Portland, Oregon – On March 27, 2011, Sam Hanson-Fleming lost his dog, Chase. On the same day, Jordan Biggs found her dog, Bear. The problem is, Chase and Bear are the same dog. Both Hanson-Fleming and Biggs claim rightful ownership, and the dispute is getting nasty.
Hanson-Fleming, 30, adopted the husky mix in December 2009, when Chase was just a puppy. Last March the dog jumped the fence of Hanson-Fleming’s back yard and was lost. On the same day, Biggs, 20, found Chase near Hanson-Fleming’s home and picked him up. She kept him, renamed him Bear, and trained him to be a service animal (Biggs has asthma). Two months ago, Hanson-Fleming spotted the dog in Biggs’ car in line behind him in a coffee shop drive-through lane. He got out of his car and approached the SUV, calling out “Chase!” The dog jumped out of the car, apparently recognizing Hanson-Fleming, and greeted him with affection. Biggs acknowledged at that time that the dog was Hanson-Fleming’s and agreed to return him the next day, after she and her family had said goodbye.
Those are the facts that are not in dispute. And this is where things get ugly.
After being briefly reunited with Chase, Hanson-Fleming went out to buy a bag of dog food, then joyfully returned home to dig out the leash and dog bowls he had stored away after believing Chase to be gone forever. He told his sons, 7 and 13, that Chase would be returning home.
But it wouldn’t be that easy. Biggs had gotten attached to the dog she named Bear, it seemed, and didn’t want to let him go. Hanson-Fleming continued to call her, requesting the return of his dog. Biggs became more insistent that the dog was hers, telling Hanson-Fleming that she had spent “thousands of dollars” on Bear through veterinarian visits and training. She eventually stopped answering or returning his calls.
In the meantime, Hanson-Fleming had contacted every entity he could think of for help in getting his dog returned. He called the Portland police, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, Corvallis police (Biggs lives in Corvallis), the Benton County District Attorney’s Office and finally, Multnomah County Animal Services. Animal services director Mike Oswald, like a modern-day Solomon, had to make a determination about who was the dog’s rightful owner.
Hanson-Fleming provided all the proof of ownership he could find: Chase’s Multnomah County dog license; a copy of the lost dog poster; a copy of a Craigslist ad that he had posted; photos of Chase with Hanson-Fleming and Hanson-Fleming’s sons. He also provided Oswald with photos of “Bear” that had been posted on Biggs’ Facebook account, and a photo taken of Biggs and Bear published by the Gazette-Times, to prove to Oswald that they were the same dog.
Oswald was convinced that Chase and Bear were one and the same. He was also persuaded by Hansen-Fleming’s evidence that Hansen-Fleming was the original owner of the dog (although he noted that a simple microchip would have proven ownership and identity beyond a reasonable doubt). He requested proof from Biggs that she was the rightful owner, but even after giving Biggs a one-week extension to provide documentation, he received no response.
At this point, the law was definitely on Hanson-Fleming’s side. Not only did he prove original ownership, but previous disputes over pet ownership had prodded the county to create legislation to deal with a person’s failure to return a pet to its rightful owner, prescribing steps that must be taken before the finding person can legally keep the pet. The law requires that the finder file a “found report” with animal services and publish notice in the newspaper once a week for at least two weeks. If no one claims ownership after 180 days, the finder can be declared the new owner. Oswald found no evidence that Biggs followed these steps. With these facts in front of him, Oswald ruled in favor of Hanson-Fleming on July 10 and ordered Biggs to return the dog.
Biggs still did not relinquish ownership. Hanson-Fleming threatened to sue. The standoff continued until Hanson-Fleming escalated matters by filing charges against Biggs for theft. She was arrested on July 20 and the dog was placed in a shelter. There he will remain until the matter is decided – which probably will not be soon because Biggs has now sued Hanson-Fleming, alleging that Hanson-Fleming abused and neglected the dog while Chase/Bear was in his care.
At some point in the dispute, Biggs had hired animal rights attorney Geordie Duckler, who first perused public records to try to find evidence that Hanson-Fleming was an unfit pet owner. He did not find anything, so he hired a private investigator. The investigation reportedly found eyewitnesses who claim that Hanson-Fleming abused the dog. He also says he received calls from other witnesses alleging abuse and neglect.
Duckler says the claims are that Hanson-Fleming kicked, slapped, beat and urinated on Chase in order to show “who was in charge;” that Hansen-Fleming’s home was unsanitary; that he kept the dog in a cage that was too small for lengthy periods of time; that he never took the dog to a veterinarian; and that Hanson-Fleming often made the dog “inhale significant amounts of marijuana smoke in order to amuse himself and his friends, and to psychologically torment the dog.”
Multnomah County prosecutor Norm Frink says the allegations “have at least a superficial credibility,” but Hanson-Fleming denies all the allegations, saying that they are lies manufactured by Biggs and her supporters. “They’re just trying to turn the tables on me,” he said.
For her part, in addition to the claims of abuse and neglect, Biggs contends that she came by ownership of the dog she calls Bear honestly and legally.
She says was staying with her boyfriend in Portland in March 2011 when the dog showed up on their doorstep. “We took him for the night,” Biggs said. “The next morning, I started trying to find the owners.”
According to an interview with the Corvallis Gazette-Times, she says “she went from door to door around the neighborhood, put up posters, called veterinarians’ offices and the Humane Society, checked with area animal shelters and looked for lost dog ads on Craigslist and other websites.”
She says was reluctant to take him to the pound because she was afraid he’d be euthanized if no one claimed him, especially given his breed. She says she tried for more than two months to find the owner, but since she had no luck, she decided to keep him.
Since he was now her dog, she invested what she estimates is thousands of dollars, getting him vaccinated, neutered and microchipped. She says she also had him trained as a service dog to help with her asthma. He knows to get help if she has an asthma attack and carries her inhaler in a pocket on his service dog vest.
She says when she encountered Hanson-Fleming, she tried to explain all this to him, thinking that since the dog had been with her for over a year, he should remain hers.
“I tried to tell him he’s my service dog, that I’ve trained him in agility,” she said. “He didn’t even care.”
Now it’s up to the authorities to decide both who is the legal owner of the dog, and who is the most fit.
On July 23, prosecutor Frink had no timetable for the investigation; he only said they “hope to do it as quickly as possible, consistent with doing it thoroughly.”