Ellen DeGeneres, Iggy and a Crucial Issue in Dog Bite Law

Comedienne Ellen DeGeneres and her partner, Portia de Rossi, “adopted” Iggy, a Brussels Griffon mix, on Sept. 20, 2007. When the dog did not fit into their household, they did what dog owners almost always do: they gave Iggy to someone with kids who seemed fit to provide the dog with a good home.

In doing so, however, they infuriated Maria Batkis, the person who “adopted out” the dog. Maria runs an “adoption agency” for dogs and, when she “adopts out” a pooch, she makes people sign a contract that restricts what can be done with the dog in the future. On the basis of the concept of “adoption,” and the wording of that contract, Maria reclaimed the dog and gave it to someone else, to the great disappointment of Ellen and Portia and the kids who briefly had Iggy.

I do not believe that “adoption agencies” should have the legal right to take back a dog, at least under these circumstances. Only an owner can transfer her property; the basis for Maria’s actions is that she had this right of ownership. But if an adopted dog bit or injured or killed a person, Maria would certainly disavow ownership or legal liability, which is based upon ownership. I bet, in fact, that Maria does not even have insurance for such potential liability.

A person who gives up permanent custody of their dog should not be considered to have any rights of ownership. The reason is that we demand accountability from dog owners. To put the blame on the correct end of the leash, one has to know who is holding it. The person with custody and control of the dog is its owner and the one to be held accountable, not someone — or some nonprofit adoption agency — who had temporary custody at some point in the past.

If the law were to allow people like Maria to have an ownership interest in every dog she adopted, it would muddy the waters. If Maria operated as an uninsured nonprofit corporation and the dog seriously injured a person, the victim might not recover medical costs and other compensation, because ownership and legal liability would be uncertain or even lacking.

Ownership is a crucial issue in dog bite law. Adoption agencies and those who argue that we all should be not owners but rather “guardians” of dogs fail to appreciate the erosion of responsibility and liability that will result from these cute-sounding concepts. 

I wish Ellen and Portia would address this important issue because it has far-reaching consequences. Ellen has had the courage to take on much more difficult ones in the past. It is one of the reasons why a great segment of the public cares so much about her and respects her. However, we must not hold it against Ellen if she chooses not to do so, because it is the responsibility of our legislatures to resolve these issues.