SAN MATEO — Tyler Hill never met a dog he didn't love or one that didn't love him right back.

The 19-year-old San Mateo resident likes dogs so much that he developed a habit as a teenager. Whenever he noticed that someone was mistreating their dog, he would "rescue" the animal by scooping it up, feeding it, plopping it in a box and dropping the pooch off, anonymously, at the Humane Society.

So it was business as usual last month when Hill took it upon himself to take a female pit bull and her litter of eight puppies from his neighbor's house in the city's North-Central neighborhood.

The pit bulls, bred to be fighting dogs, were malnourished, neglected and living in filth — at least according to Hill.

But investigators with the Peninsula Humane Society found no such evidence and Hill was thrown in jail and charged with multiple felony counts of grand theft.

Hill, who said he gave two puppies away to "deserving" families, swears he was planning to bring the rest of the litter to the Humane Society when police showed up at his house and accused him of stealing the pups with the intent to sell them.

Now Hill, who pleaded no contest earlier this month to a misdemeanor after serving 40 days in the county jail, says he's learned his lesson about vigilante animal justice.

"What I did was not right," he said. "My heart was in the right place, but I could have gone another route to saving the puppies."

In San Mateo County, as elsewhere, that route is the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

"We always advise people never to take matters into their own hands," said Scott Delucchi, Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA spokesman. "It's dangerous to them, it's illegal, plus they have a great resource here in the Humane Society and in the county's District Attorney's Office."

The Humane Society has two full-time animal abuse investigators, and the agency works more closely with local prosecutors to enforce more animal abuse cases than most other counties in the state, Delucchi said.

"People should always contact the Humane Society in the event of possible animal abuse rather than take the matter into their own hands. There is never an exception," said Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe.

Hill, who was first alerted to the plight of the neighborhood pit bull puppies by his sister, said he only took the dog's salvation upon himself when the Humane Society did not respond to calls alerting the agency of the dogs' alleged neglect.

The Humane Society has no record of calls made on the puppies' behalf, Delucchi said.

According to the District Attorney's Office, prosecutors decided to charge Hill with grand theft after investigators were dispatched to the scene of the alleged crime and determined there was no evidence to indicate any abuse. A veterinarian's evaluation of the stolen puppies found the puppies in decent health, said Delucchi.

"What one person determines is cruel behavior might not meet that definition legally," the Humane Society spokesman added, explaining that many county residents have reported perceived abuse which investigators later determined to be relatively harmless.

Indeed, Delucchi reports that the pit bulls Hill decided to liberate have already been redeemed from the Humane Society by their owners. Presumably, the pups have returned to live in what Hill calls the "pig pen" where he first found the dogs with "pot bellies" from malnourishment, "leathery skin" and "dog poop everywhere."

Now, Hill is trying his best to put this all behind him. He's decided to join the Navy, in part, he says, because finding a retail job with grand theft and two previous misdemeanor crimes on his resume has proved challenging.

As for Hill's 40 days in jail, "It was funny. I tried to make the best of it," he said.

"Every Sheriff's deputy that I talked to thought (the criminal charges) were (expletive)," Hill said. "They were all like, 'You don't even belong in here. You deserve an award or a certificate or a pat on the back, not to be locked up in here with these people that are doing robberies, beating their girlfriend, getting in fights and selling drugs.' "

The day Hill was released, he began searching for a surefire way to feel better — a puppy. He found it the next day on Craigslist for just $50.

Hill has christened him "Little Daddy," and he calls the eight-week-old pit bull pup "the best thing that's happened to me in a while."

"I'm ecstatic," he said on a recent afternoon, cradling his new puppy's chocolate-and-caramel-brindled fur. "He's like my new best friend."

And the next time Hill thinks an animal is in need?

"I'll still help, but I'm just going to call someone else and tell them to handle it. I'm not going to try to be the hero no more."

Reach Michael Manekin at 650-348-4331 or mmanekin@bayareanewsgroup.com.