BERLIN — When a debt collector came calling on a family in a northwestern German city about unpaid bills, including a dog tax, the official was looking to seize the family’s most valuable asset.
The collector considered other items, but finally settled on a prized female pug named Edda and seized the dog — which the city then sold on eBay for 750 euros — roughly $850.
A city spokesman on Thursday called it “a pragmatic solution” to an outstanding debt.
But the case has prompted outrage from animal rights activists and others in the city of Ahlen, raised questions about the cruelty of the seizure and spurred debate about whether any German laws had been broken.
“I didn’t know what was more outrageous: the fact that they seized the dog or the fact that they put it on eBay,” said Birgitt Thiesmann, an activist at Vier Pfoten, a German animal protection charity.
The unidentified family of five — including three young children — had fallen behind on bills. The husband had been left a paraplegic after a work-related injury, according to local news reports.
Among other debts to the city, the family owed the dog tax, which is levied by cities and communities across Germany. In Ahlen, population 57,000, the tax for having one dog is nearly $90 a year.
“In general, it’s illegal to seize pets for payment,” said Nicoline Schuleit, a lawyer who specializes in animals in the neighboring town of Bielefeld. But she noted that exceptions can be made for particularly valuable pets.
The city insisted that the confiscation last year and subsequent sale of the animal were legal and justified the decision to seize the dog as an asset.
Officials said that the price of the pug — set at 750 euros or best offer on eBay, which some called a steal — met the legal test of whether the pug was valuable.
“The employee tried to find a pragmatic solution within the scope of his discretion and decided on the course of action now in question,” said Frank Merschhaus, the spokesman for Ahlen.
But the city said the fact that the worker had used a private eBay account to list the dog was a “questionable decision.”
It also strongly denied local news reports that the debt collector had first considered taking the father’s wheelchair.
Ahlen’s treasurer, Dirk Schlebes, said on Thursday that the seizure was legal under foreclosure laws, according to the German news agency dpa. “We got a slightly lower price and the money went into the town coffers,” he is quoted as saying.
The story came to light recently only after the police officer who had purchased the pet pug on eBay, Michaela Jordan, went to local newspapers to announce plans to sue the city for veterinarian bills and the nearly $800 she had paid for the year-old, purebred pup because she discovered that the animal was quite sick.
“I’m really upset,” she told the German tabloid Bild. “The dog had to be operated on four times. In two weeks, the fifth operation is scheduled.”
She acknowledged to local news media that Edda’s price tag was half of what she had expected to pay for a purebred.
So far, it appears that the officer is keeping the dog. But local news outlets reported that the family misses the pug and wants the animal back.
Now, Ahlen is left to debate whether a pug’s commercial value should be used to pay off debts.
Ms. Thiesmann, who has spent nearly a decade rescuing puppies from puppy mills, said what was particularly galling about the case was that the German authorities were usually not so quick to confiscate animals.
Germany’s passion for pets is well known, and billions of euros are spent in the country each year on cats, guinea pigs, canaries, parakeets and the like.
So selling a family pet, Ms. Thiesmann said, would be “like putting grandfather on eBay.”
Follow Christopher F. Schuetze on Twitter: @CFSchuetze.
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