Four-year-old Daniel Torres and Raffiki at home in Panorama City. (Rosa Torres, Rosa Torres )
Somewhere in this city, a family is falling in love with Rosa Torres' dog.
Three weeks ago, 8-month-old Raffiki disappeared from Torres' Panorama City backyard. Torres scoured the neighborhood, hung fliers, searched Craigslist and posted pictures on a Facebook page dedicated to missing pets. She visited her local animal shelter again and again and again.
She didn't realize someone had found Raffiki and taken her to an animal shelter on the other side of the San Fernando Valley, 10 miles from Torres' home.
A week had gone by when a volunteer searcher spotted a photo of the missing Rhodesian ridgeback puppy on an adoption website. An animal rescue group had bailed Raffiki out of the shelter, changed her name to Kami and found her a new home.
Since then, Torres has been futilely trying to get her puppy back. "I'll compensate the family that has her," she said. "I'll do whatever it takes. She's not just an animal, she's a part of our family. My 4-year-old son cries whenever he looks at her picture. We just want her back."
But the rescue group, Karma Rescue, says there's nothing it can do. Raffiki, now Kami, legally belongs to the family that paid Karma's $300 "adoption contribution" and took her home on Feb. 21.
That adoption took place just as Torres was applying online to Karma Rescue to adopt her own dog, and after her desperate message on the group's voicemail got no response.
"The application form says why do you want this particular dog. I said because she belongs to me," Torres said. "I said we love her and we miss her and we want her back home with us."
But her application "did not meet the qualifications that Karma looks for when adopting a dog to a home," Karma Rescue said in a statement to me.
As someone who's worked with animal rescue, let me translate that: Torres is young; she and her son live with her parents in a small rental home in a not-so-great part of town. Her dog wasn't microchipped, spayed or wearing ID tags. If she couldn't manage to find the dog in a week, she doesn't deserve to get her back.
"Had she been a little more diligent, we would have spoken with her," acknowledged Karma Rescue's lawyer Susan Willis.
Instead, they decided the dog would be better off with strangers than with people who've loved her since she was 2 months old.
Karma Rescue has a good reputation in the city's animal world. The nonprofit pulls pit bulls from high-kill shelters and has found homes for hundreds of dogs that would have been euthanized.
That's why this episode is so disappointing, and why other animal rescuers are rallying around Torres.
Karma Rescue's stance — the group did what was best for the dog and the adoption can't be undone — reflects a rift in the rescue community over what is most important.
"You've got groups that help people and their pets, through education and support, versus people who just focus on the animals and tend to demonize owners," said Jessica Gary, who spent the last year volunteering with Karma Rescue and considered the group one of the city's best.
She resigned last week because this case revealed an elitism that's shocked and disappointed her.
"This is somebody's own dog, and you're making the judgment and denying them the dog back without even bothering to talk to them, get to know them, let them explain what happened," she said. "That is just wrong."
And it's also shortsighted, Gary noted. "If they'd returned this dog to the original owner, this new family could have adopted another dog, one that might die in the shelter now because it doesn't have a home."
What Karma Rescue did may be legally right; it rescued a stray from the shelter and sent her to a Westside adoption center, where she was quickly snapped up.
But the way the rescuers did it seems morally wrong — particularly for a group that trumpets the bond that develops between families and pets.
Unfortunately, your pet does not have a voice, the Karma Rescue website reminds pet owners considering giving up their pets. He can't tell you he would rather stay with the family he has known and loved all his life.
Dogs and cats ... go through psychological torment when they lose their family. Your pet deserves to stay with the family he/she loves.
Unless Karma Rescue judges that family not good enough.
Karma Rescue's attorney told me the family that adopted Raffiki isn't willing to give her back.
It's hard to blame them; she's a beautiful dog, with the good manners that come from being someone's well-loved pet.
But they are owners that I'd find wanting if they know there's a brokenhearted family yearning to reunite with their puppy, and they won't give her up.
I don't know if Torres is a model dog owner. But I do know how it feels when a dog you love is lost.
One of the hardest nights of my life was when little Puff went missing years ago, just after his bath, with no collar or tags. Unlike Torres, I got lucky. My search led me to someone who knew the young woman who'd taken him in. I could see the judgment in her eyes when she handed him back to me.
For Torres, this has been a painful education — and not just in the importance of sturdy gates and microchips.
"My image for a rescue was always kind people who wanted homes for animals that need rescuing," she told me. "I was really in shock that they weren't trying to help me get my dog back."
Torres cried through most of our conversation. "How can this be possible?" she asked. "I don't really know anybody who would want to take a 4-year-old's best friend away.
"I don't know what to tell him when he says 'Mommy, when's Raffiki coming home?'"