When Sherry, a 59-year-old Atlanta resident, was arrested and booked into Dekalb County jail, her main concern was for her blind 14-year-old shih tzu, Onyx. Sherry didn’t know where the police had taken Onyx and she was worried about whether her dog was safe. The pair had been inseparable.
“I’m not married and I don’t have any kids, so Onyx became a part of me,” Sherry said. “I put off buying food for myself so I could take care of her. She was my baby.”
In June 2022, Sherry, a part-time limo driver, was pulled over by police while taking a passenger to the airport. Onyx was riding with her in the front passenger seat. The officers who stopped Sherry claimed there were drugs in the limo, which Sherry denied any knowledge of. It was her first time being accused of a crime. She was placed under arrest. Before she was taken to jail, an animal enforcement officer arrived at the scene to take custody of her dog. “They took her,” Sherry said of Onyx. “I didn’t know what to do with myself.”
Correctional officers later told Sherry that Onyx had been placed in foster care and would be returned to her when she was released from jail. As Sherry sat in her cell, she wondered how long she would have to stay behind bars. Her bail was set at $11,200, an amount neither she nor her friends or family could afford. Hearing that she would eventually be reunited with her beloved dog helped put her mind at ease. But when Sherry was released a month later after The Bail Project paid bail for her, she discovered that Onyx had actually been put up for adoption by a nonprofit animal rescue group. Although the nonprofit hadn’t yet found a permanent home for Onyx, they refused to return her to Sherry, claiming she had been negligent.
“How can someone take a person’s pet and put them up for adoption without their knowledge or consent?” Sherry said. “They could have asked me to find a friend who could take care of my dog while I was in jail. Now I was being told I would never get Onyx back.”
Sherry’s experience is not unique. She’s one of an unknown number of incarcerated pet owners in Dekalb County. Because the county and shelter don’t keep track of pets who are separated due to incarceration, it’s difficult to know how frequently reunification occurs. According to Dekalb County Animal shelter statistics, only 25% of all “lost” dogs that entered their care in 2021 were ultimately reunified with their owners. In most jurisdictions, there are few, if any, laws or regulations governing the pet reunification process. However, in recent years, more local governments have begun establishing rules and guidelines to direct the process after pet owners are arrested.
People who are incarcerated have few opportunities to communicate with shelters caring for their pets. Shelters have limited resources and sometimes lack contact information or key details for a pet owner, like their expected release date. Without knowing how long a case may go on for or whether a person is likely to be released from jail, shelters are forced to prematurely classify pets as abandoned, initiating an adoption process. Pets adopted in this way could be lost to their original owners forever.
Alison Triplett is a community support manager at LifeLine Animal Project, an Atlanta-based nonprofit group responsible for managing the Dekalb County Animal Service shelter. There, she manages a team of five who are responsible for reuniting pets with owners who have been incarcerated. When a pet is dropped off at the shelter, they are automatically put on a five-day hold. During that time, Triplett and her team do everything they can to contact incarcerated pet owners, calling repeatedly, emailing, and leaving voicemails. “I feel this could happen to anyone,” Triplett said. “Just because someone was arrested doesn’t make them incapable or undeserving of having their pet back.”
Reaching people in jail isn’t easy. When a person is arrested, their phones are taken away. Although public phones are available for use, people often don’t have phone numbers memorized or the ability to search for phone numbers. This makes it nearly impossible for pet owners to contact shelters and for shelters to contact incarcerated pet owners. If, during the allotted time a pet is boarded, the shelter is unable to contact the owner and no one comes forward to claim it, then pets are placed in either foster care, given to a rescue group for adoption, or adopted directly from the shelter.
“They tried calling my cell phone, but I didn’t have [it] while I was in jail,” Sherry said. “And I couldn’t call them because I didn’t know who I was supposed to call.”
Triplett said the jail used to employ someone whose job was to liaise with the animal shelter, but budget cuts have since eliminated that position. The shelter is trying to come up with other possible solutions. Triplett said she’s working on creating a property release form so that incarcerated pet owners can authorize the shelter to release their pets to trusted family or friends.
”Having a more reliable protocol would be helpful,” Triplett said. “If someone has been arrested and we can’t get in touch with them, or if they’re going to be in jail for three months, we’re kind of at a loss. Unfortunately we do not have the space, staff or resources to board a dog for that long.”
One of the first things Sherry did after The Bail Project paid her bail and she was released from jail was check her cell phone messages. She saw several missed calls and voicemails from the county animal shelter, humane society and the animal rescue nonprofit, but they were more than a month old. Sherry tried everything she could to get Onyx back. She called the humane society. She monitored their website to see if Onyx had found some other permanent home. She tried to fight the negligence claims by producing records showing consistent visits to the veterinarian. Then one day Onyx’s picture was no longer online; she had been adopted.
By this time, Sherry’s life had already been marked by indelible loss. After the financial crisis in 2008, her house was seized to foreclosure and her health declined. In the last year, her two brothers and mother passed away. Amidst so much change, Onyx’s calm presence helped Sherry feel grounded. “Everyone in my neighborhood knows about Onyx. She was such a joy,” Sherry said. “All the older ladies doted over her.”
Dogs, especially shih tzus, have played a big part in Sherry’s life. The 5-foot-4 Miami native grew up with dogs during her early childhood in the coastal city before moving to New Orleans for high school. Her parents encouraged her to be self-sufficient and independent. In 1973, during her early 20s, Sherry moved to Atlanta where she earned a cosmetology license. Later, she bought a house in Atlanta and was managing two different hair salons. Her free time was spent visiting family and cooking with her mother. “I make the best cornbread dressing,” Sherry said. “My grandma’s was even better.”
Before adopting Onyx in 2019, Sherry had been corresponding with the foster parent for more than a month. “Onyx was around 10-years-old when I took her home with me,” Sherry recalled. “The very first time I saw her I was like ‘That’s her!’ I couldn’t get her out of my sight. She had to come with me everywhere I went.”
Sherry tries not to blame herself for losing Onyx, but she can’t help but wonder whether there was more she could have done. Sherry keeps Onyx’s food bowl and leash in the same place in her apartment as a reminder of the time they shared together. Sometimes she picks up Onyx’s squeaky toys and looks at them. It reminds her of better days.
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