While Barney the dog may not consider himself a piece of property, the Pennsylvania Superior Court does.
Last July the court denied a Philadelphia man’s request for visitation rights with Barney, ruling that the Golden retriever/Golden Labrador mix was his estranged wife’s property. The court concluded that the man was “seeking an arrangement analogous in law to a visitation schedule for a table or a lamp.”
Most people place far more value on their pets than they do the kitchen table, but few courts make such a distinction. As a result, leaving a bad relationship may also mean leaving behind your favorite four-legged friend. This could be true even if you consider yourself the pet’s primary caretaker. Ownership is the law’s focal point, so a judge will be more concerned with who bought Kitty than who has been changing her litter box.
A handful of courts have reluctantly ventured into the uncharted waters of pet custody. In 2000, a Texas judge confirmed a woman’s ownership of her Chihuahua but granted her ex-husband visitation rights. In Missouri, a judge gave one of the family’s dogs to each party, awarded visitation rights for both, and then ordered future veterinary examinations to ensure the pooches were not suffering from any ill-effects from being split up.
In a case that garnered national attention, a Louisville, Kentucky court awarded an estranged couple’s dogs to the woman and cats to the man. The judge reasoned that independent-minded felines were better suited for the man’s on-the-fly lifestyle as an airline pilot. His ex-wife defied the court order and ended up spending 30 days in jail before finally relinquishing the cats. She is currently appealing to get them back.
Lengthy, emotional custody battles are not limited to Fluffy and Fido. Lovable creatures that swim, crawl, fly, and hop have also been at the center of bitter legal disputes. Recognizing a litigious gold mine, hundreds of attorneys across the country have begun specializing in pet custody cases. Many law schools now offer courses on animal law, including such venerated institutions as Harvard and Georgetown, spawning the next generation of pet lawyers.
Jennifer Kidwell found herself in need of just such a lawyer when her ex-husband sued for visitation privileges with her dog, Sable. Kidwell had initially agreed to sharing Sable with her ex until she learned that he was transporting the dog in the trunk of his sedan.
“I refused to let him visit again,” she said. “He had breached the visitation language regarding Sable in our divorce agreement. Because of this he sued me. It cost me emotional anguish, time and lots of money to defend her rights.”
Determined to help others avoid a similar quagmire, Kidwell started a Web site in early 2001 called PetCustody.com, offering legal forms and advice. The site currently gets 10,000 hits per month, according to Kidwell. She recommends that pet lovers hang on to documentation supporting their right to ownership, such as sales receipts and copies of vet bills, just in case.
As courts wrestle with the legal status of pets, the issue promises to become only murkier. Granting animals a higher standing could set off a judicial powder keg, say legal experts. Veterinarians, in particular, fret that they would become the target of six- and seven-figure malpractice lawsuits, driving up their insurance premiums and, in turn, the cost of their services. Ironically, fewer pets might receive health care under this scenario because their owners would be unable to afford it.
One final note: animal behaviorists believe that dogs can sense and be adversely affected by negative human emotions, such as those that accompany a nasty breakup. So consider your pet before deciding it’s over. While every dog may have his day, he probably doesn’t want his day in court.