people who were perhaps simply unaware of the new law or uneasy about our offer of a free fence before the new law,” she says. “Fences For Fido is positioned to help families that are struggling to be in compliance and who want better for their four-legged family members. Bottom line, we are a resource for people and their pets.”

It’s certainly a great resource as far as the dogs are concerned. On the day he was released into his newly fenced yard, the old yellow Lab in Yamhill County ran around like a puppy. 

“I didn’t think he’d be so happy,” admitted his once-reluctant owner. 

• FENCES FOR FIDO 503-621-9225 •

Michele Coppola is a veteran Portland radio personality and copywriter for Entercom Radio as well as the new Managing Editor for Spot Magazine. She shares a home and couch space with her three rescue pooches Lucy, Bailey, and Ginny--as well as Bryon, the stray man she married six years ago.

When Does Your Dog Need a Lawyer?

You might find this headline silly — after all, it’s only in the rare case your Peaches or Petey bites someone that you would have the need to seek legal advice for your furkid, right?

“Actually, estate planning is the most important thing I can think of,” says Nicole Jergovic, 2015 Top Dog Award winner for Animal Law Attorney.

Not your pet’s estate, of course. Yours.

“Because pets and animals can’t talk, they can’t call 9-1-1 when they need help. The thing people need to deal with is to make sure they have made some care plan for their pets in the event they die or become incapacitated,” she says.

But it’s not just an end-of-life issue.

“When people are in a crash and they’re hospitalized . . . if they have pets at home and no one’s coming for a few days, that could be very bad [for the pet],” Jergovic says. “Put something in your phone or wallet that says ‘I live at this address and I have two cats that need to be fed.’ ” she advises.

As for dog bites, Jergovic says it’s important to contact authorities to make an official report, not only in case charges are filed, but if you’re on the receiving end of an attack, there’s record of it (and the offending dog).

In either case, Jergovic says it might be a good idea to get legal advice.  “I certainly wouldn’t want to be a non-lawyer going up against a lawyer in any type of case,” she says.

Legal issues involving animals also deal with cruelty and neglect.

“A lot of times, people are nervous about what they should do,” Jergovic says. “If they’re witnessing abuse or neglect that’s taking place right now, they should call 9-1-1, because it’s a crime in progress.”

What if something is not happening at that moment but you have information about an animal in dire circumstances? Jergovic says in those situations you can call police non-emergency lines.

“And you don’t have to be right,” she points out. “If you think something’s suspicious and you want to do the right thing, the right thing is probably notifying somebody who can figure it out.”

Oregon is reportedly among the best states in the nation for animal welfare law enforcement.

“We have separate dog fighting statutes, and our animal abuse felony statutes now have teeth to them — so if you have a prior violent felony conviction and you abuse an animal at the felony level, you’re going to be facing a potential prison sentence.”

Who would’ve guessed . . . a Deputy District Attorney can also be called ‘dog’s best friend.’

NICOLE JERGOVIC- Deputy District Attorney, Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office •

Michele Coppola is a veteran Portland radio personality and copywriter for Entercom Radio as well as the new Managing Editor for Spot Magazine. She shares a home and couch space with her three rescue pooches Lucy, Bailey, and Ginny--as well as Bryon, the stray man she married six years ago.