If you were asked to define the word “theft,” you’d probably say something like, “taking property that belongs to someone else” or “depriving someone of their belongings with no intention of giving them back.” When we define theft, it sounds straightforward—we should be able to look at an incident and say it either is or isn’t theft. In practice, however, it’s a little more complicated. This was illustrated particularly well recently in New Brunswick, where theft charges are pending against a woman who rescued a neglected dog stuck outside during a blizzard.
Animal lover Nicole Thebeau felt she couldn’t just stand by after she discovered a dog chained in front of his doghouse, shivering as the snow built up around his only shelter. She says she knocked on the door of the dog owner’s house, but didn’t get any answer. That was when she decided to take action—she took the dog to a foster home without waiting to get the owner’s permission.
Much to Thebeau’s surprise, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police showed up on her doorstep a few days later to tell her that the dog owner was pressing charges for theft and trespassing. Allegedly, the woman who owned the dog was having a family member deliver food and water to her pet while she was out of town. Now that woman wants her dog back.
Thebeau hasn’t been officially charged with theft yet, but the police investigation continues. Meanwhile, online supporters are raising funds to help her with legal costs.
While Thebeau’s actions may have been wrong in the eyes of the dog owner, it’s easy to see why Thebeau felt she had to act. The dog was left chained outside with only its small doghouse for shelter, and local animal advocates claim that at one point the dog was completely buried under the snow and had to be dug out by good Samaritans.
Tethering Laws Make Rescuing Neglected Pets Difficult
Before Thebeau took the dog, New Brunswick’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) received a call from a concerned local citizen and went out to investigate the dog’s living conditions. However, since the dog house entrance had been cleared of snow by the time they got there, they could not legally take the dog. Under the New Brunswick SPCA Act, dogs can be chained outside as long as they have access to food, water, and shelter.
The SPCA’s official stance is that it was wrong for Thebeau to take the dog. SPCA member Hilary Howes told reporters, “When other people get involved in these investigations, what they, in fact, do is they remove the evidence or they corrupt evidence, and, therefore, we are left without the means to charge the person.” However, the SPCA does concede that they agree with Thebeau that laws covering animal care need to be changed.
It’s not just in Canada where tethering is an issue. Anti-tethering laws vary from state to state, and 21 states (including Colorado) have no legislation whatsoever regarding chaining a dog outside, meaning that it could technically be considered theft if someone were to unchain someone else’s dog – even if the dog appears to be abused and neglected.
The Humane Society of the United States urges anyone who sees a cruelly chained dog to contact their local humane society or animal control rather than rescuing the dog themselves, in order to avoid the legal ramifications of taking another person’s property. In Thebeau’s case, however, it’s clear that the local animal protection agency was contacted and was still unable to do anything.
So what happens when you get into this kind of ethical dilemma, where your actions could be considered theft, but you don’t feel you can stand by and let a living creature suffer?
Property Theft and Pets
Although it might seem strange, since many dog owners consider their pet a part of their family, taking a dog without the owner’s permission is considered property theft. In some cases, dogs are considered highly valuable property: purebred dogs are commonly stolen because their pedigree has a street value of thousands of dollars. In the US, we have a Federal Pet Protection Act in order to protect people from having their beloved family pet stolen.
Unfortunately, the Act was largely written to prevent actual criminals from selling stolen dogs to labs or puppy mills. It does not get into the legality of doing what Thebeau did—taking a dog without permission because it would have been morally wrong to do nothing. This is still a gray area under theft laws in both the US and Canada, and it’s something that needs to be addressed.
The best solution would be to have stricter tethering laws so that dog owners cannot legally leave their animals in a potentially harmful, unhealthy, or psychologically damaging situation. The American Humane Society urges animal lovers to work to pass anti-chaining ordinances in their areas, so that small change can eventually spread to the whole country.
However, if you, like Thebeau, have taken matters into your own hands and are now facing criminal charges, you need to contact a theft attorney as soon as possible. You may think that the situation is a big misunderstanding and that you couldn’t possibly be found guilty of theft for doing something as seemingly innocuous as freeing a chained dog, but you can’t take the chance of ending up with a criminal record. Not only will a criminal record follow you for the rest of your life, it can tarnish your reputation and make it difficult for you to continue advocating for the issues you care about, or to work for an official organization such as the Humane Society or the ASPCA.
Choose a defense attorney who understands the complexities of theft law in your state and has dealt with similar cases before. You need someone experienced on your side, because no one should be punished by the law for an act of compassion.
About the Author:
Kimberly Diego is a criminal defense attorney in Denver practicing at The Law Office of Kimberly Diego. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and her law degree at the University of Colorado. She was named one of Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars of 2012” and “Top 100 Trial Lawyers in Colorado” for 2012 and 2013 by The National Trial Lawyers. Both honors are limited to a small percentage of practicing attorneys in each state. She has also been recognized for her work in domestic violence cases.