From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2000:

LEGAL FORMS & AGREEMENTS: Special Edition for Cat & Dog Shelters and Rescue Groups

by M. Ellen Dixon, Esq.

(order c/o Dixon, 234 Canterbury Ct., Blue Bell, PA 19422; 610-239-0357; fax 610-277-3752; <>), 2000. 295 pages, paperback; $26.95 including shipping.

In the just under 300 pages of Legal Forms &
Agreements: Special Edition for Cat & Dog Shelters
and Rescue Groups, attorney M. Ellen Dixon hypothetically
describes at least 300 situations commonly
encountered by animal shelters and rescuers which may
end up in court if agreements are not legally secured.
Though most shelters and rescuers long since
learned to use written animal surrender and adoption
contracts, other transactions are often based on little
more than undocumented conversation.

For example, just last night we learned of a
case in which at least two individual rescuers entrusted
dogs and money to a third so-called rescuer, who was
purportedly placing the animals in good homes through
a local pet store. Eventually the first two rescuers
learned that the third person actually left the animals in
boarding kennels, apparently kept the money she was
given for their upkeep pending adoption, and disappeared.
The kennel owners are now demanding that the
first two rescuers pay the bills, since they remain the
legal owners of the animals, and are allegedly threatening
to have the animals seized as forfeit and killed.
This morning we heard about a case in which
the trustees of a shelter formed by a deceased person’s
estate are apparently providing lifetime care for the animals
of the deceased, as required by the will, but do
not appear to be fulfilling the expectation of the
deceased that the shelter should also serve the community,
and appear to be using the shelter endowment as
personal wealth. In this case, though the will may not
have supplied sufficient guidance, the IRS may intervene
because the trustees incorporated as a 501(c)(3)
charity. As Dixon explains, a 501(c)(3) charity may not
operate to the primary benefit of individuals.
This afternoon we were told of a similar case
in which two organizations with overlapping boards are
at odds over a bequest originally made to a third group,
no longer operating, which was later taken over by one
of the active groups. That group owns the title of the
defunct organization; the other is more closely fulfilling
its purpose.
Reviewing Legal Forms & Agreements, we
quickly recognized a real-life example of every situation
that Dixon addresses, including some that most shelter
directors would probably never think of, such as the
disposition of computer equipment used at home by
clerical volunteers. The equipment itself, in such cases,
is usually donated, obsolete, and worth much less than
the cost of attempting recovery.
In some instances, however, the loss of the
equipment has also involved the loss or unauthorized
duplication of mailing lists and adoption records. In one
case we know about, a shelter volunteer working at
home replaced an obsolete computer at her own
expense, and donated the old computer to another charity.
When someone else recognized it as the very computer
he had given to the first charity, allegations of
theft and corruption flew for more than a year.
Offering a form for almost every common
kind of transaction is only part of the value of L e g a l
Forms & Agreements. Of equal import to most shelter
directors in the long run will probably be the preface
accompanying each form, outlining the trouble that can
result from the sort of misunderstanding that the form
tries to prevent.
As Dixon explains, the use of legal forms and
written agreements wherever possible will not necessarily
avert litigation––but having the terms of each agreement
in writing will tend to insure that the shelter or
individual rescuer will prevail if taken to court.
Unfortunately, Legal Forms & Agreements
offers little to cover the handling and disposition of animals
involved in cruelty cases. Accounts of recent court
battles in our files indicate that these are among the
most legally problematic situations that most shelters
encounter. Shelters become legally vulnerable time and
again for:
• Failing to have qualified veterinarians as
well as cruelty investigators and shelter staff fully document
the condition of each animal seized, including the
condition and cause of death of deceased animals;
• Breaking the chain of evidence by allowing
animals to be removed from the direct supervision of the
institution to which they were entrusted––for instance
by placing the animals in foster care in such a way as to
allow the person charged with cruelty to claim that
someone else inflicted injuries or neglect;
• Euthanizing animals without documenting
legal cause;
• Sending out fundraising appeals based on
pending cruelty cases which may be represented in court
as attempts to prejudice the community against the
defendant, or to profit by seizing an unpopular defendant’s
• Adopting out or “losing” animals, instead
of returning them to a defendant who is either found
innocent, or whom the court allows to keep the animals.
Such situations are becoming more common
not only because far more cruelty cases are being prosecuted
now than in the past, but also because more cases
involve defendants who possess large numbers of animals,
either as ostensible rescuers themselves (the “animal
hoarder” syndrome) or in connection with a business
(for example, as farmer or animal breeder). Often
more animals must be seized than any one shelter can
hold. Special housing arrangements may be made with
other shelters in different cities, counties, or even
states, adding layers of jurisdictional complication,
especially if the relevant laws differ.
Some of the shelters involved in such a case
may have little experience with handling animals
involved in cruelty prosecutions. Some of their directors
may have little stomach for dealing with litigious
persons, and may return animals to defendants who
threaten to sue them, with catastrophic effect on the
integrity of a large case involving multiple shelters.
At approximately 50¢ per form offered, Legal
Forms & Agreements is still a much better bargain in
legal help than even finding a fulltime pro bono lawyer:
it can be used 24 hours a day, seven days a week, handling
thousands of agreements per year.
We look forward, however, to a supplement
which will help shelters and rescue groups handle cruelty
case custody.

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