Companion Animal Law Blog

Bringing together those whose lives and livelihoods revolve around companion animals


How Do I Find A Good Rescue?

Data provided by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs (VDACS) demonstrate how vital rescues are to animal welfare. In Virginia in 2010, rescues accounted for 10,816 stray, seized, transferred and surrendered animals. These Virginia rescues adopted 4,886 and transferred another 1,846 of those animals. The rescues euthanized only 427 of those animals. This is an adoption rate of 45%, and euthanasia rate of only 4%.

The overall 2010 figures, including data for shelters, pounds, humane societies and rescues, show a different picture. Of an overall number of 185,948 stray, seized, transferred and surrendered animals, 54,425 were adopted, another 24,137 were transferred and 72,403 were euthanized. This is an adoption rate of 29%, and euthanasia rate of 39%.

With their high adoption rates and low euthanasia rates, rescues are a very attractive option for someone looking to adopt a companion animal. However, not all rescues are created equally.

On more than one occasion, I have gotten a phone call from a person who adopted an animal from a “rescue,” only to discover that the rescue was hardly a benevolent non-profit. The “rescue” instead was in the business of selling animals that are unhealthy or not the size or breed that was promised. And even when rescues have their heart in the right place, more and more rescues act as venues for animal hoarders, like we’ve seen recently with Annette Thompson in Goochland County and Janet Hollins in Prince William County.

In light of all this, there are several things that you can do to make sure that the rescue you are considering is legitimate.

First, if the rescue claims to be a 501(c)(3), you can double check this using the Guidestar website. Guidestar can show you vital information such as the non-profit’s mission statement and recent 990 tax filings. The rescue’s 990 will show you even more information, such as how the organization is funded and how much the organization spends on administration and fundraising versus costs directly related to the animals’ care.

Second, a rescue claiming to be a non-profit may have additional state regulations and obligations. For instance, all Virginia non-profits must register with VDACS’s Department of Consumer Affairs to solicit as a charitable organization. You can check whether the rescue is registered to solicit using the Department of Consumer Affairs’ website.

Third, check to see if the rescue is complying with its state registration or reporting obligations. In Virginia, rescues must register and report data annually to VDACS and the Office of the State Veterinarian. VDACS maintains an online database that tells you which rescues are reporting, and gives data for each rescue for how many animals they take in per year, the source of those animals, and the disposition of the animals.

Fourth, the rescue should have a written adoption contract that complies with all legal obligations. For instance, Virginia rescues must comply with Virginia Code Section 3.2-6574, which requires a written contract between the rescue and adopter in which the adopter agrees to neuter an intact dog or cat within 30 days of adoption or the date that the animal reaches six months of age.  Any decent rescue will likely also have a contractual provision that requires the adopter to return the animal to the rescue if the adopter can no longer care for the animal.

If you are checking out a rescue, here are some red flags to watch out for:

  • The “rescue” claims to be a 501(c)(3), but you can find no information using Guidestar and state regulatory sites.
  • The rescue uses a high percentage of funds for administrative costs, rather than costs directly related to care of the animals, such as veterinary care, food, training and boarding.
  • The “rescue” does not have a contract. Or it has a contract, but the contract lacks key provisions, such as requiring the adopter to spay or neuter the animal, or return the animal to the rescue if the adopter can no longer care for the animal.
  • The “rescue” cannot produce identifying information and veterinary records for their companion animals.
  • The “rescue” charges high “adoption fees,” and has a website promising to sell you the perfect purebred or designer breed puppies or kittens. Take a look at the ASPCA’s website for more information on internet scams.

As with any company, don’t just rely on the rescue’s website. You should be able to call the rescue and speak with a live person. When you see a particular companion animal you are interested in, you should be able to meet the animal and the foster, and review the animal’s veterinary records, before you decide if the animal is right for you. If you already have a dog and you are looking to adopt a second dog, ask to set up a meet and greet for the dogs.  If the rescue is hesitant with any of these requests, think again before you adopt from them!


The IRS Goes to the Dogs (and Cats): Van Dusen v. Commissioner

Great news for employees and volunteers of rescues and shelters — thanks to the recent case of Van Dusen v. Commissioner, if you are an employee or volunteer for a legitimate 501(c)(3) charitable organization, you may be able to claim deductions for your unreimbursed expenses.

Fix Our Ferals is a 501(c)(3) organization specializing in trap-neuter-release (TNR) for cats living on the streets or in the wild. If any of the cats were tame, Fix Our Feral volunteers would try to find adopters for those cats. Some cats were released to their original locations or other safe locations. Some cats that were elderly, injured or feral stayed with the volunteers for extended times or indefinitely.

In 2004, Jan Van Dusen volunteered and fostered cats for Fix Our Ferals. Van Dusen had 70 to 80 cats in her 1500 square foot home. Seven of them were her personal pets. Most of the others were Fix Our Feral cats, but some were from other organizations that Van Dusen worked with.

Van Dusen claimed a $12,068 charitable contribution deduction on her 2004 taxes for expenses related to taking care of Fix Our Ferals’ foster cats. The IRS caught up with Van Dusen, claiming she underpaid her taxes. Van Dusen and the IRS worked out some matters, but the issue over the Fix Our Ferals deduction went to trial in the United States Tax Court.

Section 170(a) of the Tax Code allows three types of deductions for charitable contributions if a taxpayer:

  • Donates money or property directly to the charitable organization.
  • Places money or property in trust for the charitable organization.
  • Who performs services for a charitable organization incurs unreimbursed expenses.

Judge Morrison was confronted with whether Van Dusen’s deduction was proper as the third kind of deduction. There was no question Van Dusen provided services for Fix Our Ferals, and that Fix Our Ferals was a legitimate charitable organization. The question boiled down to whether Van Dusen was claiming proper unreimbursed expenses.

Van Dusen sought reimbursement for everything from vet bills, cat food, litter and utilities to reinstating her Costco card and repairing her wet/dry vacuum. As evidence, Van Dusen presented copies of checks, bank account statements, credit card statements, veterinary client account information, a Costco payment history and proof of payment for her water, gas, electricity and waste removal bills. She had thrown away some receipts, and had also intermingled expenses for her own cats, the Fix Our Ferals cats and the cats from other organizations.

In many ways, Judge Morrison was quite forgiving to Van Dusen for her record keeping. He found that her documentation substantially complied with the kinds of records a taxpayer is required to keep. Because Van Dusen had spent the vast majority of her resources on Fix Our Feral cats, he also was not overly distressed about the fact that she had co-mingled expenses with those cats, her own cats and other cats. Judge Morrison easily concluded that 90% of Van Dusen’s vet expenses and pet supplies and 50% of her cleaning supplies and utility bills were deductible foster cat expenses.

However, Judge Morrison went on to say that Van Dusen had to adequately substantiate her deductions. For contributions under $250, Judge Morrison held that Van Dusen had to comply with Tax Code Section 1.170A-13(a), which governs monetary contributions to a charitable organization. Proper substantiation would be:

  • A cancelled check with the name of the donee charitable organization; or
  • A receipt from the donee showing the donee’s name and the date and amount of the contribution; or
  • Other reliable written records showing the donee’s name and the date and amount of the contribution.

For the contributions under $250, Judge Morrison once again gave Van Dusen a break. Van Dusen’s records did not comply strictly with the Tax Code requirements because they did not show Fix Our Ferals’ name – only her name and the name of the store or payee. Nonetheless, Judge Morrison found that her documentation substantially complied with the requirements.

For contributions over $250, Judge Morrison held that Van Dusen also had to comply with Section 1.170A-13(f)(1). This Section requires a donor to produce a contemporaneous written acknowledgment from the donee that:

  • Describes the services provided by the taxpayer and
  • Explains whether the donee provided any goods or services in connection with the unreimbursed expenses.
  • If the donee provided goods or services, the letter must also describe those goods and services and provide a good faith estimate of the goods and services.

Van Dusen had no letters from Fix Our Ferals substantiating any of her expenses over $250, and Judge Morrison cut her no slack on these expenses.

If you think you may be eligible for deductions, here are the lessons to take from this case:

  1.  Make sure you are dealing with a legitimate 501(c)(3)! (More on this to come…)
  2. If you work or volunteer with multiple organizations, keep separate records for each organization, and do not co-mingle those expenses with expenses you incur for your own pets.
  3. Keep your receipts and records!
  4. Watch the substantiation requirements, and be particularly careful with contributions over $250. If you make a contribution over $250, get a letter from the charity right away, and make sure it has all the necessary information.
  5. Only deduct unreimbursed expenses. You still cannot take a deduction for services.

I cannot resist one obvious comment about this case. While I think it is wonderful that generous volunteers can now take deductions for animal welfare expenses, I would hate to see this ruling inadvertently encourage animal hoarding. Having 70 to 80 cats in one 1500 square foot residence smacks of a situation right here in Virginia, where Janet Hollins is being prosecuted for having had 77 cats and dogs in her Dale City townhouse. Hollins was found guilty of 77 counts of inadequate care of companion animals last year in General District Court. She she appealed to Circuit Court, and that case is currently set for a three-day jury trial starting on June 20.

The Hollins case underscores the importance of making sure the rescue you are working with is legitimate and following all the rules. (Stay posted for more on this in a future blogpost!) Having 77 companion animals in one townhouse violated not just the requirement to provide adequate space, exercise and care. Hollins was also thumbing her nose at Virginia’s statutory limit of no more than 50 companion animals per foster home, and Prince William County’s requirement to obtain a kennel license for households with more than four dogs.

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Missed Opportunities: Virginia’s Defeated Devocalization Bill

This last legislative session, Virginia proposed HB 2195, which would have prohibited devocalization of a dog or cat unless medically necessary. Unfortunately, the bill never made it out of the House Committee for Courts of Justice.

As I said in a post outlining how the Virginia General Assembly did in 2011, this was a missed opportunity.  Virginia could have joined the ranks of a small handful of states prohibiting devocalization. In 2010, Massachusetts passed Logan’s Law, becoming the first state to ban devocalization. Logan was a show dog devocalized by his breeder, then discarded when he stopped winning shows. Logan’s adopter, together with organizations like the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association (HSVMA) and the Coalition to Protect and Rescue Pets, successfully convinced the Massachusetts legislators to prohibit the procedure.

Devocalization is a very invasive and risky procedure which severs the dog’s vocal cords.  Devocalization has the potential for lasting and serious physical, psychological and behavioral side effects. Often, scar tissue from the surgery will inhibit exercise and breathing, and can interfere with emergency intubation procedures. Excessive barking can be treated any number of ways, including training your dog or cat, ensuring he or she gets proper exercise and making positive changes in his or her environment. Even if used presumably as a last resort to combat excessive barking, it is an unnatural and inhumane procedure. Law enforcement also oppose debarking for safety reasons, because officers would no longer have a verbal warning of the presence of a dog. For more information on the procedure, take a look at HSMVA’s excellent fact sheet.

The American Veterinary Medical Association reports that as of October 2010, only four states prohibit devocalization in some fashion. Massachusetts and New Jersey ban devocalization unless a licensed veterinarian deems the procedure to be medically necessary (for instance, to treat the presence of cancer). Pennsylvania prohibits devocalization unless performed by a licensed veterinarian using anesthesia. Ohio prohibits devocalization of any dog deemed dangerous.

Virginia did not miss out only on the chance to ban a cruel practice.  Virginia may have also missed the opportunity to obtain federal funding. Last month, Representative Ruppersberger from Maryland introduced HR 1725, which would authorize the Secretary of Agriculture to make grants of up to $1,000,000 per state for the prevention of cruelty to animals to states that have enacted laws prohibiting devocalization of dogs and cats for convenience. HR 1725 is currently in the House Committee on Agriculture.

Let’s hope that Congress puts its money where its mouth is on animal welfare by passing HR 1725, and that states, including Virginia, respond by banning devocalization.