“Can I keep him, Mom? He followed me home and he’s real friendly. It won’t be any trouble; I promise! I’ll take care of him. Can I keep him; can I?”
Confronted by a pleading child and a cute, tail-wagging puppy a parent must remain rational. There is more than meets the eye when this domestic drama emerges.
“You know that there is probably some worried little boy or girl wondering if their pet is okay. They love him too! And he is really a part of their family. We need to try to find his real home. For now you can take care of him while we try to find his owners. But just remember, when we find his owners you have to be brave and give him back.”
As a parent you might admire your child’s passion. Their concern and enthusiasm is not to be dismissed. This scenario, however, presents a variety of ethical considerations. Until you can find the puppy’s home you become the caretakers and there are some costs associated with that. How do you manage the balance between welcoming this cute puppy into your home and exercising your objective duty to simply serve as temporary caretakers?
Finding something of value that needs to be returned changes you. It creates a relationship between you and the person who lost the object. It is not unusual to read news reports of objects, often wedding rings, returned to their owner’s years after they are lost. For example: Boy Digs Up Long Lost Wedding Rings in Yard - wbztv.com. The finder needed to expend time and energy to find the rightful owner. The mother of the 3-year old in the story above connected with the woman who had lost the rings. She says, “I explained to her that my 3-year old son was digging outside and possibly found something that belonged to her. And she was like 'you're kidding me. Those were my rings I lost over thirty years ago.' It was amazing. I just got chills talking about it. It's amazing."
The Torah reminds us that we have an obligation to return lost objects of all kinds:
You shall not see your brother’s ox or donkey go astray and turn away; you must return them to your brother… and so shall you do for his clothing, and so for every lost object which he has lost and you have found. You must not turn away. (Deuteronomy 22:1-3)
While the Torah states our obligation, it remains for the Mishnah to provide the details.
Mishnah Baba Metzia 2:7 offers two examples of how to fulfill this obligation when you find a lost animal.
Any [lost animal] which is capable of work and which requires food can be used for labor and must be fed. And if it is not capable of work but requires food, it can be sold, since torah teaches, “you must return it to him.” Pay attention to how to return it.
The mishnah seeks to balance two competing needs. As much as you have an obligation to see after the well-being of the animal, the owner (when found) bears the obligation to repay you for the costs incurred caring for his possession.
As long as the animal is in your possession you have an obligation to care for its well-being. That can add up. In addition to the simple needs of providing food, a stray animal might require a visit to a vet if there are injuries or other concerns. The simple good deed of holding on to a lost animal for a few days can get expensive.
That is why the mishnah allows one who finds a working animal to use his labor. The animal can pay his own upkeep. (Does a found puppy earn its keep as it entertains your children?) When it works, there are no significant extra costs incurred by the finder and the one who lost the animal can retrieve his property without needing to pay a large penalty.
Which leads to the second case in the mishnah (And if it is not capable of work but requires food, it can be sold), which sounds so harsh. If you found a lost animal, would you look to sell it on the open market? When you look under the “lost and found” category on Craigslist you will not find items listed for sale.
What happens, the Mishnah wonders, if the care you provide for a lost animal exceeds its objective worth? What if you have spent a lot of money for food and materials by the time you find the owner, but the total amount is more than the animal is worth? What if the owners respond that they don’t have the expendable cash to repay that amount for an animal they can replace for free from the shelter? Recognizing that there may be an objective value for this animal the Mishnah allows the finder to sell it so he can return a full value to the owner, rather than run up an unreasonable bill that will need to be paid. In real life I would find it a difficult decision to sell someone else’s possession and convince them it was in their own interest for me to do so.
Dealing with lost animals is only once instance of this rule, of course. The mishnah (Baba Metzia 2:1-2) details objects that must be returned because they have distinguishing marks, such as wedding rings, and objects with no identifying marks, such as coins, that do not need to be returned.
None of this is obvious. The common wisdom, “finder-keepers, losers-weepers,” suggests any lost object is fair game, but ignores the truth embedded in the Torah that the loser is our brother. A relationship exists between the one who finds and the one who loses. The one who finds a lost puppy can imagine the sorrow of the one who lost their pet. Since the Torah recognizes the implicit relationship that exists between finder and loser, it teaches we have a positive obligation to return lost objects.
PS. For a longer, more legal look at this principle, look at this related article:
Jewish Law - Articles - Finders Keepers? First Impressions ...
© 2010 Rabbi Louis Rieser