"Stray animals are pets that don't have a home."
I've heard both these statements when people refer to stray animals. A lot of people think that the word "stray" is equivalent to "feral" - which refers to a domesticated animal that has reverted to wild behavior and is not tame to people. (The difference between "tame" and "domestic" is a whole other blog post!)
Many people don't understand that the word "stray" is used to define an animal that is "wandering at large without an owner" (per dictionary.com). It could be that the animal was abandoned by an owner who no longer wanted it. It could be that the animal never had a home - an example would be kittens born to a feral mother. But many strays are simply pets that got lost and have owners looking for them.
By Wisconsin State Law stray animals have to be held for 7 days and an effort to search for the owner is required. HAWS takes lost reports from owners of lost pets and keep them on file. It's amazing how many animals are taken in as strays and never reported missing -- It's about 40% for dogs, and 80% for cats!
We also check for ID tags and make an effort to follow through on the contact information. Unfortunately we sometimes take in animals that don't have current information -- if the number has been disconnected we have no way to track the owner.
We also check for a microchip -- which is a tiny computer chip about the size of a grain of rice that's been implanted in the back of the animal between the shoulder blades. An animal with a microchip can be scanned and the number can lead us back to the owner. Again - the registry needs current contact information in order for this to be useful.
If we can't find the owner and 7 days has passed without hearing for the owner the animal legally belongs to HAWS. Most animals who are healthy and non-aggressive go up for adoption. And most strays that we take in have obviously been in a home in their past since they are friendly to people, and some have been spayed or neutered.
Don't assume that "stray" means feral - many times it just means that the animal is a wonderful pet that just -- for whatever reason -- never found it's way home. One of my dogs was originally found as a stray -- I adopted Belle 14 years ago and couldn't ask for a sweeter girl.