Humane Society blocks owner from getting back pet

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by Diane Moca

KENOSHA -- Some animal lovers say they are outraged the humane society would allow a beloved pet to be adopted by a new family, just because the original owner does not have enough money to pay fees charged after the animal gets loose.

"He was sitting in there, sad looking, like he was devastated," described Justin Willms after finding his missing Jack Russell Terrier at the shelter. "It's like doggie prison."

Willms said no one cared about his frustration while he was trying to get back his precious pet, which was picked up by police and put in a cage until all fees were paid.

He said he asked the shelter workers to "give me a couple days to get some money together. So they said, 'Oh yeah. No problem.'"

Willms remembered how he was appalled when he returned and learned that the dog he and his kids had grown to love suddenly belonged to the humane society.

"We hold it for seven days, and after that the ownership of the animal is transferred to our care," explained Safe Harbor Humane Society Executive Director Amanda Angove.

Willms said the shelter did not tell him about any deadline or try to contact him before it took over possession of the dog. "I said, excuse me!" recalled Willms. "You guys have my name, my number, plus you know I was coming back with the money."

The dog lover said a few months ago he took in Tome the terrier as a favor for Vanessa Gibbs, who described herself in an e-mail as a disabled Vietnam veteran who taught the canine to respond to verbal and sign language commands but couldn't care for him at her home in Illinois while she was recovering from knee surgery.

"He was a very good listener" noted Willms. "You could tell he was a well-trained dog."

Willms said on Friday, January 6, Tome got out, and he lost sight of the pooch as he ran around a corner.

The next day he said his fiance posted ads searching for Tome, and someone replied, saying he was at the humane society.

When Safe Harbor re-opened on Monday, January 9, Willms said he went to pick up the terrier and learned the canine had been captured just a few blocks from his house.

Willms described the owners' reaction: "Vannessa said, They picked him up quick. She was like, 'If they wouldn't have picked him up so quick -- he's a smart dog -- he would've come back to your house.'"

Instead, Willms found out "their pick-up fee is like $80. I'm like, really? $80? That's kind of outrageous."

Willms said he scrambled and came up with the money five days later, only to face a new bill for $211 that included a $39 reclaim fee, a $50 rabies vaccine and $17 per day boarding fees.

Willms said he called Gibbs, and she told the humane society neither of them had that much money.

He said he discussed options with the owner: "I'd be able to afford $50; maybe you can afford $50. We feel bad. They wouldn't even accept that. If you guys are a non-profit agency, why won't you just accept $100 for the dog?"

The humane society refused to take less than $211.

"We don't have a way to assess a payment plan for a person reclaiming an animal," noted Angove.

She said the shelter posted a picture of the dog on its website, gave him a new name, and listed him on "hold" for the first seven days until his status was changed to "available."

Angove said the Humane Society took two applications from people who wanted to adopt the two-year-old pooch.

"I went to the back and seen him. I said, that's my dog right there. Some people were talking: 'We're interested in that dog.' I stopped them. I said, no, that's my dog!" recalled Willms.

Gibbs said in an e-mail she repeatedly called and visited the shelter to try to work out a compromise to get her dog back.

"It was a very difficult conversation to have with her," noted Angove. "She did not want to listen to what we had to offer her... We try to be very open and empathetic about what their situation is and try to work with them. But when they want to yell at us and they don't want to work with us, it causes a major problem."

Willms described his reaction to the shelter's refusal to lower the fees: "Maybe I got a little irritated, but not once did I swear at them or nothing."

Angove said the shelter houses about 4,000 animals a year, and some must be euthanized because they are never adopted.

Willms said he was shocked the shelter would offer Tome for adoption even though he had an owner begging to bring him back home, while other dogs at the shelter had no owners claiming them.

"Because we didn't have a home for that animal until after the seven-day stray hold," replied Angove, who said a Jack Russell Terrier is a more popular breed than a pit bull mix, which occupy many of the shelter's cages.

"Tome is extremely obedient, and of course anyone would want him, as he is an exceptional dog. However, he belongs to me," explained Gibbs in an e-mail.

Willms said he believes the decision to offer Tome for adoption was all about money.

"Maybe you have people that want to adopt him and pay you more money," he speculated.

"We're not here because we're getting paid big money, 'cause we're not," insisted Angove. "We're here because we have a passion for these animals, to love them and take care of them until we can find either their owners or a new family to love them."

She said Safe Harbor gave Tome a required rabies shot and a microchip and neutered him.

"I have costs as well. I can't just let an animal walk out the door after we've put medical attention into the animal," explained Angove.

But Tome's family refused to let him slip away.

Just before a new owner was about to take the terrier to a new home, Vanessa's friend unleashed a frantic e-mail to the mayor, who asked Kenosha City Administrator Frank Pacetti to step in.

Angove said the city staff member paid the shelter $211 out of his own pocket, so the original owner could take her dog home.

If you've got an issue you'd like us to investigate, send an e-mail to dmoca@cbs58.com.

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