Bud Kennedy

Fort Worth dog case: Is it theft or rescue?

Gigi, renamed Ethyl, a Saint Bernard, is at the center of an arrest and dispute after a woman who claims she rescued the lost dog was jailed.
Gigi, renamed Ethyl, a Saint Bernard, is at the center of an arrest and dispute after a woman who claims she rescued the lost dog was jailed.

A stray 100-pound Saint Bernard is a big problem.

In the Fairmount neighborhood of south Fort Worth, the disappearance and return of Gigi — or Ethyl — symbolizes a bigger problem for animal rescuers.

First, Gigi-Ethyl was picked up running loose Oct. 13 by somebody who took her to Shelby Corker, 25, of Weatherford, who works at a nearby surgical center.

Then, when Corker said the dog needed better care and refused to return her to an owner, city police locked Corker up.

She spent 13 hours Thursday night jailed in lieu of $1,000 bond, she said, sharing a holding cell with suspects including a woman arrested in connection with a capital murder case.

“I’ve seen cases like this — it’s terrible when it happens,” said Don Feare, a local attorney with 18 years’ experience in Texas animal law.

“But the idea of ‘I rescued a dog, it was in bad shape, I’m not giving it back,’ doesn’t have any basis in Texas law.”

Corker is facing trial on a possible theft charge in connection with her refusal to return the dog she had named Ethyl.

By the time she was arrested, Corker had taken the dog to the city shelter. Now Gigi again, she has been reunited with owner Christopher Evans, who according to police lost her Oct. 12 from his back yard on Lipscomb Street and reported her stolen after Corker had posted her photos on Facebook and refused to return her.

In Texas, a “rescue” is never legally a rescue if it’s somebody else’s pet, even a lost pet.

“People think if they pick up an animal off the street, or somebody brings it to them, they’re rescuing it, but under the law they might not be,” Feare said.

“The vast majority of these cases involve somebody who just found an animal. Then they get involved in something they never imagined.”

From the social media comments on pages tagged #StandWithShelby, Fairmount is beset with both stray dogs and lost dogs, and residents care about pets and thank rescuers but also worry about dogs not being returned.

Corker’s lawyer, Joshua Graham, said he will argue not only that Corker is not guilty but that she is the rightful owner.

“Shelby should now own the dog,” Graham said Saturday.

“I don’t think the city handled this the right way. If anything, it’s a civil matter.”

Graham is resting his argument on stray animal laws that make anyone who feeds or cares for an animal the legal owner. But those laws don’t seem to transfer existing ownership.

Feare, often the lawyer for animal-welfare agencies, offered expert advice:

“If you want to keep a dog, the basic legal principle is that you run it down to the pound, then claim it after three days and it’s yours,” he said.

“The owner lost it. You can keep it. The government gave you a piece of paper saying so.”

In Texas, finders aren’t always keepers.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, bud@star-telegram.com, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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