The Absurd Drama Behind a Notorious Pasadena Dog-Adoption Honcho
Lost dogs. Psychics. Claims of hidden animals and betrayal. And lots of legal fees.
“You’ll never find her. She left this planet,” the sage told her, according to Tellini.
“I started crying. That’s not what I wanted to hear,” Tellini, who at that point had been searching for her adopted pitbull, Vaquera, for almost two years, told The Daily Beast.
According to Tellini, Vaquera escaped her backyard in December 2018 through a gate someone left unlocked. She canvassed neighborhoods and social media seeking help. She paid bloodhounds, critter cops, underground dog hunters, and web sleuths, all to no avail.
Then, about a month after the meeting with the psychic, Tellini got a call from the dog chip company Avid, asking if she was still looking for her lost pet. Dogs are often implanted with microchips so they can be traced back to their owners.
Tellini was told that a new party was being connected to the dog, according to a lawsuit she later filed to get her dog back, and audio reviewed by The Daily Beast.
She soon found out Vaquera was living with a family over two hours away near San Diego, and that her name was now Rosie. But it was how she ended up there that blew her mind: The dog had been re-homed by the very rescue nonprofit through which she had first taken custody of the animal. According to Tellini’s legal complaint, Marina Baktis, owner of Mutts & Moms, had the dog the whole time, and said nothing to her for 22 months.
They did eventually get back in touch, of course: On the same day Avid reached out to Tellini about the chip, Baktis informed her via email that she had decided to re-home the dog, according to Tellini’s complaint in the since-settled case.
Critics say Baktis’ work represents a troubling pattern of dog repossession, a dynamic that sometimes leaves owners struggling to grasp the contracts that govern it.
“These contracts give rescues very broad powers, so you’re adopting the dog, but the rescue is maintaining the rights. It is more like a loan,” said Jill Ryther, Tellini’s lawyer.
For her part, Baktis said Tellini signed an adoption contract that spelled out the non-obligation for her to return a pet for whose welfare she was concerned.
“The contract isn’t a power trip. It is a safety net for the dog,” Baktis told The Daily Beast.
The new family wouldn’t give Vaquera back, maintaining they were bound to the contract they signed with the intermediary rescue they got her from, The Barking Lot, according to the family’s court declaration. And their children had grown attached to the dog, they said. So Tellini sued the Barking Lot, the family who had the dog, and Mutts & Moms.
The husband of the family that now claimed her pet, a pastor, was served with the lawsuit right before administering Sunday service.
In court, Tellini furnished a receipt, a check, and a contract, but a judge initially wouldn’t allow her to take back the dog. Finally, two and a half years and $70,000 in legal fees later, Tellini was able to get Vaquera back this month as a result of the settlement.
It wasn’t the first time a client felt spurned by Baktis. Almost 14 years ago, she gained a measure of infamy when Ellen DeGeneres cried about their dealings on national TV. DeGeneres had placed a dog she adopted at the home of an acquaintance because she said it couldn’t get along with her cats. Baktis repoed the dog on the grounds it violated their adoption contract. The case got a lot of press, and Baktis said she received death threats. DeGeneres reportedly threatened to sue Baktis through an emissary, but never did.
The tension lies between wanting rescues to protect dogs from poor adopters, and what critics describe as power-hungry rescues that victimize pet parents. As it stands in contracts like the one Tellini signed, it is the rescue who gets to decide who is negligent, since courts haven’t really tested the issue, experts say.
California state law, for instance, is vague on the issue of ownership for dogs and domestic animals. Like many contracts, rescues are free to fashion them as they please. Contracts like the one Tellini signed contain a so-called claw back provision, or a section that says if the rescue locates the dog and the new dog parent is found negligent, the rescue is under no obligation to return the dog.
That is not necessarily the norm.
“It really varies on the rescue. I would say from the [contracts] I’ve seen, most of them do not have that kind of provision,” said Bruce Wagman of the firm Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila, who has been practicing animal-rights law for almost 30 years, and is not involved with the case.
Contracts sometimes also have the dogs chipped to the rescue, in addition to the new owner. Baktis and Tellini were both chipped to the dog at the center of their dispute, but Baktis was the primary contact. Tellini said she didn’t realize this at the time.
“There are many rescues that never take their name off the chip. They retain ownership,” Tellini said. “This could happen to anyone if you don’t know who is on the chip.”
Baktis argued that Tellini was negligent because the dog got out through a gate twice in four months, and that the owner didn’t remedy the problem, according to a filing she submitted in response to the suit. Basically, she said in her court declarations opposing Tellini’s bid to get the dog back, she was within her rights to reclaim the dog due to negligence. (Tellini claimed the dog got out just twice during the almost four years she had her.)
According to Baktis, after the dog escaped, a person found Vaquera and called her. Tellini took too long to notify her, Baktis claimed. The time period in question was three hours, according to both Tellini and Baktis.
“When you have a problem and you don’t fix it, the dog is in danger of getting killed by a car,” Baktis told The Daily Beast. “Say you have a kid. You wouldn’t go, ‘It’s no big deal.’ It’s a huge deal.”
Baktis and her lawyer also noted she has re-homed 800 dogs during her 15-plus years running Mutts & Moms, taking back a total of 13 dogs. Vaquera is the only one she has had to re-home twice, she said in an interview, indicating she made no money doing it.
“There are a lot of people who will tell you I walk on water,” said Baktis.
Other rescues do things differently.
Los Angeles Animal Services, which is one of the largest municipal shelters in the U.S., said it re-homed about 10,200 pets in 2020 as part of a wave of adoptions during the beginning of the pandemic. Its practices appear to be more owner-friendly.
“There is no option. The pet is automatically chipped to the owner,” said Agnes Sibal-von Debschitz, a spokesperson for the rescue organization. Their contracts do not have a claw-back provision, she added.
Baktis’ lawyer, Charles Kreindler, had a different view.
“We will say that, as a matter of course, Marina has paid for a microchip to be inserted into virtually every dog that has ever been rescued by Marina and Mutts & Moms, with Marina remaining as the primary contact even after adoption,” he told The Daily Beast. “That practice will not change in the future and, we believe, is the practice of every reputable dog rescue. Of course, the microchip number and signed contract is always given, or made available to, every adopter.”
The Barking Lot, the rescue with which Baktis re-homed Vaquera, structures its contracts similarly to Baktis, and has taken in close to 10,000 animals, according to court records. Still, the owner, Stacy Parmer, testified in a deposition she would not have rescued the dog if she knew that Tellini was still looking for her. Parmer did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Wagman said he has never seen a situation where a rescue organization didn’t inform the parent that the dog was found.
“I have never seen a case where the rescue hid the dog actively,” agreed Ryther, Tellini’s lawyer.
Baktis wouldn’t comment on allegedly not informing Tellini about finding her dog. But Kreindler, her lawyer, told The Daily Beast, “Marina has dedicated her life to rescuing dogs from high-kill shelters before they are euthanized… That includes Rosie (Vaquera), who was less than 24 hours from being euthanized when Marina first rescued her.”
Like DeGeneres and Tellini, Judith Alvarado and Michael Oran also said they ran into problems with Baktis.
Nearly 10 years ago, the couple said in an ex parte application, they paid Baktis for a dog, without a contract. One day, the pet, Lola, escaped. Baktis then reclaimed the dog, since the dog was tagged to her, according to Oran. The couple went to court, where a superior judge ordered the dog returned to Alvarado and Oran.
Baktis’ attorney said in an email she “never made any determination in that case not to return the dog, but was hit with a lawsuit before the situation could be analyzed.”
The new dog owners felt betrayed.
“I think anyone who gets into this business starts with the best intentions,” Oran wrote in an email. “We supported her shop, made donations to her rescue, and had been friendly for over five years. We really believed she was doing good work, and were devastated when she refused to return Lola to us.”
Baktis will now have to alter how she does business as a result of a settlement with Tellini, according to a summary of the terms reviewed by The Daily Beast.
If she is contacted over a lost dog she homed, she has to contact the parent within 24 hours, according to public parts of the settlement in the case, as described by Ryther. She also can’t re-home the found dog without a neutral party or Animal Services overseeing the matter, the attorney said.
Baktis isn’t giving up her position as primary owner on the chip: Those adopting through her must instead be notified that they are giving up their right to remain the primary point of contact. However, she must also provide the chip number and contract to the owners, Ryther, Tellini’s attorney, noted.
“It is definitely not perfect, but it is an improvement to have her use a contract that is more reasonable,” added Tellini, who is also seeking to get legislation passed amending the state law so this doesn’t happen again.
Tellini reunited with Vaquera earlier this month during a sleepy morning in the suburbs of Pasadena. Behind a baseball hat and tortoise shell sunglasses, she anxiously waited for her pooch.
“I have been so nervous it wouldn’t happen,” said Tellini. “We thought we were going to get her a couple of times, and it never transpired.”
A car rolled up, and out popped Vaquera. Tellini crouched down as the dog slowly began re-acclimating herself with Tellini and her other dogs. There were mascara tears. Other dog people were present, including one man in sweatpants and a shirt that said “heavily meditated.”
“She’s really fat,” said Tellini.
In true Southern California fashion, she added, “It’s okay. We’ll put her on a diet.”