Finding Strays in Wisconsin      

By Attorney Sheila Kessler

Strays and Lost Chattels is the title of Chapter 170 of the Wisconsin Statutes.  This statute governs what people must

do if they find lost property (chattels).  Lost property is property unintentionally separated from the owner.  It also

covers what private citizens must do if they find someone’s lost pet.  Unlike the laws that govern what public

officials or agencies must do with lost or stray animals, Chapter 170 applies to private citizens who find lost dogs, cats, or other domestic animals.  The biggest difference between the obligations of the government and those of private citizens is how much time must pass before a lost animal becomes an abandoned animal.  For the government and certain government agents, the length of time is four days, for private citizens, it is a full year and could be indefinite if a citizen in possession of a lost animal fails to take actions required by law. 

If someone is acting on behalf of the village, city, township, county, or other governmental subdivision, sec. 173.13(1)(c) states;

“A person other than a humane officer or a law enforcement officer may not take an animal into custody on behalf of a political subdivision unless the animal is abandoned or a stray. If a person other than a humane officer or a law enforcement officer takes custody of an abandoned or stray animal on behalf of a political subdivision, he or she shall deliver the animal to a person contracting under s. 173.15 (1), to a humane officer or law enforcement officer for disposition under s. 173.23 or to a pound.”

While there are some government-run stray animal facilities in Wisconsin, most political subdivisions contract with non-profit animal shelters to handle their stray animal holds. The contract creates an agency relationship, and they are treated under the laws as if a government ran them. If a rescue or shelter does not have a contract with a governmental subdivision to hold stray animals, they are treated as private citizens under the law.  Someone who finds a dog should check with the local police to find out who is authorized to take custody of strays.  

 People who are not employees of the city, village, town or county where the stray is found are only permitted to take in strays if they are on property owned or occupied by the finder. They also have obligations to the animal’s owner and to the township where they find the stray.  Sec 170.01 Wis. Stats.

If the finder takes legal custody of a stray and knows who owns the stray, the finder is required to give the owner notice within seven days. The notice must identify where the animal is, what the cost of care charges are, and include a request that the owner retrieves their animal.  The law does not require written notice, but if personal verbal contact with the owner is not possible, written notice placed in a conspicuous place at the owner’s residence or mailed to the owner’s last known address would satisfy the requirement that the finder notifies the owner within seven days. 

If the owner is unknown, the finder has to file a notice with the town clerk in the town where they found the animal within ten days of finding the stray.  The notice must include (a) A brief description of the stray, giving its marks, natural or artificial, as near as practicable, (b) The name and residence of the finder, specifying the section and town, and (c) The time when the stray was taken up.  (Sec 170.02(1) Wis. Stats.) 

Whether or not the finder knows who the animal’s owner is, if the animal’s value exceeds Fifty Dollars, the finder must also publish a class three legal notice that contains the same information as required in the notice to the town clerk. (Sec. 170.02(2) Wis. Stats.   Legal notices are notices that are printed in the community’s official newspaper and must be inserted (printed) three times at a frequency of once a week for three weeks. The editor of the paper should provide the finder with an affidavit of publishing as proof they properly published the notice.  A post on an internet site, or posting paper flyers in the neighborhood do not satisfy either the personal notice or the legal notice requirements.  Those postings are very helpful in reuniting lost pets with their owners, but they must be in addition to the statutory notice requirements. Since most if not all stray dogs have a value exceeding Fifty Dollars so a private citizen should publish the class three notice if they take up any stray dog and choose to care for it until an owner reclaims it.  If the adoption fee for cats in your area is fifty dollars or more, it would apply to cats as well.  Purebred companion animals of any species are likely to be valued at fifty dollars or more.

The value of the stray dictates what other actions the finder must take.  If the animal has a value of more than Ten dollars, the finder must take it to the town chairperson within thirty days of taking up the stray for an appraisal.  The finder must pay for a Certificate of Appraisal and file a copy with the Town Clerk.   After a year, if an owner fails to reclaim a stray valued at less than Ten Dollars, and the finder complied with the statutory notice requirements, the finder becomes the stray’s absolute owner.  For those with values over Ten Dollars, the finder may obtain ownership of the animal after a year by purchasing it from the township for its value less the costs of care incurred by the finder or, if the stray’s value exceeds Fifty Dollars, have it sold at public auction.   The township and finder divide the proceeds of the sale after first reimbursing the finder for the costs of care.

There are penalty provisions for people who do not follow the statutory requirements even if that failure is not intentional.  If a finder takes up a stray and neglects or refuses to provide proper notice, they are liable for double the owner’s damages if the owner ever locates the animal. If the finder fails to provide proper notice for more than a year, in addition to the finder’s liability to the owner, they are liable to the township for the value of the animal.   The township’s claims are separate from those statutorily granted to the owner and can be brought against the finder even if an owner never claims the animal. 

 To be clear, if the finder refuses or neglects to follow the statutory requirements of Chapter 170, they will never obtain ownership of the animal.  Sec. 170.06 Wis Stats states in part:

             “…….if any finder shall neglect to give, file or publish the notices or have the appraisal made or do any other act prescribed by this chapter the finder shall be precluded from acquiring any right of property in such stray and from receiving any charges or expenses relative thereto.”

Chapters 170 and 173, taken together, give a very clear indication from the legislature that the legislative preference it to have private citizens turn strays over to the proper authorities. It makes sense. Owners of lost pets are most likely to search for them at shelters and law enforcement agencies near the location where the animal was lost.  If people move them, it decreases the chances of an owner finding their pet.  Not everyone has a computer or the internet and even if they have access to the internet, not everyone has accounts with social media.  However, it also poses problems when local animal shelters fail to adequately notice owners or the public when they have a stray animal.  Work needs to be done in this area to more uniformely provide for finding a lost pet.  

Wisconsin enacted Chapter 170 with agricultural animals in mind, but it also applies to lost pets.  Farm animals have value based upon the income they can produce for the farmer. Pets are considered family members and have value based on the companionship they provide to owners.  Getting lost pets reunited with their owners quickly is as important to that family as recovering a stray calf is for a farmer.  Finders of lost animals need to be aware that Wisconsin laws protect owners from interference with their ownership rights. 

Failing to provide notice to an owner that a finder has their pet is the same as concealing it and the finder never obtains an ownership interest in the animal.  The concept of finders keepers does not apply in Wisconsin.

Sheila Kessler is a partner in Animal Legal Resources LLC, a Wisconsin Law firm that specializes in legal issues for people who own and work with animals.