Morality does not exist in a vacuum, especially when you share your tale on social media and ask people what they think.

"I know it was the right thing to do ... if not necessarily the right way to do it," said Don Goede, hesitating as he reflected on actions that remain somewhat confounding for the dog-loving Manitou Springs musician, artist, husband and father of two.

But then the outcome of those actions, alive and well, licks his hand and looks at him with those eyes - "Like she's saying thank you" - and any misgivings dry up.

Goede didn't set out to "rescue-nap" Stella from the panhandler who apparently was mistreating her. But that's what happened about a week after the skin-and-bones hound wandered into traffic in front of his car at a west side Colorado Springs shopping plaza. Goede recounted the story on his Facebook page, closing the anecdote with the question, "Did I do the right thing?"

To be fair, they were Goede's "friends," but most commenters hailed him as a hero, the kind of guy they'd wish for - as an owner and champion - should they be reincarnated as a dog.

Some responses, though, noted that no matter the motivation or circumstances, what he did was fundamentally wrong as well as illegal.

When pets are involved, human emotions can get unleashed. Officer Joe Stafford sees the evidence on a regular basis.

"I sometimes think when I hear about people finding animals and keeping them, how many fistfights have broken out over lost dogs?" said Stafford, who leads the animal law enforcement division for the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region.

When it comes to theft, the law "doesn't distinguish between a dog and any other inanimate property ... but of course you have a lot of emotions and a lot of people who disagree with that," Stafford said. "At times, I may be one of them, simply because a pet is not a piece of property like a car or some other nonliving item."

Although the state's new Good Samaritan law taking effect Aug. 9 specifically applies to the rescue of at-risk animals and people locked in hot cars - and spelling out how to do so legally - the question at the heart of Goede's story is one more Coloradoans might be prompted to ask in coming months: How far is too far when you believe you're saving a life?

Undeterred by threat

On that day in May, Goede hit his brakes in time to avoid striking the basset mix. He hopped out of his car to signal other drivers to swerve around as he scooped up the adolescent dog. Goede asked a woman panhandling at the intersection if the dog was hers. It wasn't, so Goede put the trembling animal in his vehicle.

As he prepared to drive away, a man ran up and started pounding on the car. Goede rolled down his window, and the man explained that the woman had been watching the dog for him when it escaped.

"I said, 'It doesn't look like you take care of the dog because it looks dehydrated and sick from hunger,'" Goede said. "The man said, 'If you don't give the dog back, I will shoot you.' I decided I'm not going to get shot over a dog today."

After he drove away, the exchange replayed over and over in Goede's head. What could he have said; what should he have done? What if he'd been that poor creature's last chance?

Goede returned to the shopping plaza daily over the next week. He watched from afar as the panhandler solicited for change and the dog baked in the hot sun with no apparent food or water.

"I was basically stalking them and trying to see what was going on," Goede said.

That Sunday, he confronted the owner, who said he'd be willing to sell the dog for "a thousand dollars or a pound of marijuana." Goede offered to buy dog food, but the man declined, saying he was "starving the dog to teach it a lesson."

Again, the man left the dog with an acquaintance and disappeared into a store. Goede made his move. He approached the man's friend and convinced him he'd been given permission to walk the dog.

When Stella was safely in his arms, Goede didn't look back. At least, not immediately.

Laws protect animals

Animal abuse and neglect are illegal, but the law says a pet owner need only provide adequate food, water, shelter and veterinary attention if the animal is ailing.

"What the law requires be provided for a dog is not necessarily what you or I might provide as an animal owner," Stafford said. "Some people think an animal is being abused if it doesn't sleep in the bed with the owners, and other people think dogs are being abused when they're left out in the backyard with the bare essentials for care."

The Colorado Springs area is home to multiple programs and services for needy pet owners, including access to free and low-cost food and veterinary care.

"Whether someone is homeless or not, there really is no excuse for an animal to go without food, water, shelter or veterinary care in this community," said Stafford, adding that most reports to his department do not involve transient populations. "We do sometimes get reports of homeless people beating or neglecting animals, but it's the exception rather than the rule. Generally speaking, those animals are well cared for."

The bond between homeless people and their pets can be so strong that in winter, many pet parents will sleep outside, even in freezing weather, if shelter means separating from a beloved animal.

"They're not going to sleep in a warm bed if that means leaving their pet behind, out in the cold," said Torry Cooksey, who was stationed near Uintah Gardens on a morning in late June, clutching a cardboard sign in hands gnarled by rheumatoid arthritis. Cooksey said he's seen fellow panhandlers use pets as "tools" to bring in alms. "People really are more willing to donate when you have an animal." But most cherish their pets as deeply and demonstrably as he does his chihuahua, Moo.

"My dog eats before I do," he said.

Vicki Gramm distributes coats to needy and homeless people and their pets through her nonprofit, Coats 4 Canines. She's also a Facebook friend of Goede's and had stern words in response to his post.

"Ugh ... you call the HSPPR for these things first - before taking matters into your own hands," Gramm wrote. "Glad the dog is safe and loved, but unfortunately you put yourself in a very precarious position."

Stella thrives in new home

Goede said that when he brought Stella home, she parked herself in front of the water bowl and lapped for almost an hour. The next day, at the vet, he said he learned that she likely would not have survived much longer. She was severely underweight and so dehydrated that her skin could be manipulated like dough.

"The man who had her didn't have any tags for her, she wasn't licensed or vaccinated, and you have to have that done by law," Goede said.

Such steps are legally required of pet owners, but they're not necessary to establish ownership. For that, people need only provide evidence the animal belongs to them. Vaccine and licensing records or a microchip will do, but so can a photograph or convincing pet-person rapport.

Stafford recalled an incident at a coffee shop parking lot, when a woman recognized her long-lost dog inside another person's vehicle.

"She got out of the car and was calling the dog by name, and the dog was responding. I thought, 'Oh my God, this is not good,'" Stafford said. "Eventually, the lady who had the dog admitted she'd found the dog, but her family was attached to it. They ended up hugging and crying, with the one woman asking, 'Can we at least have visitation rights?' But that could have been a very bad situation."

Stafford's advice to would-be rescuers is simple: Go by the book.

Colorado's Good Samaritan Act will protect people who break into hot cars from prosecution as long as they're doing it to rescue humans or pets "in imminent danger of death or suffering serious bodily injury." But before smashing a window, Samaritans must follow protocol - contacting authorities and trying to find the vehicle owner.

What Goede should have done, Stafford said, is report the abuse so it could be properly investigated and handled.

"In this case, it appears as though the dog wasn't being provided with what was required under the law, and the individual may have been guilty of neglect or cruelty. That is something we can and do respond to quite a bit," he said. "It can be challenging sometimes with the homeless population, because obviously they're not in a static location and can be difficult to locate. But that's what we're here for."

While he said that regular law enforcement might view such scenarios differently, Stafford said his department has "no obligation" to get involved in Goede's case.

After more than a month of "two square meals" daily, Stella is approaching a healthy weight for her age.

"Maybe I should have just gone through the authorities, but that's a hard decision to make when it comes to applying logic to matters of the heart," Goede said. "I just considered it a rescue. It was a gut thing. I would have done the same thing if it was a neighbor and they were treating a dog like that."



Stephanie Earls is a news reporter and columnist at The Gazette. Before moving to Colorado Springs in 2012, she worked for newspapers in upstate NY, WA, OR and at her hometown weekly in Berkeley Springs, WV, where she got her start in journalism.