Rescued Dog “Missy” Raises Legal Questions

Patricia Chang

In mid-August, a German Shepherd mix named Missy made international headlines after she was rescued by a team of volunteer climbers from a ridge on Colorado’s 14,000-foot-high Mount Bierstadt. Her owner, Anthony Joseph Ortolani, said that Missy’s paws became so blistered and cut during the climb that she couldn’t walk, and that he and his friend tried to carry the 112-pound dog down the rocky terrain for two hours through rain and snow. When a storm rolled in, however, he chose to leave the dog behind because he feared for his and his friend’s well-being.

Once Ortolani made it down, he contacted the Clear Creek County Sheriffs Office but was not given any assistance; he was told that rescue crews do not attempt to retrieve animals. Missy, stranded and injured, was left on her own for eight days.

Hikers Scott and Amanda Washburn accidentally discovered Missy in poor health — she was dehydrated, her paws were bleeding, and she was having trouble breathing. The couple gave her food and water but were not able to get her down the mountain. They made several calls and also posted on an online climbing message board, which inspired a group of volunteers to band together to search for the dog and ultimately carried her down the mountain successfully.

When Ortolani heard of the rescue, he asked for Missy back. Instead, he was charged with animal cruelty by the Clear Creek County authorities, and once the media picked up on the story, he also began receiving death threats. Ortolani relinquished custody of Missy (now renamed “Lucky”) to one of the rescuers, John Steed, reportedly as part of a plea bargain.

The story is certainly an inspiring one — volunteers risked their lives to save an injured animal — but Missy’s rescue also raises many legal issues. In most states, companion animals are considered to be merely personal property. Although in July, rescuers came to the aid of a climber and his two dogs who were similarly stranded on a mountain, because there was no human in need of help, the sherriff’s office did not use its resources to save Missy. What duties, moral and legal, did Ortolani have to try to save Missy aside from contacting the authorities? Had Ortolani not entered into a plea bargain, would he have been convicted of animal cruelty? Is it appropriate to compel Ortolani to relinquish ownership of his beloved dog? Would Missy be considered to be abandoned property, and if so, who truly is the rightful owner?

Despite the plethora of legal questions, the story has a happy ending. Missy (or Lucky) is expected to regain her health fully, and the team of volunteers started a non-profit group to rescue stranded animals.

6 Responses

  1. I would say, the primary responsibility for the welfare of any pet left stranded falls upon the owner.

    In this case, there might have been a lapse in judgement, even taking the dog into such an environment to begin with — assuming the owner could have/should have realized the dog was not conditioned for such a trek. Or, perhaps that one taking a dog into such an environment should be prepared, with such things as protective booties for the animal’s paws.

    I’m somewhat dubious that two grown men could not bring a 112-pound dog off a mountain. I’ve wrestled or carried big game carcasses at least that heavy across and out of particularly hostile terrain — and although stout and muscular, I’m not a particularly big man.

    However, that could be armchair quarterbacking on my part — I wasn’t there.

    Still, regarding owner responsibility, the story as presented fails to answer a critical question:

    Where was the owner for the eight days the dog was left on the mountain? What circumstances supposedly left him unable to return?

  2. Those are the questions I can’t help but have, too, HAL 9000.

    Here’s where I think we part ways, though: It occurs to me that if humans were to regard themselves as the legal guardians of companion animals instead of as their owners, this simple shift in perception would do much to strengthen our understanding of our moral duties toward other species. The implications of the word “guardian,” if recognized by Missy’s “owner,” might have caused him to make entirely different decisions.

    This video, found at http://www.guardiancampaign.com, explains the value of a simple name change: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VWXA0sc2zOM

  3. good thing they rescued that dog its so cute

  4. What a difficult situation. The owner had apparently done many hikes with this beloved dog. Since the authorities said they would not help, his only chance would likely have been to hike back up. But by the time he was able to do so, maybe he thought the dog had passed. I feel sad for the dog to lose his owner, but happy he was rescued. He must miss his owner. I don’t think Ortolani should be charged with animal cruelty. He immediately let authorities know. He took excellent care of the dog for 5 years providing exciting hikes and exercise. Yes, Ortolani could have been as smart and persevering as the couple who found volunteers in an on-line hikers group. For every one of Ortolani, there are dozens of horrible animal owners, who do not take their dogs hiking but instead tie them to chains, coop them in small pens, physically abuse them and so on. Missy probably had a better 5 years than 75% of dogs. I wonder if a human’s life was at risk, would he/she have to leave their dog to possibly save themself? Would he/she face jail time for putting their life ahead of the dog? Certainly does raise legal questions, as well as obligations from authorities and the community.

  5. The OUTSIDE reported that the lady (Amanda) who found the dog 7 or 8 days later, asked a park ranger for assistance and was told it was not possible to rescue animals. She then called everyone she could think of—from animal control to search and rescue—to no avail. My question is what type of obligation do authorities and animal groups have? If none will help, what can one do? Well Amanda is amazing, because:

    “Out of ideas, they went to the 14ers forum, an online community of hikers.”

    And the volunteers were amazing to do what they did. But their awesomeness doesn’t make Ortolani a criminal.

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