Bela, the 9-year old German shepherd that could have been euthanized by order of his late owner's will, is out from under a death sentence.
Bela's legal predicament sparked outrage and concern among animal lovers across the country. An Indiana woman, Connie Ley, who died in late November, stipulated in her will that her beloved dog Bela either go to a specific friend (who ultimately did not want the dog) or go to the sprawling no-kill sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, run by Best Friends Animal Society, a national organization that works with rescue groups and shelters across the U.S. to end euthanasia of healthy animals. If neither of those options was available then Bela was to be euthanized, cremated and his ashes commingled with his owner's.
In the end, Best Friends Animal Society gave Bela the home that his owner hoped he would get. The organization made the announcement on Christmas Eve. After a weather-delayed, 58-hour cross-country road trip from the Indiana shelter that was temporarily housing the dog, Bela arrived in Utah on Sunday to a Best Friends greeting party holding signs saying "WELCOME BELA" and proffering stuffed animal toys to amuse him.
There were reports that Bela, devoted to his late owner, was sometimes aggressive with other people, something that would obviously work against his getting adopted. I figured that would not be a problem for the Best Friends sanctuary staff. After all, they had managed to take on football player Michael Vick's grand champion fighting dog — from the illegal dog-fighting operation that got Vick sent to prison — and turn the dog into a gentle pet.
But what was something of a hurdle for Best Friends was the fact that Ley had never made her intentions clear to the organization before her death. Best Friends cofounder Francis Battista wrote on his blog earlier this month that he and his colleagues learned about Bela the same way everyone else did — through media reports. "Whenever possible, the best option is for an adoptive home to have been identified, with informed consent, prior to the owner's passing," Battista wrote.
Here is the takeaway from Bela's legal odyssey: Contact the group you want to take your surviving pet before you put them in your will.
"Bela is lucky, as we currently have the capability to take him on, but there are countless other Belas out there that might not have the same positive outcome," Battista wrote. "You should never assume any organization will have space to take your animal without making prior arrangements. Most operate at capacity to save as many animals as possible."
As I wrote earlier this month, I think it's terrible to condemn your surviving pet to death because you are worried about the fate that will befall the animal after your death. I imagine that Ley truly believed she was laying out the best circumstances for her dog — especially given the dog's history of aggression — but I think such a harsh directive should not even be allowed in a will. Yes, pets are property, but there are rules about disposing of property. In the eyes of the law, the value of pets needs to be considered something more precious than what they might fetch at, say, a pet store. (Not that anyone should be buying a dog at a pet store unless it gets its animals only from shelters and rescue groups.)
At least in Bela's case this legal issue is now happily moot. John Garcia, an emergency response manager at Best Friends, was one of the people who rode with Bela on the cross-country trip.
"He's an amazing boy, he really warmed up to us very quickly," Garcia said on a video that Best Friends made about Bela. "He's very smart, very loyal, it would have been a tragedy for him not to be with us."