Recently a small white stray dog showed up at the Milwaukee Brewers spring training. Hank has been a staple in the news on a regular basis since then. There has also been a lot of buzz by average news followers, and one comment from a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article in particular struck me as an example of public confusion over the word "stray".
"Hopefully the owner doesn't come forward. If the owner cared about him in the first place he would not have been a stray."
In my almost ten years of working in a shelter I've talked to many people who think a stray pet is one that has been fending for itself for a very long period of time. People are amazed that we have strays up for adoption that are "so friendly!" Many people think that a stray would most likely behave in a fearful, feral state.
I've also heard of people who find a stray animal state that they're going to keep it, and don't plan on looking for an owner. These people are under the same assumption as the person who commented on the Journel Sentinel article -- that the owners must not care about the pet. Additionally many people don't realize that under Wisconsin State Law (Statute 170.02) the finder needs to make an effort to find the owner.
What many people don't realize is that a stray animal is simply a pet or domestic animal that is in public and no one knows who it's owner is. So a cat born to a feral cat colony who has never lived with people and behaves like a wild animal is considered a stray. But so too is the dog who escaped from the backyard 20 minutes ago and is found by someone a mile from home.
Just because an animal is found as a stray doesn't mean that the owner doesn't care about him. HAWS takes in many stray animals that got loose by accident, and whose owners are desperate for their return. In one case we had a stray come in and once we checked the microchip found the owner who lived in Minnesota. It turned out that the cat went missing from their home, and it's a mystery as to how it ended up in Waukesha County, WI. In another case the microchip on a dog led us to an owner who told us their dog had been stolen from their backyard a year earlier, and they were thrilled to get her back.
As to why Hank's owners never came forward we most likely will never know. It's possible that the owners didn't want him and abandoned him. However it's also possible the owners don't realize that Hank is their dog. Perhaps he got loose or was stolen from his family and then transported several hundred miles or more before being dumped in the area of the Brewers spring training camp. Because we don't know for sure we shouldn't make assumptions.