By JAMIE PAIGE
(This October 5 story is printed in cooperation with Westside Current.)
Vaquera the pit bull is back at home with her rescue mom and siblings, but it took four years, a legal battle and exorbitant bills to get to this happy ending.
And, because Chiara Tellini says she doesn’t want her storied history to be anyone else’s, she worked on getting a new law enacted that gives pet owners rights over “rogue pet rescue groups.”
Before Vaquera’s Law, existing laws failed to ensure that pets are returned to their rightful owners.
In 2015, Tellini went looking for a companion dog for her Jack Russell/Dachshund cross. She had her mind made up that she would rescue one of the many pit bulls in shelters that desperately need homes.
After navigating through hundreds of dogs in humane societies and animal control shelters from Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles, she hesitated to adopt because at each location she was restricted from introducing her little guy to any potential pup mates without the barrier of a fence between them.
After one long day of searching, she stopped by her local pet supply store where she had shopped for several years to pick up dog food. The owner, Marina Baktis, also ran a rescue called Mutts & Moms and often had adoptable dogs in her store.
That day, Tellini recalls, there was an enthusiastic wagging tail attached to almost the exact dog she had imagined right behind the counter. “She was a brown, female, blue-nosed pit bull that was just about a year-old named Rosebud.”
The pit bull just happened to be spending the day in the store. The owner said yes to Tellini’s dog meeting the pit bull face to face. “The meeting was storybook,” says Tellini. “The two dogs, Zeffirelli and Rosebud, chased each other around playing.” Tellini adopted Rosebud on the spot and named her Vaquera.
During the adoption process, Tellini said that Baktis told her she would remain the first person to contact on the microchip for the dog. Microchips are embedded in pets to provide a form of permanent identification.
Vaquera’s next four years were filled with extensive training, hikes and trail runs with Tellini. The two also took trips to dog parks and went on weekend adventures. “Vaquera loved everyone and every animal she met and was popular among the neighbors,” says Tellini. “She earned her good canine award in training and had quite a fan club. When I would go away for work about once a month, Vaquera stayed with Marina, so they never lost touch.”
After four years of companionship, the story took a turn when Vaquera escaped Tellini’s backyard after a worker didn’t properly latch the gate. “She didn’t go far. I later learned that a Good Samaritan greeted Vaquera and was able to secure her.”
“As anyone would do,” says Tellini, “they called one of the numbers on Vaquera’s many tags.” That number was for Mutts & Moms.
Tellini says she started calling the rescue number but got no answer—and no one called her back.
“I kept texting Marina asking for the microchip number so I could reach out to area shelters,” says Tellini. Tellini said Marina then replied with the microchip number, but the accompanying message read: “You don’t even deserve this dog.”
After visiting nearby humane societies and even calling her city council member, nothing was coming up. Tellini began to suspect that Baktis had her rescue dog.
“There was nothing, not a clue, as to her whereabouts.” Tellini called the microchip company frequently over those first few days, and they requested proof of purchase, adoption paperwork, vet records, and anything else verifying that Tellini was indeed the owner of Vaquera.
Almost two years passed. Tellini got a call from the microchip company, which had finally updated the microchip to show that she was now in the first position as owner—not Baktis.
“The Avid [Identification Systems] rep asked me if I was still looking for my lost dog. They told me that someone was trying to change the chip information.” Tellini asked the rep to call that person back to find out more. Ten minutes later, the rep called and gave her the name and number of a new rescue operation that had her dog.
“I called several times that same day. The rescue sounded surprised that there was another person looking for the dog,” says Tellini.
During this time, Tellini said she received an email from Baktis that read:
“Dear Chiara, Rosebud was recovered, and for her safety, I made the decision to abide by the terms of our agreement and a new adoptive home was found. Rosebud is happy as a clam and lives her days loved by her new family. She loves the kids she lives with, and they love her.
Thanks for your understanding. Regards, Marina, Mutts and Moms”
That was Oct 30,2020.
Within two weeks,Tellini retained an attorney, Jill Ryther of Jill Ryther Law Group, after she said Vaquera’s new adopters refused to return the dog when she confronted them.
A six-month legal battle that involved all three parties ensued over the custody of Vaquera. “Legal bills piled high but with no end in sight and a jury trial perhaps years away,” said Tellini during this time. Eventually, the defense decided to settle, but as Tellini describes it, “It wasn’t quite as simple as, ‘Here’s your dog back, and leave us alone.’”
Tellini insisted on some concessions during the settlement because she didn’t want this to ever happen to anyone else. “I wasn’t the first person to go through this almost exact same scenario, but I wanted to be the last.”
According to an LA Daily News story, Baktis took a dog back after Ellen DeGeneres rehomed her dog to her hairstylist.
According to the story, DeGeneres and her wife, actress Portia de Rossi, adopted Iggy, a Brussels Griffon mix, from Mutts and Moms on Sept. 20, 2008. But when the dog and the couple’s cats clashed, DeGeneres rehomed the dog to her hairstylist in violation of the adoption contract the comedian had signed.
The story states that an agency representative went to DeGeneres’ hairdresser’s home and took Iggy back.
On her show, DeGeneres cried and begged the group to return the dog, which she said had bonded with her stylist’s two daughters, ages 11 and 12.
The report stated that Baktis declined to provide details of where the dog was living at the time.
While Tellini was fighting her legal battle, she was intent on protecting the rights of future pet owners. “We need pet ownership to be clear. Our financial and emotional investment in our pets goes far beyond the fee we pay at the point of adoption,” said Tellini. “The investment over times makes them bona fide members of our family and we need them to be protected and safe.”
So, she began working on getting a state bill passed that would ensure that adopters of pets would always be in the first position on a microchip, making it easier for them to get their pet back if they end up in a shelter. Essentially, the law prevents rogue rescue groups from trying to make claims on pets that have been previously adopted by private parties.
“When I first adopted Vaquera,” she told the Current, “I was told that keeping the rescue on [the microchip] would make it easier for me to get the dog back. I had no reason to think otherwise.”
On February 1, 2022, AB2723—Vaquera’s Law—was introduced before the California State Assembly. On March 3, Tellini, along with a former longtime animal control officer who is now an attorney specializing in animal law and cruelty cases, presented testimony to the Assembly Business and Professions Committee.
“It’s a tragedy when your family member/pet goes missing, and this bill would prevent bad actors of reclaiming pets while their loved ones are still searching for them,” said Assemblymember Chris Holden, the author of Vaquera’s Law. “Many Californians have welcomed animals into their families, and we want those pets to be safe.”
Following a series of hearings and passage in the Assembly, the bill went to the State Senate. On June 14, Tellini gave testimony again, this time to the Senate Standing Committee on Business, Professions and Economic Development, when Senator Josh Newman commented: “I want to thank you on behalf of four of my constituents—Homer, Wally, Hugo and Simon, four rescued Chihuahuas living in my house, all microchipped…so thank you for bringing this. I can only imagine the pain and the hassle that [you] went through.”
He added, “I would love to be added as a coauthor if only to impress my wife when I come home this week because I’ve done something good.”
The bill passed unanimously at each subsequent stage and was presented to Governor Newsom on August 29.
On September 26, AB2723 became law, ensuring that all shelters, humane societies, breeders and rescue operations are required to update the microchip of any dog (or cat) with the adopter’s contact information and list them in the number-one position as the “owner.”
“I will never forget my amazing friends from California to Washington who helped me search for and find every bit of evidence we needed to win the battle,” says Tellini. “Thank you, universe, for bringing the best people together for the sake of one lovely little pit bull who has thrown her noose around my heart for life.