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 Sheriff’s 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.