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ShelterSpeak: Owner Identity Verification

Shelter Speak: How do you verify identification/ownership when someone comes in to claim a stray or lost animal? How effective has this method been?

Shelter Speak: How do you verify identification/ownership when someone comes in to claim a stray or lost animal? How effective has this method been?

Eric Blow, director
Jefferson County Animal Control and Protection,
Louisville, Kentucky

All visitors to the kennels are escorted through. Prior to going into the animal areas they first fill out an information card, which indicates whether they are looking for a lost animal or considering an adoption. Those who are looking for a lost animal must provide a description, date, and location where the animal was lost. This information often eliminates many of the animals from consideration. It also prevents a potential scoundrel from seeing a “desirable” animal and then describing and claiming it. If an attendant has reason to believe that someone claiming an animal is not the owner, we may require veterinary records, photographs, or some other proof. Generally, this seems to have been effective. The vast majority of those asked for additional proof, after relatively brief though often vocal protestations, simply do not return. If the animals were truly theirs, I certainly believe they would return, either with the additional proof or a demand for release.

Upon redemption, all owners are required to present a photo I.D. such as a driver’s license or a state-issued personal identification card.

Jim Tedford, executive director
Humane Society at Lollypop Farm,
Fairport, New York

This is a tricky one. It is unfortunate that so few people choose to provide their pets with identification such as tags or microchips. We generally ask for “proof” of ownership, which many people simply cannot produce. We ask for a license certificate and/or veterinary records. We have occasionally asked an owner to provide photographs of the pet to prove ownership.

In many cases, ownership is obvious. When an animal who has been unresponsive or aggressive toward everyone in the facility becomes very excited in the presence of the alleged owner, it’s almost a sure bet they are a legitimate match.

Christie Smith, executive director
Potter League for Animals,
Newport, Rhode Island

There is always the potential that a shelter could return an animal to someone other than the owner. In reality, I don’t see this happening a lot. This fear is probably stronger among shelter employees and volunteers who assume that anyone who surrenders a dog or cat is Public Enemy #1 or that the owner of any shy dog has beaten the dog.

Granted, the experiences in our small community and small shelter may be very different than what happens in a large city shelter. Just like with our adoption program, we assume most people are trustworthy, and this influences how we deal with them. In most cases at the Potter League for Animals, the owner is calling or visiting about his/her missing animal. The owner provides us with a description of the animal, tells us the area where it was lost, and gives us other key identifying features even before seeing the dogs or cats in the kennels. We have a good sense if they are telling the truth, and we often know if the animal is already in the shelter. In many cases the animal may also be wearing a license or rabies tag that helps verify the owner.

Whenever we have doubts, we will ask for personal identification and some proof of ownership such as veterinary records, photographs, and license information. If necessary, we will refuse to release the animal until any discrepancies or confusion can be resolved. With friendly, nonjudgmental questioning, we are able to find the holes in their stories. We are also able to store the owner’s date of birth, driver’s license number, and description of the person in our animal management software. This is always important and helpful information to get and maintain on everyone who visits the shelter. If citations and fines are issued, this information becomes critical.

Two quick observations: It is surprising how frequently cat owners cannot identify or recognize their own cats. They present a little more of a challenge than dog owners. Most people, at least in our community, are honest, and we don’t have serious problems with animals being falsely claimed.

Jim Albertson, operations director
Atlanta Humane Society

It’s not set in stone, but we try several things:

  • We look for owner recognition by the animal. Does the animal respond to the person claiming ownership, and how well does he respond?
  • Did the people claiming ownership bring papers and/or pictures? That really helps. Vet papers usually describe the animal.
  • Where did they lose the animal? This is not really definitive because some animals go many miles, but it’s a question you can ask.
  • If you have questions about papers or you’re a little leery, make them bring in something to identify their pet.

As I say, it’s not set in stone, but it does work most of the time. I think we all have let a reclaim go only to have the animal come back in a few days with the person who had claimed him making the statement: “This is not my dog.”

Bob Rohde, president
Dumb Friends League,
Denver, Colorado

We ask what kind of animal they are looking for—in terms of breed, color, and sex—before they even walk through the kennels. If they claim one is theirs, we ask them to tell us where and when they lost their pet, what the spay/neuter status is, the age of the animal, and the collar type. If the answers match the information we have, we release the animal. If the answers don’t match, we ask for pictures or vet records. Often we can tell by the reaction of dogs, and sometimes even cats, if this is their person. On extremely rare occasions, if we are unsure or doubtful that this is the true owner, we will hold the animal for the full impound time and allow the person to come back and claim him if an owner doesn’t come forward.

Nicky Ratliff, executive director
Humane Society of Carroll County,
Westminster, Maryland

First of all, our stray and lost animal areas are not open to the general public for viewing unless a staff member escorts a visitor. Upon arrival, citizens are asked what type of animal they have lost, where they lost her, and how long she has been missing; we will also request a general description of the pet. It’s only after all of this that we will take them to see if we have the animal. We observe the demeanor of both the pet and the possible owner. Oftentimes you’ll know right away (especially with dogs) if the animal belongs to them.

There are usually impoundment fees, board fees, licensing fees, and fines for at-large animals, and of course there is paperwork to be filled out. Those claiming ownership sign for the animal, and we record their drivers’ I.D. numbers and make photocopies of photo I.D.s or driver’s licenses to actually keep a record of who is receiving the animal. We also ask for the telephone numbers at home and work.

We do not allow people to just “stroll” through our stray animal population and “pick out” the animal “they lost.”

If they don’t have some form of I.D., the animal would not be released until the claimants could provide us with I.D. or proof beyond a reasonable doubt that they are in fact the owners. In short, if we are not satisfied, the animal stays with us.

Unfortunately, not every person cares for his dog the way we would like. Some don’t have a veterinarian, or they may not have had the animal for very long; the animal may be too young for a rabies shot, or the owners may have lost their certificate from the rabies clinic, etc.

I’ve been here for 19 years now, and while I know every jurisdiction is different, this method has worked very well for us. I don’t think anyone has taken an animal out of our custody if it wasn’t legitimately theirs. If anyone ever does, we have that pertinent information, including their I.D. photos, on file, and in most cases we could track them down.


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